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Nissan Leaf credit: extremetech,com

Nissan Leaf
credit: extremetech,com

My last contribution to the SMM electric vehicle archive was “Electric Vehicles: Surprises and Good Wishes” back on September 3, 2014. Since then, relatively little has been happening in the EV world. Whatever initial buzz the Obama Administration, GM and willing media outlets were able to stir up about the Chevy Volt has long since faded into the background noise of interminable Obamite scandals. Sales of EVs remain sluggish at best. Here are sales figures for the most common EVs, according to Green Car Reports on 10-03-2014: 

With U.S. sales of plug-in electric cars now averaging more than 10,000 vehicles each month, September sales achieved that mark but fell short of the sizzling pace of the last two months.

Sales of the Nissan Leaf totaled 2,881 last month, bringing year-to-date deliveries to 21,882.

That’s almost a 50-percent increase over last September’s sales of 1,953, and it marks the Leaf’s 19th consecutive month of year-over-year increases.

The Leaf is by far the world’s best-selling plug-in car. Just under 64,000 Leafs have been sold in the U.S. since the battery-electric hatchback went on sale in December 2010.

The Chevrolet Volt, on the other hand, logged deliveries of just 1,394–its lowest volume since February–and lower than the previous September’s 1,766. The total sales through September are 14,540.

That brings the range-extended electric car’s total sales to 69,092 since it went on sale the same month as the Leaf. 

Gee, that sounds pretty optimistic, pretty good, doesn’t it? Not so much. Consider these sales figures (circa April, 2014) for conventional, high mileage vehicles that cost much less that the Volt, and many that beat the Leaf:

Toyota Camry: 38,009

Toyota Corolla/Matrix: 29,061

Honda Civic: 27,611

Chevy Cruze: 21,572

Ford Focus: 19,104

So, if the Leaf maintains its September, 2014 sales pace, that’s about 34,572 per year. If the Volt maintains its September, 2014 pace, that’s 16,728 per year, give or take. Compare that with the Camry at 456,108 per year, or the Focus at 229,242 per year. Of course none of these figures will be perfectly accurate. Most likely, they’ll all be lower when the hard 2014 figures are available, but they do provide a reasonable basis for comparison. As I noted in the last article, GM has admitted it doesn’t make a cent on the Volt, but has never admitted how much it loses. Surely, GM bean counters know that depressing figure.

2015 Chevrolet Volt credit: en.wikipedia.com

2015 Chevrolet Volt
credit: en.wikipedia.com

The LA Times is not optimistic:

Electric car sales are not charging the marketplace. A new study by online automotive research company Edmunds.com suggests the segment may have run out of gas.

Sales of electric drive vehicles are stuck at about 3.6% of all new car sales for 2014, Edmunds senior analyst Jessica Caldwell said.

That’s below the 3.7% market share for 2013, and it’s not likely to grow any before the end of the year. [skip]

‘The whole automobile market has grown,’ Caldwell said. ‘We’re not seeing electric vehicles as part of that growth.’

The numbers are surprising, Caldwell said, to automobile forecasters. Five years ago, analysts thought that electric vehicle sales would continue to expand as more manufacturers put more electric vehicles on the road and as the vehicles’ cost came down.

That hasn’t happened. Electric vehicle sales have slowed while prices have come down and dealers have been offering increasingly better deals on financing and incentives. [skip]

Buyers are looking at the higher average price of electric vehicles, Caldwell said, and deciding that ‘the math doesn’t really work out.

It’s interesting that industry analysts are finally coming to this conclusion. I’ve been reporting it since I began writing on EVs; the math really doesn’t add up. Most Americans will never recover the difference in purchase price by means of fuel savings. EVs tend to be purchased by people that can afford conventional vehicles and a novelty vehicle as well. Autoblog.com piles on: 

Is a down market the ‘new normal’ for US green-car vehicle sales? That’s what analysts and advanced-powertrain advocates may be asking after green-car sales turned in their third straight down month in August.

Not even record sales of the Nissan Leaf battery-electric could save things, as Americans cut their purchases of hybrids, plug-ins and diesels by about 11 percent last month compared to 2013 figures. And while not all sales numbers are in (Daimler’s Smart division hadn’t submitted its detailed green vehicle sales numbers as of press time, and Tesla Motors doesn’t break out monthly sales of its all-electric Model S), tracked sales in August were down by almost 8,300 units to about 64,500 green vehicles sold. With such tepid August numbers, year-to-date green-car sales are down about five percent to about 430,000 units, not including Tesla.

