5 Factors Hurting US Plug-in Vehicle Sales

If you talk to plug-in electrified vehicle (PEV) drivers, many will tell you why they’re sure they did the right thing in acquiring their battery electric car or plug-in hybrid, but other consumers are on the fence.

On the positive attributes checklist, PEV drivers may frequently bypass or altogether divorce themselves from the gas pump, and that, they say, feels great.

Further, their fuel and maintenance costs are often reported as lower, the drive experience is novel, and it’s also gratifying to help the environment and contribute their part toward energy security as well.

With such bipartisan appeal, word is getting out about plug-in vehicles in the face of the entrenched internal combustion industry which supplies a U.S. transportation sector that consumes 70 percent of all petroleum and keeps the country reliant upon OPEC.

Published PEV-oriented stories may alternately say sales are up, or disappointingly low, and beyond this there’s been a maelstrom of contradicting or subjective reports surrounding these vehicles.

Here’s a few objective facts: Five years ago President Obama set a 1 million unit plug-in electrified vehicle (PEV) goal that came and went unfulfilled last December. The U.S. today is about to crest past 500,000 cumulative unit sales, and Obama’s press office nearly backpedaled last year saying it was just an “aspirational” goal.

In 2015 the U.S. purchased 17.39 million passenger cars and light trucks. Of these just 43,143 were plug-in hybrids, or 0.25 percent, and 71,105 were battery electric, or 0.41 percent. Plug-in market share in June 2016 was not significantly better, if at all, than it was two years ago in June 2014.

Since the modern major manufacturer PEV market started in December 2010, the U.S. was the global sales leader, but last year China and Europe overtook its early lead relegating U.S. to third place.

Counter-balancing that unflattering report, it’s also true the first crop of sub-$40,000, 200-plus mile EVs are due this year, with five manufacturers and counting projecting similar spec cars in the next few years. A U.S. manufacturer, General Motors, will be first with its Chevy Bolt EV, and U.S.-based Tesla has also lined up over 400,000 intenders for its Model 3, serious signaling demand.

Actually, almost all manufacturers are ramping up their battery electric and plug-in hybrid portfolios in response to global regulations, other market forces, so the upside potential is positive.

To date though, PEVs have been a bit of a blind spot for many a consumer. While not a comprehensive list, following are five factors to be aware of if: 1) you want to spread the word, or 2) you are just researching whether a plug-in could be right for you.

Cheap Gas?

Almost not news, the story about low petroleum and pump gas prices has been the kneejerk response from many reporters, often looking at PEVs from an outsider’s perspective, but there is truth to it.


Manufacturers are reporting truck, SUV, and larger more gas-consuming vehicle sales are up, and we’ve already seen how PEV sales are doing.

On the flip side, at the January 2015 Chevy Volt debut, GM’s executives and media personnel were emphasizing gas is not as much a factor for those who wish to avoid gas altogether. These people buy for some of the reasons mentioned in this article’s opener, so if gas is cheap or expensive, it matters less. They don’t want the stuff, no matter the price.

Perhaps even more hurt by gas prices have been regular non-plug-in hybrid sales which were as high as 3.2 percent of the U.S. market, and currently are around 1.88 percent. Hybrids always need gas, but do save more of it than conventional cars.

It’s also predicted gas prices will eventually go back up, and meanwhile there is more to consider.

Tepid Automaker Commitment

As the U.S. EPA is presently reviewing federal mpg and greenhouse gas regulations for 2022-2025, every carmaker is otherwise quick to say it is on board with the clean and green program.

The automaker lobby, the Auto Alliance, however, describes “market realities” that have kept the average window stickers to 25.3 mpg, while several PEVs are either not distributed outside of California zero-emission states, or at all, as the case may be.

It warns of unintended consequences to a mandated market, including costs going out of control, and vehicles people still won’t want to buy in years ahead.

Tesla, with nowhere to go but up, is the one pure EV maker, and it’s out to prove battery electrics are viable now, or bust. Other legacy automakers have their fiduciary eggs in several already profitable baskets, and they balance numerous priorities lest they dissapoint shareholders.

PEV advocates have frequently questioned whether conflicts of interests, or secret desire to stall as long as possible are at play. At least true is a large ship does not turn on a dime.

Further, the U.S. EPA does not require more than 1-3 percent PEVs to make the grade through 2025, but combined with global regulations, and California ZEV rules, the shift is underway, if not as fast as the most zealous would like.

Inventory Shortage

Outside of the state of California and a few other PEV hot spots, the availability of plug-in cars on the lot for shoppers to kick their low rolling resistance tires has reportedly been hit or miss.


In the Northeast, a secondary market to California with several states signed onto its ZEV rules, dealer inventory has been disappointing to advocates like Volt-owning Mark Renburke, of Drive Electric Cars New England.

