Big Auto, We Have A Problem — US Electric Car Sales Report

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First of all, let’s get the obvious but important note out of the way: I don’t actually know how many Tesla Model 3’s were produced and delivered in January, nor do I know the numbers for the Model S or Model X. That said, the estimates (especially for the Model S and Model X) are based on many pieces of information, including previous guidance from Tesla, and I’ve seldom felt a need to go back and revise monthly estimates once official Tesla numbers have come out. That said, even Tesla’s official numbers don’t indicate US sales (Tesla only releases global sales numbers) and statements about regional split have been few and vague in the past year or two. Of course, in the case of the Model 3, I will probably revise my figures if Tesla shares January Model 3 deliveries soon, and sales could easily be +/- 1000. Nonetheless, the general points of this month’s US electric car sales report would be the same even if Model 3 deliveries totaled 2,000, and the general point is expected to get more obvious in the coming months, so read on.

[Update: Word on the street is that Model 3 production may have hit more snags in January than expected, and the delivery total might have been closer to 1,500 than 3,000. I’ll wait for something official from Tesla to update the chart and table. As noted above, though, the overall story is the same — and check back in again in March and April.]

[Update #2: We’ve received Ford’s numbers now, so they have been added to the chart and table below.]

Looking at the US sales of top electric cars (including plug-in hybrids), one thing stands out in January: Tesla dominates. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. Though, hopefully Nissan LEAF sales surge with the new version and hopefully Bolt, Volt, and Prius Prime sales rise higher than they did by the end of 2017. There are a couple of other plug-in hybrids with moderate sales, based on what InsideEVs somehow gathers (the companies don’t publish these figures), but until those automakers decide it’s worth their time to share plug-in sales with the public, I don’t think I will spend extra time and text on them.

One summary conclusion might be that Tesla is just awesome. But the much more important and convincing conclusion that comes to my mind is: large automakers aren’t even trying.

→ Related: 50 Tips For Slowing The Electric Car Revolution

GM, the 2017 leader among Big Auto, couldn’t get more and 1,177 people to buy the Bolt or couldn’t produce more than that many Bolts after over one year of production — really? That’s the extent of their ability to generate consumer demand or grow production capacity for January 2018?

And that’s the top of the pack. The Nissan LEAF, of course, is in transition — but let’s be honest, how many people would absolutely slam Tesla if it went a few months between model years of one of its vehicles without the ability to sell more than 100 or so of them? How would the market respond if a more popular gasoline model had such a period of limbo? Even so, the LEAF’s absurdly low numbers are now on par with Volkswagen e-Golf sales and Audi A3 e-tron sales — indicating just how poorly their electric efforts are going … or just how effectively their efforts to comply with California regulations without increasing electric car demand are going.

Audi’s A3 e-tron and Volkswagen’s e-Golf are basically turning into a joke. They are being sold to a rather tiny number of buyers (almost entirely in California, I presume) because they either aren’t competitive with the options consumers are cross-shopping (like the Tesla Model 3, Nissan LEAF, and Volkswagen Golf), consumers aren’t really aware of them, and/or the automakers aren’t actually willing and able to produce decent numbers of them. In most markets, these models aren’t available at all.

Big Auto is trying so little to market electric vehicles and get production capacity up to scale that I have to say I’m feeling more frustrated with them now than 4 years ago. As Court aptly said, they’re giving Tesla a free pass — which, as much as many critics of Tesla “fanboys” don’t seem to get, is not what we want. Like Elon Musk himself, we want Big Auto to compete, want there to be choice on the market, want more genuine effort to transition to clean, zero-emissions, instant-torque, domestic-energy electric vehicles.

I’ve long thought BMW had some of the best potential to electrify, and faced some of the most dangerous loss in market share if it didn’t, so I was disappointed when it went the way of plug-in hybrids with tiny batteries (taking away much of the benefit of electric cars) instead of bringing to market more genuine from-the-ground-up electric cars. Even so, it has potential with this approach if it pushes it — and the company will hopefully transition to greater and greater electrification in the next 3–5 years. From BMW’s own sales press release: “Most notably, the new BMW 5 Series showed strong growth for the seventh straight month, with 2,456 vehicles sold – nearly 10 percent of which were the BMW 530e iPerformance plug-in hybrid electric variant.” That’s right, the fairly fresh BMW 530e is approaching 10% of model sales (compared to ~1% market share that all plug-in cars have on the US market). Imagine if the 530e was available in more than the limited markets where I’m seeing it. Imagine if BMW really marketed the electric benefits. Imagine if BMW had an i5 on the market that embarrassed the 5-Series.

The next line of BMW’s press release: “The all-new BMW X3, which came to market in November, also performed well with 2,954 vehicles sold.” Hey, cool, and where’s the electric X3?

Again, I’m highlighting BMW not because it’s at the back of the pack but because it’s actually an electric car “leader.” Other automakers have even fewer available models, do an even poorer job of marketing the electric benefits, and seem even less committed to electrifying their popular models. BMW electrified vehicles are actually above 5% of the company’s total US sales — best on the US market aside from Tesla. The company proudly adds: “Electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles sales totaled 1,145 vehicles, accounting for 5.2 percent of BMW Group vehicles sales in January. BMW currently offers six electrified models in the U.S., including the BMW i3 and BMW i8, as well as the BMW i Performance models: BMW 330e, BMW 530e, BMW 740e and the BMW X5 xDrive 40e. MINI offers the MINI Countryman plug-in-hybrid electric vehicle.”

With just 22,000 BMW Group sales in January, Tesla could potentially pass BMW this year (assuming nearly 20,000 Model 3’s producer per month at some point + a couple thousand sales each of the Model S and Model X). That seems like a daunting nightmare for BMW, but imagine if the German giant — one of the most valuable car companies in the world — created a fully electric sub-brand that was 100% committed to electrification, partnered with Tesla on the Supercharger network, and could stimulate the hot new brand appeal Tesla has stimulated while leaving the old-timer appeal of BMW to a different demographic.

By and large, I’d say that Tesla fans want to see Big Auto sell as many electric cars as Tesla — or more! Our criticism of Big Auto and exclamation of Tesla’s competitive advantages doesn’t come from a point of “Tesla fanboyism” as much as they come from a wish that Big Auto would actually try. Until then, aside from a corporate mission or morals preference, it’s just hard to give them business looking at the products on offer and how much they pull out an electric car’s potential while addressing an electric car’s few remaining weaknesses.

In the end, of 17 top electrified models, Tesla’s three models appeared to represent approximately 58% of January sales (give or take 10%). I’d love to see the Bolt climb to 5,000–10,000 sales a month, would love to see the new LEAF hit such figures, would love to see BMW’s electrified offerings hitting 50% of BMW Group sales, but it’s just hard to imagine any of that happening.

Also published on EV Obsession’s Electric Car Sales page.

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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