It’s Going to Take More than EV Promises from Car Companies to Limit Climate Change Damage

December 12, 2019 | 4:19 pm
People walk past cars at the LA Auto SowDave Reichmuth/UCS
David Reichmuth
Senior Engineer, Clean Transportation Program

I went to the LA Auto Show recently, and much has changed in the world of EVs since my first trip in 2015. There are many more models of EVs now available or coming soon, and also quite a few presentations from car company executives, promising even more electric options in the future. But a look at the latest sales figures for EVs shows a markedly different picture, with most of the sales (and growth in sales) coming from Tesla, a company that wasn’t even on the main floor at the auto show. EV sales from traditional automakers have been flat for the last three years. What should we make of this divergence between a growing number of EV models and sales that aren’t seeing the same growth? It seems clear to me that this disconnect is due to many automakers that are technically offering EVs but are doing little to improve their design and sell them. And this disconnect needs to be fixed now if we want to try to limit the worst impacts of climate change.

I’m convinced EVs can sell in the US if they are: A) a compelling car, crossover/SUV, or truck with range and features that meet buyers’ needs (and not simply a gasoline car substituting a battery and electric motor for an engine) and B) widely available for purchase in the US. Among the EVs for sale today, most don’t meet either of these requirements.

In the past, automakers have argued that they’ve made many models of EVs available, but claimed that low US sales figures show there just isn’t interest in EVs, in effect blaming buyers for low EV sales figures. For example, the Auto Alliance, an industry trade group, has a webpage titled “Buyers Wanted” that claims over 50 models of EVs are available in the US, but laments that sales remain “modest.” This argument ignores the huge influence of marketing and sales strategies, ones that the car companies are very good at using to sell their existing gasoline vehicles. It also fails to acknowledge that most EVs are simply not available nationwide.

Tesla’s EVs are currently unmatched US sales, in large part due to their impressive performance and technology and nationwide availability. (David Reichmuth / UCS)

For example, look at market-leader Tesla; their cars are designed from the start as EVs and feature long-range batteries, cutting edge tech, and are available in most of the US (with some complications due to dealer franchise laws). Tesla now commands over 55 percent of the plug-in market, with no other manufacturer over 8 percent. Some automakers are promising future products that can match these key features like range and new technology, like Rivian’s all-electric SUV and pickup truck and the newly announced Ford Mustang Mach-E electric SUV. But those models won’t be available for at least another year.

However, many of the EV models I saw at the 2019 LA Auto Show are selling at much slower rate than Tesla’s models, and it’s not hard to see why. Let’s look at a couple of examples of EVs and EV makers that were at the auto show that are emblematic of current issues in the EV market.

Kia and Hyundai: Kia was showing two fully-electric vehicles at the show (the Niro and Soul EVs), but they are versions of existing gasoline cars and have limited availability, especially outside of the states that have adopted the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) regulation. Sister company Hyundai’s Kona and Ioniq EVs have similar availability issues. Is this a half-hearted effort by Kia and Hyundai to meet the minimum regulatory requirements?

Kia Soul and Optima at L.A. Auto ShowThese plug-in Kia models are available in California and select other states, but you probably won’t find them at many dealerships outside of the ZEV states.

VW: Volkswagen is promising many more EVs worldwide, but is hedging on when they’ll bring them to the US. The one existing electric VW for sale is the e-Golf, which, like many other EV models, is a version of an existing gasoline car and also is not available everywhere in the US.

Lexus: Lexus (a Toyota brand) had a concept EV on display at the show, but no sign of an EV model for sale in the US now, or anytime soon. Just a week after the LA Auto Show though, Lexus announced a new all-electric crossover for the Chinese, European, and Japanese markets that will go on sale next year. So the company can make a battery electric car, they just have chosen to not bring it here to the US.

Lexus-LF-30 and ux300e2

Left is the LF-30 Lexus Concept car displayed in Los Angeles; right is the Lexus UX300e battery electric crossover. You won’t find either for sale at any dealership in the US (at least anytime soon).

Subaru: Despite their self-acknowledged “tree-hugger” customer base, Subaru has been resistant to making EVs. Their sole offering is the Crosstrek PHEV, which is a version of their gasoline-only model with reduced cargo space due to the location of the batteries. And like other manufacturers, the plug-in version isn’t available everywhere where other Subarus are sold.

Subaru is literally and figuratively hiding its slow progress on EVs behind “green” marketing. The plug-in model is the light blue car behind the reforestation pledge display. (David Reichmuth /UCS)


A table showing the number of electric vehicle registrations in 2019 in selected states

2019 EV registrations by brand in selected states. Note: registration data is for the brand, not parent company.

Some brands of EVs are sold across the country. For example, Tesla and BMW have significant EV sales in large population states like New York, Florida, and Texas. However, many automakers are only emphasizing sales in states with the ZEV regulation. And some, like Subaru and Volkswagen, are not selling EVs at all outside of ZEV states. Buyers simply can’t choose an EV if they aren’t available in their state.

Tesla is selling in volume now and Ford, Toyota, and General Motors (with less specificity) are promising new, higher-sales volume models soon. But to reduce air pollution and limit climate-changing emissions, EVs sales need to greatly accelerate. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, California has set a goal of net zero emissions by 2045, only 25 years from now. In order to reach that target, the vast majority of cars on the road by that time will need to be electric drive (either fuel cell or battery electric). We’ll need to move quickly to achieve this target, much more quickly than we’re moving now. If consumers are going to make their next car electric, automakers need to make those cars available and market them more aggressively than they market their gas engine cars. Many automakers are currently meeting the bare minimum to comply with regulations while at the same time pushing a narrative that blames individuals for their purchase decisions instead of the marketing machine that brings only certain models to the forefront.

The end of 2010 marked the introduction of the first mass-market EVs in the US (the Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Volt). Since then, the last nine years have seen quite a few EV models announced, but only a handful have sold in meaningful numbers. This next decade will be crucial for the transition away from gasoline and it will take more than announcements and “compliance” models. It will take cars that are as compelling (or more so) than gasoline models and electric-drive models that are sold and marketed effectively across the country.

I’m confident the engineers and designers at these auto companies can deliver, but less so in their corporate leaders. In a time when many companies (like Toyota and General Motors) are trying to make their gasoline cars more polluting, can we really count on them to make great strides in electrification of their new models absent any pressure from regulation? I think not. Most (if not all) of the low-volume, limited availability EVs we are seeing today is based on compliance with regulation like the ZEV regulations in California and 10 other states. This is why we need higher sales standards in the future. The current ZEV regulation increases until 2025, where compliance will require less than 8 percent ZEV sales.  Setting a much stronger ZEV standard for after 2025 will be vital to move automakers from low-volume compliance models to competitive electric vehicles across their product portfolios. Both EV incentives and more ambitious regulation targets will be needed to accelerate not only development of new EV models, but to ensure significant change in the number of EVs on our nation’s roads in the next decade and start the necessary switch from petroleum to clean electricity to power our mobility needs.


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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.