‘Everyone reasonably assumes that the electric drive market will continue to grow incrementally, but we’re just not seeing any growth this year,’ said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst with Edmunds.com. ‘Stable gas prices likely have a lot to do with it, but there’s also the possibility that the prestige of owning an EV or hybrid has died down, especially as new generations of traditional gas guzzlers transform into fuel sippers. And as summer months wind down, we’re approaching a time of the year when sales of these vehicles tend to be slower, so a late-year surge is not very likely.

Chevrolet Avalanche credit: enwikipedia.com

Chevrolet Avalanche
credit: enwikipedia.com

What does this mean? EV sales are at levels lower than those that would cause any rational manufacturer to stop production. An obvious example is the Chevy Avalanche, canceled when it was selling more units per year (about 20,000) than the Volt. Profit is obviously not the driving force behind EVs. Manufacturers sometimes produce vehicles for reasons of prestige, or as technology test beds, but the limitations of battery technology are well known and no stunning breakthroughs are on the horizon. The only way to increase EV range otherwise is by lightening the vehicle or making it more aerodynamic. Lightening can only go so far before it’s impossible to meet minimal safety standards, and aerodynamic improvements can account for only small increases in mileage.

Chevrolet Bolt Concept Car credit: engadget.com

Chevrolet Bolt Concept Car
credit: engadget.com

Even so, Chevrolet is planning to introduce the Chevy Bolt. 

No, I’m not kidding. The Bolt. There’s marketing genius. Why not the “Nut,” the “Nail,” or the “Pop Rivet?” GM is claiming it will have a 200-mile range and cost less than $30,000. Of course, in GM-speak, that probably means $29,999.99 or thereabouts for a car that will have to be even smaller and less flexible–judging by the concept car–than the Volt. The photos available of that vehicle suggest it will resemble the Nissan Leaf in size and configuration.

GM product development chief, Mark Reuss, did his part to persuade the public that GM will produce the Tesla-killing Bolt in the near future. Reuss says that GM ‘has the technology’ to build the car in 18 to 24 months. As if that reassurance wasn’t enough to please GM shareholders, Reuters reports that Reuss claims the Bolt ‘could be profitable.’

It is great news that GM is considering building cars that ‘could be profitable.’ Unfortunately, the potential profitability will again come from the use of smoke and mirrors along with taxpayer funding. Reuss points to the use of emission credits generated under clean air regulations as being the key to profitability for the new Bolt. Under current tax code, each vehicle sold will also be subsidized by a $7,500 federal tax credit, plus state credits.

Consider, gentle readers, that GM is finally admitting that the Volt is unprofitable, and is now planning to build an EV that “could be profitable.” Were I a GM stockholder, I would find this less then comforting. But none of this is news.

Meanwhile, the inescapable failings of EVs continue to be confirmed, and in many cases, EV drivers don’t care. Consider these vignettes from The Guardian: 

Steve O’Neil of Brevard, NC, purchased a lightly-used Nissan LEAF a little more than a year ago, and loves the sense of community that comes along with owning an electric vehicle. Regional and online clubs have allowed him and other electric vehicle owners to connect, and work towards common goals like increasing the availability of charging stations.

‘We are all green-minded folks working to make a difference in energy and electric vehicles in general,’ he says.

O’Neil plugs his Leaf into a standard outlet each evening, and does considerable research to find charging stations, which suggests that the nightly charge is usually not enough. With about a 30-mile range, that’s hardly surprising. Even if manufacturers were ever to reduce EV prices to close to that of comparable conventional cars, all of the drawbacks of EVs–particularly limited range and charging time and availability–would still remain. Here’s Martin Maitner’s experience:

Maitner drives close to 100 miles each week in his Nissan LEAF, but also enjoys taking it on extended range trips. Soon he’ll embark on a trip that is nearly 140 miles in each direction, meaning he will need to stop mid-way to charge. But Maitner doesn’t mind – he views the time required to stop and charge as an opportunity to further relax, usually over a meal, and the smaller environmental footprint of electric vehicle ownership is ultimately what’s most important to him, anyway.

