For Earth Day, Questions Loyalty of Electric Car Drivers

By · April 22, 2015

Shopping for a Nissan LEAF

Just in time for Earth Day, when media outlets are thirsty for stories about the environment, released data suggesting that electric car owners are ditching their battery-powered vehicles for gas-guzzling SUVs.

Lumping electric cars and hybrids into a single category, Edmunds said that only about 45 percent of this year’s hybrid and EV trade-ins have gone toward the purchase of another “alternative fuel vehicle.” That’s down from around 60 percent in 2012, and it represents the first time that loyalty rates for EVs and hybrids have fallen below 50 percent.

Edmunds mostly attributes the shift in loyalty to low gas prices, making for longer payback periods on the perceived higher cost of battery-powered cars. “Three years ago, when gas was at near-record highs, it was a lot easier to rationalize the price premiums on alternative fuel vehicles,” said Jessica Caldwell, director of analysis at Edmunds. “But with today's gas prices as low as they are, the math just doesn't make a very compelling case."

It’s not only that green car buyers aren’t remaining loyal to EVs and hybrids, according to Edmunds. Twenty-two percent of those green owners, according to the site, traded in a hybrid or electric for a SUV, when three years ago only 12 percent made that eco-unfriendly swap.

These slices of data would have readers believing that people who bought and leased EVs a few years ago made a sudden psychological U-turn as soon as gas got cheap. These fickle buyers, it is suggested, were ready to battle global warming a couple of years ago, but came to their senses and ditched their fuel-efficient battery-powered cars as soon as they realized that they could afford to fuel up a gas-guzzler. Does that jive with your experiences and observations?

Concerns about the environment just ain’t cool no more, according to Edmunds. “A big detractor for these vehicles is that they've moved into the mainstream, so they've lost that special appeal,” said Caldwell. “This doesn't necessarily feel like an early adopter segment like it once did, and losing that special quality decreases their appeal.” (It’s hard to explain how these cars are simultaneously a perpetual tiny niche and mainstream products.)

A More Nuanced Reality?

What Edmunds failed to analyze, and media coverage of the story fails to mention, is that the EV and hybrid market is comprised of a very small number of market-leading vehicles—such as the Chevy Volt, Nissan LEAF and Toyota Prius. Since the advent of hybrids, the Toyota Prius has represented more hybrid sales than all other gas-electric cars combined. The Chevy Volt has played the same leadership role for plug-in hybrids, just as the Nissan LEAF has for pure electric cars.

It turns out that all three of those cars are at the end of their product cycle, with new and improved models expected soon. Perhaps what the dip in EV sales indicates is that these “alternative” vehicles actually play by the same rules as all other cars—and need to be updated, improved and redesigned in order to earn sustained sales. It also reminds us that battery technology and charging infrastructure is in its infancy, with rapidly expanding capabilities expected with each new generation.

The 2016 version of the Chevy Volt is expected this summer. It will offer greater efficiency, more all-electric range, better performance, and a snazzier design. If Chevy backs up the introduction of this second-generation Volt with a major marketing effort, as promised, and sales remain flat, then maybe plug-in hybrids really are in trouble. If the next Nissan LEAF goes on sale next year, with a driving range of something like 150 to 200 miles—with abundant public quick-charging stations dotting the landscape—and sales don’t pick up, then maybe EVs are genuinely threatened by SUVs.

But on this Earth Day, and in the months to follow, let’s not pronounce the end of the greenest cars on the road, and a new golden era for SUVs, just to garner a few headlines and pick up a little extra web traffic.

New to EVs? Start here

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