Every new electric car put on the road is a small victory. In 2015, more than 100,000 new plug-in vehicles were added to U.S. roads—clear progress towards a long-range goal of cleaner transportation and reduced reliance on petroleum. But there’s no denying that 2015 was an off year for EVs, a time when excitement about the technology was tempered by the hard realities of market adoption. We can count at least six ways that EVs faced headwinds in 2015.
US oil prices plunged from $100 in 2013 to nearly $50 last year, falling another 30 percent in 2015.
As the year ends, American drivers are paying an average of about $2 a gallon. While that’s still about double the equivalent average price of driving on electricity, the relative low price at the pumps lulled US motorists into a sense of complacency regarding gas-guzzling cars. Many analysts believe that oil and gas prices will eventually climb, but not significantly for nearly another year if not longer.
Big Promises for Long-Range EVs
In 2015, we saw announcements about future 200- to 300-mile battery-electric cars from Tesla, Chevrolet, Audi or others. But this prospect casts EVs into a waiting period of a perhaps two or three years, if not longer. During this time, many mainstream buyers are waiting on the sidelines. The thinking: why buy today’s version of the technology when it will be so much better in 2017 or 2018?
Slow Model-Year Turnover
Automotive products grow stale over time. Unless the design of sheet metal and the layout of the dashboard evolves to reflect quickly evolving trends, a model loses its appeal after three or four years. For most of 2015, the long-standing leaders in the plug-in space, Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF, were aging first-generation models (introduced in 2010 and designed years earlier). Interested consumers held off purchases until new versions arrived. But that happened late in the year, leaving lame duck variants to languish on showroom floors.
Still Waiting on Plug-in Hybrid Revolution
Luxury automakers—including Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volvo—are planning to offer plug-in hybrid variants of a wide range of their models. For years, forecasters have said that plug-in hybrids, which overcome range limitations, will significantly outnumber pure electric vehicles. Yet, besides the impressive Chevy Volt, the only real excitement about plug-in hybrid models is coming from the high-end low-volume market. Compelling affordable plug-in hybrids are still missing from the showroom.
Dealerships Are Still a Roadblock
Tesla notwithstanding, car dealerships remain uninformed about electric cars and unmotivated to sell them. At the key point of sale, where metal is moved, dealers are pushing shoppers to consider conventional gas vehicles instead of the plug-in they came in to buy. This trend has been reported by The New York Times, Consumer Reports, U.C. Davis and numerous buyers in online forums. The reluctance of dealers to push EVs might lie in legacy profits—commonly three times the value of the actual sale—from services like maintenance visits and replacement parts, which are less frequent for plug-ins.
No More Excuses about Charging Infrastructure
The idea that EVs are being held back by lack of public charging—a notion promoted by charging network companies, among others—lost ground in 2015. That’s because, slowly but surely, the availability of Level 2 and quick-charge locations is improving. We can celebrate this as a victory. Utilities and carmakers, no longer content to wait for a winning business model to emerge, jumped into the fray. But with more readily available public charging comes the realization that car buyers aren’t necessarily moved by this news. Inadvertently, hand-wringing about public charging clouds the more important message: most drivers can easily charge overnight from the convenience of their home.
Okay, we got that off our chest. The downbeat conditions of 2015 can now be fully and honestly assessed. We can also acknowledge that these factors won’t change just because we enter a new year. Yet, a single off year—or even two or three—won’t stop the broader inevitable move toward vehicle electrification. And it won’t take all six of these factors to change at the same time for the pendulum to swing the other way. Big-battery cars are on the way. Gas prices won’t stay low forever. And the entire auto industry, including dealers, can’t perpetually resist the changes underway.