‘It makes me feel like I can make a positive impact in the world,’ he says. ‘There are so many things we all can feel helpless and hopeless about, but this is one way I can help leave this pale blue dot in better shape for future generations.’

Like O’Neil, Maitner charges his vehicle in his garage each evening, using a 240-volt charging dock.

‘I try to charge in the middle of the night since the electricity generated at those hours is generally not used any other way,’ he says. ‘So I think of it that I am driving on electrons which would have been generated and wasted.

Maitner glosses over one of the primary reasons EVs will never become mainstream: lack of range and charging time. Maitner obviously has the leisure to take many hours recharging his vehicle in the middle of a commute or short trip—140 miles—but most people don’t have the time or the patience. Note also that Maitner considers 140 miles an “extended range trip.” For many Americans, that’s a daily commute. Consider Steve Marsh:

After driving an electric vehicle for more than three years, Seattle-area resident Steve Marsh is better versed in Nissan LEAF ownership than most. He first purchased a Nissan LEAF during the initial rollout in 2011 and enjoyed the experience so much that he just bought another this year.

Marsh has had to learn to plan ahead a bit when heading out on the road, but otherwise his experience with Nissan LEAF ownership has been nearly seamless.

“You can’t go off in one direction and then add a bunch of things,” he says. ‘Generally there has to be a plan. [skip]

With a round-trip commute of more than 130 miles each day, Marsh uses level-2 charging stations at home and work, and stops at a level-3 quick charging station during his commute. The winter commute is more challenging. Marsh chooses not to use the heater because it consumes too much power, and instead dons a battery-powered jacket for warmth, and cracks the windows to avoid fogging.

But Marsh clearly isn’t bothered too much by the chillier commute, as evidenced by the 127,000 miles he has driven in his Nissan LEAF. The car’s charge doesn’t last as long as it once did, but he’s still saving money and he’s still happy.

Mr. Marsh outlines other difficulties with EVs: lack of flexibility, battery fade and poor heater performance. None of these vignettes mention whether the happy EV owners also have conventional vehicles, but it’s clear that in order to be a happy EV owner, one must be willing to cheerfully forego much of the convenience and efficiency—and heat in winter–taken for granted by the rest of the motoring public. None of this is surprising.

But aren’t EVs so much better for the environment? O’Neal, Maitner and Marsh obviously think so. Unfortunately, environmentalist wishes don’t well comport with reality:

As if plunging gas prices alone do not call into question GM’s focus on electric vehicles, a new study, reported on by CBSNews.com, concludes that gas-powered vehicles are actually cleaner than plug-in electric vehicles. Attributing to that is the fact that 39% of the US power plants run on coal. Production of the lithium-ion batteries adds to the footprint of the supposedly green electric cars; a footprint that is not as clean as advocates of cars like the Chevy Bolt would like to believe. From that article:

‘It’s kind of hard to beat gasoline’ for public and environmental health, said study co-author Julian Marshall, an engineering professor at the University of Minnesota. ‘A lot of the technologies that we think of as being clean … are not better than gasoline.’

The key is the source of the electricity all-electric cars. If it comes from coal, the electric cars produce 3.6 times more soot and smog deaths than those powered by gas, because of the pollution made in generating the electricity, according to the study that is published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). They also are greater producers of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that worsens global warming, it found.

The PNAS study examines environmental costs for cars’ entire life cycle, including where power comes from and the environmental effects of building batteries.

‘Unfortunately, when a wire is connected to an electric vehicle at one end and a coal-fired power plant at the other end, the environmental consequences are worse than driving a normal gasoline-powered car,’ said Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who wasn’t part of the study but praised it…

…The study finds all-electric vehicles cause 86 percent more deaths from air pollution than do cars powered by regular gasoline. Coal produces 39 percent of the country’s electricity, according to the Department of Energy.

So, there you have it; GM will continue to focus on building electric cars that apparently do nothing to help the environment while shareholders and taxpayers foot the bill. Past attempts by GM to fool the public and investors into thinking they have ‘game changing’ green vehicles that have mass-market appeal have proven to be bogus. The media falls for the ploy every time by hyping cars like the Volt, electric Spark, Cadillac ELR and now the Chevy Bolt. That sounds like the definition of insanity.

