Who’s Leading on Electric Cars? (And Who’s Lagging Behind?)

August 24, 2016 | 9:39 am
Photo: Kārlis Dambrāns/CC BY (Flickr)
David Reichmuth
Senior Engineer, Clean Transportation Program

Over the last 5 years we’ve seen a remarkable change in the vehicle market: Car buyers can now find alternatives to petroleum-powered cars, choosing from a growing number of electric-drive cars.

But why aren’t more models available across more of the country? The answer, it appears, lies partially with the automakers—some of whom are leading the way, while others are lagging behind. To help quantify the progress, we’ve just completed a comprehensive report on progress of automakers towards making electric vehicles (EVs) available in the United States. Our report, “Electrifying the Vehicle Market: Evaluating Automaker Leaders and Laggards in the United States”, highlights industry leaders and laggards in the development and sales of EVs.

Leaders and laggards

The Leaders

  • BMW has made a major commitment to electrification, and its EV sales reflect that. BMW leads all major automakers in EVs sales as a proportion of total sales: more than 3 percent across the United States and topping 7 percent in California during 2015. BMW also now offers 4 EV models in the US, including plug-in versions of its most popular models (3-series sedan and X5 SUV).
  • General Motors, with the Chevrolet Volt, and Nissan, with the LEAF, were early leaders in developing and selling EVs. The Volt is the top-selling plug-in hybrid EV, and the LEAF is the top-selling battery-powered EV since 2010.
  • Tesla is a leader among automakers, producing only EVs. It was the top-selling EV carmaker in 2015 and its upcoming Model 3 has attracted unprecedented interest.

The Laggards

  • Honda currently offers no plug–in electric vehicles in the United States. Even when the company did sell EVs here, its efforts lagged behind those of other automakers. Honda’s total EV sales in the United States since 2011 are lower than General Motors’ EV sales in a single month (April 2016).
  • While Toyota is a leader in hybrid-vehicle technology, it lags in developing plug-in electric vehicles. Toyota had success in selling the Prius Plug-In, but the company removed the model from the market and currently has no plug-in EV for sale in this country.
  • Fiat Chrysler only one EV, the Fiat 500e, and only offers it in two states.
  • Hyundai/Kia has not made its two EVs widely available and its EV sales are significantly lower than those of most other major automakers.

Drivers can’t buy electric cars that aren’t available

One of the key findings of our report is that the availability of EVs varies greatly, both by manufacturer and geography. Some automakers are simply not making EVs available. For example, Honda does not currently offer any electric vehicles for sale in the US. Other companies severely limit the availability of EVs to California and a handful of states. Fiat Chrysler (maker of Fiat, Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, and Ram vehicles) only offers one plug-in car, the Fiat 500e. In two states, California and Oregon, the Fiat 500e is offered at dealerships in numbers comparable to the gasoline-powered version of the car. In the other 48 states, this EV is simply not available, so most Fiat Chrysler customers have no electric option available.

On the other hand, EV leaders like BMW, Nissan, Tesla, and General Motors make their EVs much more widely available and (with the exception of Nissan) offer 2 or more models of EVs. Having vehicles actually available on the dealership lots is important to selling any car, electric or not. We did a survey earlier this year and found that 86% of car buyers would not buy a new car without test-driving it first.

UCS member Phyllis Garr said this about her experience buying a Chevrolet Volt:

I purchased my Volt in April 2011, and the three dealers that I visited all had Volts that I could test ride. I was looking to be able to see the full line of colors, and here in Lakewood, New Jersey, they had every color lined up in a row that you could examine and drive, and I bought one off the lot. I had a Prius and I had been waiting for an electric car to be on the market.

California leads in availability, fewer models available in the Northeast

California leads the nation in EV sales. Overall, over 3% of all new cars in the state were plug-in models in 2015, with two automakers (BMW and General Motors) having over 5% of sales EVs.

California EV sales by manufacturer

California’s regulations and incentives are part of the reason the state leads in EV sales, but the greater availability of EVs plays an important role too. Last year, 22 EV models were sold in California, while no other state had more than 14 models sold.

EV models by state

In the Northeast, car buyers not only had fewer EV models to choose from than in CA, but had a harder time finding them on dealer lots as well. We surveyed vehicle availability on a popular automotive shopping website (Edmunds.com) and found many more EVs listed near major cities in California than in the Northeast. Within 50 miles of our Oakland office, on any given day you would find over 2,800 unique EV listings, while my colleagues in Boston, MA, would see on average just over 300 EVs. Despite the lack of EVs in the Northeast, our survey of drivers showed the region has considerable interest in EVs: 55% said they are interested in EVs as their next car.


Strong EV policies key to encouraging transition to EVs

The success of some companies in making EVs a significant and growing proportion of their sales, especially in California, shows that electric-vehicle technology will be an increasingly important part of the automobile market. It also demonstrates that policies like the California’s Zero Emission Vehicle program are working to encourage the growth of the EV market. The ZEV regulation applies to California and nine other states, though until 2018 car companies can comply solely by selling EVs in California.

At the end of this year, the state will be examining the ZEV regulation to see if it needs to be updated. I’ll be following this closely to make sure that we continue to see progress on the rollout of EVs not only in California but in the other states which have adopted the ZEV program as well.

About the author

More from David

David Reichmuth's work focuses on analyzing new vehicle technologies and advocating for policies that support the increased electrification of transportation. Dr. Reichmuth has testified at hearings before the US House of Representatives, the California State Legislature, and the California Air Resources Board, and he is an expert on California’s Zero Emission Vehicles regulation.