Plug-In Electric Vehicle Sales Nearly Triple Over Last Year

, former deputy director, Clean Vehicles | September 7, 2012, 8:43 am EDT
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At the beginning of every month, automakers report their sales and auto journalists and analysts pore over the data to see what trends there are to see. Many of the stories that result seem to indicate that doom is on the way for plug-in electric vehicles, so I dug into the data to see what big trends there were to uncover.

It turned out to me that it was almost all good news, which made me realize that we all need to be careful to not read too much into the horse race data and to avoid getting wrapped up in the sales hype that comes with each new vehicle introduction.

Plug-in vehicles are ahead of the pace set by hybrids

This is the second year since plug-in electric vehicles have returned to the U.S. market and they are doing pretty well. With four months left in 2012, over 25,000 plug-ins have been sold in the United States according to data from (subscription required). That is almost triple the 9,428 that were sold at the same point in 2011. It also ignores modest plug-in sales from Coda, Fisker, and Tesla because public information on their sales was not consistently available for the year.

A near tripling in sales is stunning enough by itself, but wait, there’s more. In 2001, the second full year of conventional hybrid sales in the United States, combined sales of the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius were about 20,300 units (again according to data from That means that in just 8 months, plug-in EVs have already beaten 12 months worth of sales of conventional hybrids during a comparable period after market introduction. That is an impressive feat given the higher incremental cost of plug-in EVs compared to conventional hybrid electric vehicles, not to mention the state of our economy.

Plug-in hybrids are through the roof

So, where is all this growth coming from? The market so far in 2012 was split roughly 27%/73% between pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), but it was the latter that saw the growth.

Plug-in electric vehicle sales have tripled so far in 2012, with plug-in hybrids in the driver’s seat and battery electric vehicles holding steady.

Chevy Volt PHEV sales have been impressive, increasing by about a factor of four so far over the same 8 months last year.  In addition, the new plug-in Prius has nearly doubled the sales of the Volt from the same time last year. Together, they are responsible for nearly 20,000 units so far in 2012.

Battery EV options expand

The story for battery EVs is a bit more complicated. If you look only at the most popular BEV, the Nissan Leaf, you might start to raise an alarm. Leaf sales in the U.S. are down 31% compared to the same 8 months in 2011.

But the Leaf now faces competition from five other pure electric cars (see figure). Total BEV sales are actually about the same as they were last year, assuming modest growth from Tesla and Coda. The increased competition with flat sales almost makes the market look crowded as the new entrants appear to be cannibalizing the space that was held almost exclusively by the Leaf last year.

You can’t spin this as “good” news for BEVs, but I’m also not convinced it is bad news. BEVs face greater barriers than HEVs or PHEVs. Right or wrong, a stigma has been created about range anxiety, there’s not enough workplace charging infrastructure out there yet, some manufacturers aren’t doing the best job marketing their BEVs, consumers in key markets are having a hard time getting access to low electricity rates for nighttime charging, and costs still need to come down further. And if that were not enough, there has been negative publicity driven by politics, limited vehicle availability from some automakers, and a tough economy.

At the end of the day, I’d say that BEVs are just getting warmed up but they need more help to thrive.

Plug-ins are doing well, but don’t be blinded by unrealistic hype

Overall these numbers are encouraging. A near tripling in plug-in EV sales means a lot more batteries are being made, which will help drive down costs and/or allow for greater range. (There are already rumors of a 2013 Leaf with either longer ranger or lower cost.) The increased sales also mean that many more people are saving money on gas while becoming familiar with this new technology, an essential step to transition EVs from the early adopter market to the mainstream.

But I have to close with an important caveat. Despite the time I took to put these numbers together, I want to encourage you not to read too much into any of them.

Realistically, it is going to take at least a decade (and possibly more) for the plug-in market to shake out. I’d consider a national EV sales share of 5 percent in 10 years to be a huge success, but from all the excitement that surrounds the launch of a new EV, you’d think that was a pittance.

The real problem may be that automakers and others tend to hype new EV products by predicting revolutionary sales, when we should instead set the more realistic expectation that this is about market evolution.

So, what do you think? Do these numbers tell YOU anything about plug-ins? And what needs to be done to help this important technology become a success?

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  • “[S]ome manufacturers aren’t doing the best job marketing their BEVs.” That’s an understatement!

    Is any car company doing a good job of marketing BEVs? So far, I haven’t seen a single ad that explains why Leaf owners, like Volt owners, have among the highest satisfaction levels of any car on the market. Electric cars are fun to drive, convenient to fuel, and cheap to operate.

    An electric drivetrain offers a level of smooth, instant acceleration and quiet ride that can’t be found in any gas car, much less one comparably priced. It’s surprising how much fun it is to drive past a gas station and not even look at the prices. It so much more convenient to just plug in at home. Owners who do the math realize driving an electric car is like being able to buy gas for under a dollar per gallon.

