Admit it, you’re wavering. High gas prices — up 90 cents a gallon since January — are driving you nuts, forcing you to think twice before getting behind the wheel, and finally getting serious about buying an electric car. You’re not alone, because it’s bad out there.
Believe it or not, a majority of consumers around the world (60 percent) would now consider buying an electric car for their next purchase, says a new Accenture survey. Within three years, 68 percent said they’d consider it.
In an AP poll, 71 percent of U.S. consumers say they’ve experienced “some hardship” from high gas prices, and 41 percent ratchet up to “serious” hardship. Families with annual income above $50,000 a year aren’t much better off — 63 percent of them are worried about paying the piper at the pump.
Gas prices may not stay at $4 a gallon average. The Oil Price Information service predicts a drop of as much as 40 cents over the next month. Past experience shows that people go back to their gas guzzlers when prices ease, but I don’t think that’s what we’re going to see here. After both 2008 and 2011, Americans are stuck in permanent worry mode. You know that “fool me once” thing?
So far this hasn’t set electric car sales alight. People are worried about money, remember, and electric vehicles are expensive. In March, General Motors sold 608 $40,000 Chevrolet Volts, which is up sharply but still tiny compared to the 18,018 Cruzes the Chevrolet division sold in the same period. But the supply of Volts and $32,000 Nissan Leafs (298 sold in March) is still quite constrained by the Japanese earthquake and ramping-up production volumes. But GM is ramping up the Volt’s Detroit-Hamtramck factory to produce up to 60,000 annually (from 16,000 in 2011) — and that’s because of rising demand. The outflow from the plant will slow for a while, because retooling will close it for a month starting in June.
I’m dubious about most electric vehicle sales projections, especially the long-term ones, because there are so many factors, from technological innovation to gas prices, that affect what happens. But for what it’s worth, the Advanced Automotive Batteries “insider report” foresees sales of 280,000 cars in 2015 — half battery electrics and half plug-in hybrids. By 2020, it expects those numbers to grow hugely, to 500,000 battery electrics and 750,000 plug-in hybrids. EV batteries will become an $11 billion business by 2020.
Those aren’t bad numbers, but consider that the global auto market is likely to be 85 million cars by 2020, so we’d still only be making a dent. Other observers are far more optimistic. Shai Agassi of Better Place doesn’t even think we’ll be selling gas cars by 2020. I don’t go nearly that far — there will still be plenty of them in showrooms.
The bottom line is that gas prices will fluctuate, but the general trend is upward, and as electric cars establish themselves in the marketplace (and the charging network expands), they’ll increasingly become viable options for hard-pressed consumers trying to make ends meet.
By the way, battery cars and plug-in hybrids aren't the only green plays out there. I'm just back from a hydrogen conference in Canada, where I heard manufacturer after manufacturer outline plans to put hundreds of thousands of fuel-cell cars on the road in 2015 and soon after. Hyundai, Toyota, Honda and Daimler are all on board. I was able to get close to a Mercedes B-Class F-Cell in Vancouver, and this is what it looks like on video: