Popping the hype balloon on electric cars

We continue to see new critical rankings of the top electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, but the truth is that these models so far are selling at best in the low thousands and more often in the hundreds (the new French-German Mia pictured above). So neither the U.S. nor Chinese are likely to achieve their ...

Alain Jocard  AFP/Getty Images
Alain Jocard AFP/Getty Images
Alain Jocard AFP/Getty Images

We continue to see new critical rankings of the top electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, but the truth is that these models so far are selling at best in the low thousands and more often in the hundreds (the new French-German Mia pictured above). So neither the U.S. nor Chinese are likely to achieve their competing goals of 1 million such cars on their respective roads in the next few years.

This is not surprising -- it is simply the air starting to go out of the hype. So what truly does seem likely in the coming years? Read on to the jump.

China still intends to dominate the global market -- the biggest sales seem a reasonable assumption since it is by far the largest market for new cars versus the replacement of an existing fleet -- but it realizes this is going to take much longer than projected, writes Alysha Webb.

We continue to see new critical rankings of the top electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, but the truth is that these models so far are selling at best in the low thousands and more often in the hundreds (the new French-German Mia pictured above). So neither the U.S. nor Chinese are likely to achieve their competing goals of 1 million such cars on their respective roads in the next few years.

This is not surprising — it is simply the air starting to go out of the hype. So what truly does seem likely in the coming years? Read on to the jump.

China still intends to dominate the global market — the biggest sales seem a reasonable assumption since it is by far the largest market for new cars versus the replacement of an existing fleet — but it realizes this is going to take much longer than projected, writes Alysha Webb.

One big recognition by Beijing is that, despite its much-improved performance in the laboratory and factory, it is still far behind in the technology of electric cars. Its solution? Force foreign carmakers to fork over their advances, writes Keith Bradsher at the New York Times. So far just Ford among the majors has broken ranks and agreed.

Yesterday Bradsher wrote that China is making a U-turn in its booming auto industry — it is discouraging the breakneck rise in local automobile manufacture, and telling its carmakers to focus on turning out really good vehicles, and fewer of them. Specifically, Bradsher wrote after attending a conference where he listened to Chinese officials describing the new policy, Beijing wants "more fuel-efficient and more technologically advanced models, including gasoline-electric hybrids and all-electric cars."

In the U.S., there is the opposite concern — how to encourage consumers to buy electric cars and plug-in hybrids. What are the prospects for the former? Quite apart from the pricing problem — Americans are highly unlikely to pay more for any consumer item in large numbers, unless it is an Apple computer, and electric cars are probably not an exception — range anxiety is a seriously deep-seated obstacle. Logic tells you that, until electric cars are competitively priced and can reliably travel well in excess of 300 miles on a charge, they will remain a fashion statement. And the day of such prices and range is likely not soon.

What about hybrids? This configuration seems far more sensible. One can easily imagine the idea becoming embedded in the minds of American consumers that cars should be hybrids — motorists should have the choice of using electricity or gasoline, as they wish. This easily aligns with the core of U.S. marketing experience — Americans are easily sold on the notion that they deserve choice, and it is difficult to put up a counter-argument if you have price, style and quality on your side. If I am right — and if manufacturers can provide head-to-head price competition with pure gasoline-driven models — it would not be far-fetched to forecast a relatively fast ramp-up of hybrids.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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