Electric Cars By the Numbers

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 14, 2012

Let’s face it, EVs are a numbers game at this point. It’s a monthly ritual: we get the sales figures and pore over them, trying to tell if electrics, plug-in hybrids and the rest are on a growth curve or sinking faster than the Titanic. (I know the Titanic didn't sink all that fast, relax.)

The Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid. Not yet a big seller compared to the Liftback. (Jim Motavalli photo)
The Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid. Not yet a big seller compared to the Liftback. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The numbers for August are in, and they’re mildly encouraging, but we’ll get to that in a minute. EVs have now been on the market long enough for us to get some impressions of how their owners—who seem fairly contented, as befits their early adopter status—are actually using them.

Armen Petrosian is the chief technology officer for Xatori. The company’s PlugShare cellphone app, which allows users to give others access to their charging stations and locate them all over the country, bills itself as the world’s largest electric vehicle charging network, with 100,000 users. “Approximately 40,000 EVs have been sold so far,” Petrosian told me. “That’s exciting, because only a few years ago it was a mere handful. In 2010 we had only the Leaf and Volt on the market, now every automaker has EVs.”

PlugShare has gathered some useful information from its subscribers. Some 60 percent never charge at work, for instance, but 77 percent charge at home with their own 240-volt chargers. Only three percent never charge at home.

Portland (Oregon) is the most EV-ready city, with 11 public chargers for every 100,000 residents. I might have thought the leader was the San Francisco Bay Area, but that’s in fourth place, behind Dallas (read this to see why) with 10.6; and Nashville with 8.2 (the Leaf is built there). Other EV-friendly cities include Seattle, Austin, Tucson, the Washington, DC area and Honolulu.

EV drivers cover an average of 1,050 miles per month, and spend $30 on charging in that period. That contrasts with $75 a month they’d have spent on gasoline. The average user avoids the emission of 360 pounds of carbon dioxide per month.

Petrosian, who drives a Leaf and “loves it,” says the numbers so far are “very encouraging. It’s starting to feel like a real industry, though there’s still not enough supply. But there will be a big leap from sales of 100,000 cars and sales of millions."

Now back to the August results. Lumping together electrics, hybrids of all types and diesels (I’d have left them out), advanced-powertrain sales in the U.S. stood at 49,450 last month, which is up 96 percent from August 2011. A big factor is gas prices that hover around $4 a gallon. AAA’s current average national price for regular is $3.82 a gallon, and Hurricane Issac, by shutting some refineries, didn’t do us any favors.

I’ve long pointed out the value of being a green car pioneer with the Prius, because it continues to grab the majority of hybrid sales. Prius is to “hybrid” as Scotch is to “tape.” Toyota grabbed half of those 49,450 sales, and enjoyed a 122 percent in Prius sales. The standard Liftback is still the most popular model, at 13,311, but the C (3,428) and the V (3,325) are neck-and-neck. The plug-in hybrid Prius is still finding its way (1,047). The Camry hybrid trails the Prius, but Lexus also sold 3,560 hybrids last month.

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is a slow seller, despite its relative low price for an electric. (Mitsubishi photo)
The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is a slow seller, despite its relative low price for an electric. (Mitsubishi photo)

Despite being the cheapest battery electric from a mainstream manufacturer, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV isn’t moving too well—just 37 were sold in August. The Leaf had an indifferent 685-car month (down 49 percent from the year before), but the Volt plug-in hybrid was up a stunning 837 percent, with a best-ever month of 2,831. The rivalry between these two cars is over, and GM won. If the rumors are correct and Nissan will add a cheaper Leaf and increase range, it can’t happen too quickly.

Just nine Honda Fit EVs found homes in August, but that’s probably just a factor of the supply not yet lining up with customers in 15 states. I loved the car, myself, and so did John Voelcker, who, in this video, drives it in California last month:

The Civic Hybrid is stuck in the doldrums, 579 compared to 20,000 Priuses. My suggestion: Make an all-new, fully contented, price-competitive Honda hybrid, replacing the too-bland Civic, that can really take on the Prius on its own ground. I know they offer the CR-Z and the Insight, but the former (392 in August) is a limited-market two-seater and the Insight (341 in August) is perceived as a chintzier clone of the Prius.

And, finally, GM is having modest success with hybrids other than the Volt. The Buick LaCrosse eAssist found 1,024 homes in August, and the Regal eAssist 331. The winner of the bunch, not surprisingly, is the Chevy Malibu eAssist, with 2,414.

I’m not seeing the usual all-is-lost stories about EVs this month. Maybe because all is not lost.

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