    If the car companies were doing a good job of showing customers how great these cars are, they’d be selling like mad.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Tom. I remember one of the big complaints about automakers in the ’90s was that their ads were so bad it was almost as if they were trying to stifle the market.

      I remember the great Leaf ads with gasoline engines running everything but I’ve also seen some duds.

      Your comment makes me wonder, perhaps we need to start having a competition over which automaker has the best electric vehicle ad and which has the worst!

      I’m just starting out on twitter (, so I think I may post that question there just to see if there are any thoughts. If any of you reading this are on twitter, please join me there or add your thoughts on ads below.

  • David,

    Thank you for introducing data into the insanity. In addition to your well stated adoption facts comparing the current EV ramp to other popular cars like the Prius, the EV is tracking well with other technology adoption like computers and the internet. If anyone does not believe that electric drivetrains are the future of the automobile industry, they need to look where so much of the strategic investment of time and dollars of the auto industry is going…or just talk to an auto executive.

    James Billmaier

  • Great article, David.

    Two more notes about the declining Leaf sales. One is that they are doing great overseas; but Nissan doesn’t seem to be pushing them hard in the US. It could well be that they are waiting for the 2013 models to start rolling out of Tennessee. The other is that rumors (like the one you pointed out) of improvements to the 2013 Leaf are bound to depress 2012 Leaf sales.

    I think the major reason sales are not higher than they are is simple perception. Most Americans have not even SEEN a modern plug-in electric vehicle, so all they have to go on is perceptions. They think they are no fun to drive, they think they are very expensive, and they think they are terribly inconvenient because you spend a lot of time waiting around for a charge.

    These perceptions are all incorrect. Electric powertrains vastly improve a car: better throttle response, traction control, low-end torque, quietness and smoothness. If you include incentives, maintenance and fuel costs, they are already cheaper to own than gas cars of similar size and performance. And between PHEVs and multi-car families, nobody ever has to wait for a charge.

    These misperceptions will disappear as the number of plug-ins increases, and more people get to see them first hand and ask questions of owners. In the meantime, anybody interested in seeing the market take off quickly would do well to encourage ride-and-drive events where consumers can try out the cars and talk to owners.

    • Thanks Chad. Ride-and-drives are good ways to get experience with EVs. I also think it would be great if more car sharing and rental car companies had them so a lot more people could try them out. When I get a rental, it is usually for around town in a city without transit, which would be perfect for an EV.

  • Willis

    I think this is exciting news for the coal industry. Every time you plug in your electric car a coal-fired generating station somewhere on the grid responds with a nice big puff of smoke.

    These plug in cars are the perfect NIMBY accessory — they merely shift air pollution from your backyard into mine if I live downwind from a generating station. Until you can fully charge them from sunlight at your home they are no solution at all, they are merely an reconfiguration of the problem. And don’t bore me with wishful explanations of how your car draws current only from some windmill on some remote mountaintop somewhere. Coal still generates the lion’s share of our electricity. And the lamb’s share too.

    • Thanks for your comment Willis, but the data do not back up your assertion.

      We’ve done some great work on the question over how clean electric cars are NOW and in the future when it comes to global warming pollution. You can read more about our State of Charge report here.

      Even with today’s grid, an EV is better than the average car on global warming. Even better, nearly half of American’s live in regions where charging an EV on the grid emits less global warming pollution that driving even the best hybrids.

      And in the future,that number will rise to 70 percent of Americans just based on current plans. If you add in a serious push for more renewable electricity, like in Michigan, it will only get better.

    • Jay Hennigan

      Many EV owners, including myself, also have rooftop solar. I power my house and over 90% of my driving on nothing more than daylight. The icing on the cake is that I have no electric bill at all, and get regular checks from Edison for the excess power I supply to the grid.

      Electric rates are highest when the sun is shining. That’s when no one is home using appliances and the Volt is on the road or at work, and that’s when I generate far more power than I use.

      At night, I come home and turn on the lights, watch TV, wash the dishes, and the like. Electric rates are much lower.

      After midnight, the car charger kicks in when the rates are cheapest and I’m topped off and ready to roll before the sun comes up.

      I sell power to the utility at the highest rates and buy it back at the lowest. Not only does this benefit me, it benefits the utility by smoothing out the demand curve. They don’t need to fire up any more capacity during peak load, and at night there is plenty of capacity for my needs.

  • Gloria Kuhn

    What do i think re: these figures? People need to feel they are getting a good price and perhaps the companies need incentives to push more on these vehicles. I think if our government helped the cost come down with rebates, perhaps to both the car co’s and customers we’d see real movement here. And i think our gov’t officials have become so beholden to oil/gas interests that that won’t happen. Hope i’m wrong.