US Electrified Vehicle Sales Up — Unfortunately It’s Driven By Hybrids

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In a recent tweet, Tyson Jominy, VP of Automotive Data and Analytics with J.D. Power, shared some important automotive sales data that gives us a peek into the American car buyer’s mind. Electrified vehicle sales are definitely up, but most of the growth is coming from hybrids.

Electrification Is A Sneaky Word

Over the last couple years, automakers have often shared plans to sell a certain number of electrified vehicles by a certain date. The average person sees that and thinks they’re talking about battery-electric vehicles (BEVs). Enthusiasts and people who are more familiar with the industry see that and know that “electrified” can mean a lot of things, and often won’t mean BEV. Hybrids and plugin hybrids (PHEV) both fit that definition.

This has led to a lot of distrust of the term among EV enthusiasts, and sometimes outright derision of companies using it to describe future plans.

Bad Companies Or Consumer Preference?

On the other hand, automakers can’t just ignore the sales data the way that enthusiasts and EV advocates can. If they put out a hybrid that sells well, they’d be fools (financially speaking) to not build more and make other similar models. The shareholders expect nothing less. At the same time, though, there are manufacturers who aren’t making much of an effort to make cool and/or affordable BEV models, but sell lots of Hybrids. Toyota is a great example of this.

The whole thing is kind of like the age old question, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” We don’t know if the automakers are leading consumers to buy hybrids with their offerings and marketing, or if consumers are pushing the automakers to sell hybrids that the customers want. It also may be a mixture of the two, and will definitely vary by company.

Some Points In Favor Of Consumer Demand Theory

Perhaps the biggest point in favor of this not being the automakers’ fault is the awful state of charging infrastructure in the United States. When consumers ask about charging the car, an honest person would tell them that (aside from Tesla) the situation isn’t that great. You can take something like a Chevy Bolt across the country on a few routes, but you can’t take much, if any, side trips. Many places can’t be reached without major pains, like level 2 charging.

The other issue, is that consumers are used to the concept of gassing up the car. Plugging in the car when you get home and unplugging it when you leave only robs the driver of 10-20 seconds of their time, but the idea that the car takes hours to charge is intimidating. Sure, there’s DC fast charging, but many consumers aren’t aware that it exists or don’t know that it’s pretty convenient for most trips.

Points In Favor Of This Being Driven By Automakers

The biggest problem (outside of Tesla, of course) is dealers. While this is improving, it’s still an issue. When I went to look at Chevrolet Volts a few years ago, the dealer did have some on the lot, but they had low tires and weren’t charged. The salesperson was trying to redirect us to look at other vehicles, and was even telling us about the downsides. They wouldn’t treat their trucks that way.

At the same time, consumers’ lack of knowledge could be remedied with marketing that the automakers and dealers just aren’t doing. They have no problem spending millions to tell us about the most inconsequential features on a new model of gas car. For example, I once saw an ad by Ford telling consumers about the fact that the rear hatch area had a raised lip by the liftgate so that groceries wouldn’t roll out and let your jar of spaghetti sauce fall in the grocery store parking lot.

If motivated, companies could spend time educating customers about the benefits of an EV instead of wasting time with Will Ferrell punching a globe, or Edward Scissorhands using Supercruise.

It’s Probably A Mix

The truth is, it’s probably a mix of the two. Car buyers sometimes have legitimate reasons to not buy an EV today, especially in rural areas and small towns, or people who drive out there much. Car buyers can also use this really cool thing called Google to find out more about EVs. We all started that way.

On the other hand, dealers and automakers could be doing more to help with the situation, and they’re largely not. That’s going to mean a lot more hybrids sell than BEVs, no matter how capable or good the vehicles are. Cars don’t sell themselves.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1770 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba