An unflattering end-of-year portrayal yesterday by Bloomberg Business of U.S. plug-in vehicle sales used lop-sided information to represent a case that’s worse than it is.
In the piece titled “Plug-in Electric Autos Left Behind in Record Year,” the influential outlet cited data to support an assertion that while the U.S. car and truck market rose to a record 17.4 million sales, plug-in electrified vehicles (PEVs) slipped by 17 percent with just 102,600.
It’s no secret the market is just starting out, has faced hurdles, and it did slip in 2015 compared to 2014 – but as new models are pending it declined only by 2.88 percent and the HybridCars.com Dashboard documented 115,262 sales.
How did this discrepancy happen? Bloomberg relied on data that omits or under-estimates several of the best-selling plug-in cars along with other sales.
In its report, Bloomberg may not have known this as it painted a picture that ended on the note that Americans look at plug-ins with about as much enthusiasm as those forced to eat boring vegetables when what they really want is cake.
True enough, last year’s PEV sales did decline from 2014’s 118,682 PEV sales. And, as HybridCars.com has reported on several occasions, numerous factors have led to the U.S. experiencing its first year of no growth since 2011.
But where does our 115,262 figure come from? No less than the same source Bloomberg used – Autodata – but the HybridCars.com monthly sales Dashboard is crosschecked with input from Michigan-based analyst Alan Baum.
The data used to support a mainstream media picture of sour grapes actually excluded the following PEVs as part of its electrified category and lumps them in with regular hybrids:
BMW X5 plug-in hybrid
Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid
Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid
Honda Accord Plug-in hybrid
Mercedes S550 plug-in hybrid
Porsche Cayenne Hybrid
Porsche Panamera S E-plug-in hybrid
Toyota Prius Plug In Hybrid
Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid
Also under-calculated was Tesla, which does not report its monthly numbers, but which accounted for an estimated 26,400 U.S. sales. Bloomberg however said Tesla sold 23,650. And then there is the Fiat 500e. Baum’s number for Fiat 500e is 4,516, Autodata’s is 1,359.
As for reasons why Americans bypassed PEVs last year, a few were given by Bloomberg. One was cheap $2 gas and a BMW executive was quoted in support of the idea.
Actually, while gas prices have put a pinch on things, this may be less of a factor than for also-declined regular hybrid sales because these vehicles always need gas while plug-in vehicles make it possible to cut the petroleum umbilical cord. PEV manufacturers have also said their customers tell them the whole object is to not use gas as often as possible, if at all, so gas prices are not as weighty a motivation as they are for regular hybrids.
So what are factors that led the U.S. last year to slip to third place in PEV sales behind Europe and China?
Bloomberg correctly cited fence-sitting green car buyers awaiting new models on the horizon. For example, some buyers were holding out for a revised 107-mile-range 2016 Leaf, or the next-generation Leaf which may offer 200-plus miles, or something altogether different.
For instance, the 200-mile 2017 Chevy Bolt has created a lot of excitement, and was just introduced in pre-production form yesterday. It and the anticipated Tesla Model 3 have induced fence sitting.
A further car that stalled sales of one of the country’s best-selling PEVs – the Chevy Volt – was its fully redesigned replacement, the 2016 Volt which only began sales in October 2015 in 11 states following California rules.
Like consumers of advanced electronics, PEV buyers want more and are faced with a yet-limited pool of choices.
Beyond this there are many factors why the PEV market has not taken off faster than it has – including, as was observed, perceived price for value.
One of the points in our list above is the phenomenon of inaccurate reports – either by mainstream media or biased pundits – that flavor the public discussion. When reports are written off-center these can shape opinions among people who, with all due respect, may not be very knowledgeable of a topic.
The need for “education” among the general public and media alike has been an ongoing refrain by PEV advocates, yet myths persist and are presented as truisms.
Bloomberg’s article ended on a tone set by by Forrest McConnell, president of a Honda dealership in Montgomery, Alabama, and a former chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association. The NADA is the same group that has opposed Tesla’s business model, and among which are some dealers that have been known to steer people away from PEVs.
McConnell “described the dilemma for automotive retailers by holding up a donut and broccoli as symbols of consumer choice,” wrote Bloomberg. “If electric vehicles are broccoli, McConnell said, donuts represent cars and trucks powered by internal combustion engines, the overwhelming choice of buyers.”
Whether the lesson here is junk food is what people want so we should give them what they want was not said.
Tesla’s Elon Musk has meanwhile said internal combustion vehicle sellers have an inherent conflict of interest in touting the features, advantages and benefits of electric cars when their bread and butter comes from familiar product in which they’ve long been invested.
Proponents of the Chevy Volt have for five years been telling stories of traditional salesmen who had to be convinced by the determined buyer to sell them a Volt, and not steer them to a Cruze, or some other model easier to sell.
Yet a media report attempting to explain a complex market phenomenon cited a leader from the old guard to summarize the situation by saying plug-in electrified vehicles are like being forced to eat what you don’t want or like.
But to be fair, it is difficult to sum up big pictures for those who will only sit through a limited explanation. And true also is Americans did vote with their wallets overwhelmingly in favor of conventional vehicles.
So it goes. Another day, another story, but the underlying reasons for PEVs remain, and these are not going away.