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Car buyers shun electric vehicles not named Tesla. Are carmakers driving off a cliff?

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Automotive News

Regulators are demanding zero-emission vehicles. And manufacturers are scrambling to provide them, spending billions on electric-car development.

Ford says a third of its vehicles will be electric by 2030. Volkswagen plans to sell a million EVs annually just two years from now. At Volvo, half its offerings will be electric by 2025. By the end of this year, most major automakers will be offering at least one EV.

And buyers? So far, they're not on board -- especially those in the United States.

Despite the debut of 45 pure electric and plug-in hybrids in the United States last year, only 325,000 plug-in passenger vehicles were sold, down 6.8% from 349,000 in 2018. That is just 2% of the 17 million vehicles of all types sold in the United States in 2019. Numbers for California aren't available yet, but 112,961 EVs were sold in the first three quarters of 2019, up only 5.6% from the year-earlier period.

"The number of battery-electric models available more than doubled last year, but EV sales didn't budge much. That's troubling," said Mark Wakefield, who runs the automotive practice at consulting firm AlixPartners.

Troubling, because while carmakers finally turned serious about electric vehicles, going all in on new electric versions of best-selling SUVs, pickups and muscle cars -- consumers so far aren't playing along. That puts hundreds of billions of capital investment at risk.

 

Why the disconnect? "Manufacturers all over the world are trying to answer that question," said Eric Ibara, market analyst at Kelley Blue Book. There are several explanations:

--Range anxiety. Pure-electric cars generally get between 200 and 300 miles of range on a full charge, but charging stations are still relatively rare. Plug-in hybrids, which match shorter electric range with a gasoline engine, are meant to relieve range anxiety. But providing two energy sources is expensive and plug-in hybrids haven't been selling well.

--Cost. EVs cost thousands more than comparable conventional models. And U.S. subsidies are ending for some models, worsening the situation.

--Style. Tesla created an EV lifestyle brand. Everyone else is still trying to figure out whether buyers want electric versions of standard designs or something entirely new.

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