But GM is not done with the Volt, oh no. They’re making it better in every way, according to Green Auto Blog: 

Perhaps most importantly, the new Volt is going to have better “fuel economy and efficiency,” according to GM executive vice president Mark Reuss. The current Volt gets 98 MPGe and 37 miles per gallon on premium fuel. It also has a 38-mile electric-only range. We don’t know how GM will improve the efficiency or to what degree, but the logical options include making the car lighter, giving it better aerodynamics and/or improving the powertrain. To that end, one of the big things we don’t know for sure includes information on the new gas-powered engine. Forbes says it will be a downsized 1.0-liter, three-cylinder mill instead of the 1.4-liter, four-cylinder used in the current model, which could certainly help the car be more efficient. The new Volt is also going to have more technology, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

GM is now openly talking about how it will change the way it markets the Volt, shifting away from the mass-market mentality to focus on the regions where the car is already popular. ‘There’s a Northeast and West Coast market for Volt, and there’s nothing wrong with that,’ Chevy chief marketing officer Tim Mahoney told Forbes.

Well, sure. Why would a car manufacturer want to pursue a “mass-market mentality” in marketing its products? Why, that could lead to profits, which as we all know, are bad. And when the federal government is standing by to bail you out—as well as dictate manufacturing decisions—why be concerned with such outdated capitalistic notions?

In the meantime, meantime, remember how Mr. Obama promised he’d buy a Volt when he left office? I wouldn’t be holding my breath waiting for that one; it has long been clear that every Obama promise has an expiration date. I suspect that one expired before the words ran out of gas and hit the ground at his feet. And what of his goal of having a million EVs on the road by 2015? Unfortunately for Mr. Obama and his greenie allies, the public still has some choice in their car purchasing decisions. CNS News reports:

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama predicted that the U.S. would have ‘a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.’

The president backed up his prediction with $2.4 billion in federal grants to companies producing lithium-ion batteries for plug-in cars.

But reality hasn’t even come close.

Despite massive federal spending on electric vehicles, which is expected to total $7.9 billion through 2019, there are currently just 286,390 plug-in vehicles on the nation’s roads today, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA).

That’s 72 percent lower than the million electric vehicles the president predicted four years ago. And with gasoline prices now averaging $2.06 per gallon, the lowest they’ve been since April 2009, that percentage is not likely to change any time soon.

Despite steep discounts, manufacturers’ rebates, federal and state tax credits, and even special utility rates in some areas, plug-in electric vehicles accounted for just 3.5 percent of the more than 16.4 million light vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2014, according to EDTA.

Most of the 118,773 plug-in electric vehicles sold in the U.S. last year were in California, which has one of the strictest emissions standards in the nation, but which also provides state rebates up to $2,500 for all-electric vehicles and $1,500 for gas/electric hybrids, EDTA reported.

With the exception of the all-electric Tesla Model S, which lost market share, total sales of electric plug-in vehicles increased 35 percent last year. But they were eclipsed tenfold by just the three top-selling combustible engine vehicles in America – all pickup trucks – which alone accounted for 1.7 million in sales in 2014.

I particularly enjoy the irony of the last paragraph, don’t you?

This article will no doubt provoke outrage among the EV true believers, as does every article I write on this topic, but the facts of physics, and of life in the real world, continue to make widespread use of EVs impractical for most Americans. As I always note, if you like EVs and can afford them, bless your heart, buy one for each day of the week and change them like underwear. However, since my tax dollars are continuing to subsidize your motoring choices, I’ll continue to have something to say about this topic.

It is clear that whatever buzz the Volt and other EVs generated has dissolved in a morass of wasted taxpayer millions, broken promises, technology that didn’t live up to its promise, and the realities of physics vs. greenie unicorn wishes. Perhaps Nissan is making a buck or two on the Leaf, but the Volt has been a total loss for GM and its shareholders. When Barack Obama is out of office, and particularly if federal and state EV subsidies are withdrawn, the forces of the market will once again rule, and except for the very wealthy that can afford expensive toys, EVs will, for the most part, become a historical footnote.  Absent incredible and improbable leaps in technology, civilization runs on fossil fuels and will for the foreseeable future.