“I’ve come to realize the single biggest thing is actually three things that have been difficult to measure and somewhat under the radar (and manipulated by manufacturer and/or dealers),” said Renburke of factors for this list. “They are inventory, inventory and INVENTORY!”

In other words, he continued, there’s a sheer lack of PEVs available at dealers in his region, and it can be spotty elsewhere in the country besides.

Want a truck? No problem. The dealer has them lined up out front. Want a PEV? Some dealers do stock them, but not that many. For example, a recent Edmunds.com study found only 733 plug-in vehicles available in the Boston region since the start of 2016. For the same period, 5,800 PEVs were for sale within 50 miles of Oakland, Calif., and 8,200 were in LA and surrounding regions.

Onerous issues like dealers who make intenders pay for special orders before they can even test drive are just one source of consternation for those who’d like to see the market grow.

Deliberate or Inadvertent Obfuscation

As the Auto Alliance has abundantly stated, there are untold billions of dollars and jobs on the line, and PEVs, frankly, are threatening to some, even if they are heartening to others.


With that fact as a back drop, whether willfully or inadvertently, numerous articles have clouded issues. You’ve heard the phrase: “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck?” Others have said: “If it walks like propaganda, quacks like propaganda, then it must be propaganda.

In a society laced with conspiracy theories back to who was behind Kennedy’s assassination, and before, evidence of deliberate slam attacks against PEVs, while not utterly lacking, has been scarce enough to make it difficult to define clear-cut cases, but the effects are clearer.

Koch Brothers Allegedly Backing New Multi-Million Dollar Attack On EVs

Mixed messages on PEV benefits are many and varied. These include stories about whether coal fuels them, or whether their carbon footprint is worse than for conventional cars; whether their raw lithium or rare earth materials are just as damaging or troublesome as petroleum; whether they are unprofitable, boring, ugly, and more have all been reported in spades.

Without attempting to address these issues here, at least true is they remain up for grabs for people to spin stories about. Combine that with consumers leery of taking chances on the first generation of the second-most-costly purchase they might make, and sales suffer.

Advocates are encouraged this all stands to change with next-generation cars, increased commitments and forward-looking statements by automakers aside from Tesla, and a few others, but this has been a factor.

Cultural Ambivalence

Do you believe “you are what you drive?”

Some do.

Have you ever seen a bumper sticker on the back of a diesel pickup that says “Prius repellant?”

American culture has long prized the road trip, the drag strip, the Indy 500, hotrods, land yachts, oversized pickups, 4X4s, and so much more product and mythology that keeps car culture alive.

You have truck people, sports car people, hot hatch hoonigans, everyday “mainstream” family types, and then you have proud greenies. Cliches? Stereotypes? Yes, and whether valid or invalid, some do buy into it, whether consciously, or not.

It has often been said purchase decisions are ultimately based on how people feel. Feelings dictate getting what we want – be it social recognition, personal satisfaction, you name it. And, depending on the person, after he or she has gotten what was desired, he or she may attempt to rationalize, justify, or explain why that was the right or reasonable thing to buy or lease.

As though unconsciously acknowledging as much, just today on the GM-Volt.com enthusiast’s forum, in one of hundreds of discussions over the years on how to get GM to do more faster with its plug-in lead, a Michigan-based engineer and Volt fan offered his view:

GM needs to come up with a cool name for the Voltec system in a truck, or even the non-plug version that the Malibu has. Call it something that refers to the 100% torque at zero RPM, and have Tim Allen grunting in the background. Then people won’t focus on the fact that it significantly improves the gas mileage (that’s weenie talk), but the fact that they have more power from the start than other truck drivers.

Tesla has been one company that has addressed biases and prejudice at their root by going after mind share where people live –- the Model S looks like a Euro car with blended in upscale design elements suitable to let it sit on equal footing next to a Jaguar or Maserati. Its presence shouts powerful, expensive, and then it backs it up with up to “ludicrous mode” and 0-60 time about as quick as a 1,000-cc superbike.


At this juncture, most major carmakers however have limited models, and how they market them has been another source of mixed impressions.

Another issue is to date the demographic appeal has catered to mid-to-upper strata. Considering PEVs’ fuel conservation ability is a major benefit, this has been viewed as quite the irony that one must spend well over the price of a conventional alternative just to save at the pump. Incentives and total cost of ownership analyses do help make a qualified case, but sales indicate the mass market is not on board with where things presently stand.

Also to be considered is manufacturers have observed PEV shoppers tend to be forward looking. With some models like the Nissan Leaf awaiting a refresh, and Tesla’s Model 3 not here yet, along with other models and styles of PEVs expected, the adoption pace has been what it is.

Beyond this, much more could be said on a macro-sized question, but the bottom line is that change is happening.

It took more than one hundred years to get the culture where it is, and despite perceived disappointments along the way, the shift toward electrification has begun.