Would it surprise you to hear U.S. plug-in vehicle sales are ahead of where they were last year at this time, and they’ll finish the year at an all-time high?

We’re guessing probably not. The feeling among some is progress is happening fast, by next decade a tipping point could be reached whereby conventional cars start to decline as plug-ins take their place, so what else would they expect?

While no one really knows the future, and some market watchers are less optimistic, the actual picture today is things are indeed progressing with plenty more needing to happen before the writing of “EVs Take Over the World.”

That said, for 2017 an incremental gain over last year’s record 157,181 sales of plug-in hybrids and battery electrics should be reached.

And, the future to Dec. 31, 2017 can at least be projected as with three-quarters of the year over, plug-in electrified vehicle (PEV) sales through September are at 140,187, and it’s assured more than 17,000 will be sold between now and Dec. 31.


Plug-ins began sales in the U.S. last decade with Tesla’s Roadster being the most prominent, and the first major manufacturer models – Nissan’s electric Leaf and Chevrolet’s extended-range electric Volt – arrived in December 2010.

From 2011 onward more models were introduced, by 2013 there were 16, albeit some were limited market, and a phenomenon had been established that a few vehicle models did the heavy sales lifting and others just held a spot on the roster.

By 2014, nine plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) were for sale in the U.S. and 13 battery electric vehicles (BEVs) were as well, and deliveries crested to 118,682 for 0.73 percent of a total passenger vehicle market of 1,498,210 sales that year.

It was progress, but really just a rung in a long ladder PEVs have yet to climb as gasoline prices started to plummet, and pushback continued among Americans moving toward crossovers, SUVS, and trucks, and away from sedans.

In 2015, sales actually declined from 2014’s 118,682 to 114,682 – thanks to a decline in PHEV sales to 43,143 and despite an increase of BEV sales to 71,105 for the year.

Among PHEVs, the major contributors in 2015 were the Volt with a relatively low 15,303 sales and the Ford Fusion Energi and C-Max with 9,750 and 7,591 respectively. Among BEVs, the leaders were Tesla’s Model S (25,202) and the Leaf (17,024). The BMW i3 was third with 11,024 including the range-extended version.

Elon Musk with an earlier Model S.

2015 was a weak year for both the Volt and Leaf which have been leaders all decade, as they were now at the end of their product life. Chevrolet introduced the generation-two Volt that year for 2016, and Nissan held on until this year and the new Leaf will be here early next year.

Despite the lame duck status of these cars, more models came along, and in 2016 there were about as many plug-ins for sale as hybrids, or 17 PHEVs and 13 BEVs. Thanks to a strong year-end push by Tesla and the Volt, a new record of 157,181 total sales was set comprised of 72,935 PHEVs and 82,246 BEVs.

This Year

There are now 23 PHEVs on the market, and 16 BEVs. As has been the case, not all are nationally distributed, and California accounts for around half of these numbers in a very lopsided state of affairs.

This year’s 140,187 sale through September consists of 65,886 PHEVs and 74,301 BEVs. New models helping the tally include the Chevy Bolt EV whose 14,302 sales trail the Volt’s 15,056 by just 754 units.

Toyota’s Prius Prime is also doing well after the former plug-in Prius faded away last year, and its 15,056 sales are nipping at the Volt’s heels with just 292 units separating them.

Tesla of course remains the strongest still, with 19,200 estimated Model S sales, and 15,600 estimated Model X sales.

This state of affairs simultaneously speaks well of Tesla, and puts a spotlight on weakness in the entire market picture. Basically, the major manufacturer cars are doing just OK while the Teslas costing 2-4 times more are volume leaders.

In the far more mature conventional vehicle market, “mainstream” cars of more modest prices sell in much higher volumes, but this is not the case with the PEV market. It’s being carried by luxury performance cars costing as much with options as a Mercedes S-Class, pointing to relatively weak performance in what are presented as bread-and-butter level cars below $30,000 after incentives.

With just 1,500 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles sold this year, no one is looking at them taking much share – no one that is, except Honda, Toyota, Daimler, GM, Ford, and Hyundai, among others. At least they’re working on it, with Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai being most outspoken on their long-term potential.

Further highlighting an imbalance is California is responsible for around half the plug-in sales volume, leaving 50 percent to the other 49 states which in turn have a few standouts, while others see PEVs as a comparative rarity.

What’s more, the first “mainstream” plug-in car expected to do mainstream-like numbers is projected to be another Tesla. Eventually – but the Model 3 is late with just 220 estimated sales for the year.

Fourth Quarter 2017

Green car analyst Alan Baum still holds out optimism Tesla will work the snags out of its Model 3 production line and start churning them at a much higher rate in the last months of this year.

Baum estimates the electric car company could be at a level by December such that it will sell 105,500 Model 3s in 2018 and 162,500 in 2019. These numbers are estimates of course, and subject to change with new info helping or hurting the prospects.

But what about the entire market for 2017? Figure around 198,000 total based on 88,000 PHEVs or about 0.5 percent of a projected 17-million passenger vehicle market, and 110,000 BEVs for around 0.7 percent of 17 million.

The Volt and Prius Prime are expected to do the most for the PHEV total and Tesla as stated is most helping the BEVs while we hear lots of news from the majors about what is coming later this decade into next.

So, PEVs may make up 1.2 percent of the market this year, and will still be a minority, but sales close to 200,000 is a new high mark, though PEVs have a way to go before they outsell regular hybrids.

Hybrids are more familiar, cost less, are nationally distributed, and established since the 2000 Honda Insight and Toyota Prius so they are carrying momentum for now.

Through September, hybrids are at 279,179 and could hit 375,000 this year for 2.21 percent of the market.

Next year they’re projected to improve to 493,000, or 2.95 percent of sales, says Baum, while BEVs could be 224,000, or 1.3 percent, and PHEVs could be 129,000, or 0.8 percent for a total 2.1 percent. Total electrified vehicle share could thus reach 5 percent in 2018, up from 3.63 percent this year.

As for this year, it’s a new high, and also a waymarker on much higher projections on the road to supplanting conventional vehicles, sooner or later.