One-Percenters: Electric Cars Hit a Big Sales Milestone

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 11, 2016

The Sierra Club wants to make it official—cars with plugs were one percent of national auto sales in June. That’s a big milestone—the highest monthly figure they’d achieved previously was .86 percent (in December of 2014).

“We were pleasantly surprised,” said Gina Coplon-Newfield, the Sierra Club’s electric vehicle initiative director. “The June numbers were much bigger than May."

Remember, though, the Obama Administration’s goal, shared with the auto industry, is to achieve a fleet average of 54.5 mpg by 2025. That’s a long way from where we are now.

Gina Coplon-Newfield of the Sierra Club (at the wheel) delivers 52,000 clean car petition signatures to the White House. (Sierra Club photo)
Gina Coplon-Newfield of the Sierra Club (at the wheel) delivers 52,000 clean car petition signatures to the White House. (Sierra Club photo)

And the fuel economy trend is moving—in the wrong direction. Also in June, the average window-sticker fuel economy of cars sold in the U.S. was 25.3 mpg combined—down 0.1 mpg from May. This reflects America’s continued mania for crossovers and SUVs in the face of cheap gas. Vehicle miles traveled is another figure trending up, and combined there’s a whole lotta greenhouse gas being generated.

Let’s drill down. Total EV sales in June reached 15,040—which is 5,000 more than in the same month last year. And, yes, Californians are still buying most of them. A big reason for the EV spike is robust sales of Teslas.  Of the 15,000 cars sold, 3,700 were the Model S and 2,145 were the Model X—which has finally gotten up to production speed. This means that more than a third of the EVs sold were Teslas. Whatever else you might say about Elon Musk (and people are saying a lot in the wake of that Auto Pilot death), he sure can sell cars.

Other than Tesla, sales are kind of stagnant. The Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid saw a jump, from 1,453 in May to 1,700 in June. And the same company’s C-MAX Energi (with a similar drivetrain) also climbed, from 538 to 630. The Chevy Volt—much improved for 2016—was up too, from 1,901 to 1,937.

So how should we see all of this? Good news, bad news? Coplon-Newfield tells me, “Automakers are trying to weaken the clean car standards, but we think consumers are eager for these kinds of cars.” She cited a Union of Concerned Scientists/Consumer Union study of people in the nine states with California emission standard,and it found more than half surveyed are “interested” in electric cars, and a sizable number saying they might buy one in 2016. But stated interest in surveys and actual behavior aren’t the same thing.

Automotive News recently made the situation look pretty dire. Under a headline about sales falling short of Obama Administration goals, it wrote:

With gas prices near $2 a gallon—only about 400,000 electric cars have been sold. Last year, sales fell six percent over the previous year, to about 115,000, despite the industry offering about 30 plug-in models, often at deep discounts….Despite slow plug-in sales, the industry continues to roll out new models in response to government mandates and its own desire to create brands known for environmental innovation.

But things have looked up a bit since Automotive News wrote that. EV sales exceeded their 2015 totals for every month so far this year. And June’s 15,042 was the single best month for EV sales since 2010. No, these modest increases in sales aren't enough to push fuel economy trends up. But they're encouraging nonetheless.

Incidentally, U.S. plug-in sales are currently the world’s most robust. So far this year, 116,000 were sold in the U.S., and just 240,000 worldwide. Europe was slow to adopt electric cars, but it’s ramping up. From January to March, sales were up 29 percent from 2015. There were more than 14,000 registrations in May—a seven-percent increase over the same month in 2015. According to CleanTechnica, “The [European] market is set to surpass 200,000 units by year end [2016], possibly even reaching 240,000 units.”

The Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid has been a sales hit in Europe. It seeks to conquer America next. (Mitsubishi photo)
The Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid has been a sales hit in Europe. It seeks to conquer America next. (Mitsubishi photo)

The Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid (to make its delayed U.S. debut in November) is the bestseller in Europe, with 1,707. The Nissan Leaf sold 1,362 in May. The only U.S. contender in Europe is Tesla, which sold 570 in May.

I see modest increases in EV sales for 2016, not as big a jump as I’d like to see. The Tesla Model 3 is a wild card, of course--remember there are almost 400,000 advance orders--but it will take a while before those sales start affecting the totals. Dan Becker, the Center for Auto Safety’s climate campaigner, tells me the EPA’s Technical Assessment Report is likely to be released next Tuesday, and it’s going to show automakers that they can comply with the federal standards at lower cost than was projected back in 2012 (when there was a lot of complaining about how much it would add to sticker prices).

So no reason to despair—the EV trend is up, despite all those SUV sales hurting overall fuel economy. If we could somehow convince Americans that there’s no great magic to having all-wheel drive and “sitting up high,” we’d be ahead of the game.

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