Third time’s the charm — Why 2017 is the year the electric car goes mainstream
“After decades of ups and downs, 2017 should prove that the third time’s the charm for plug-ins and the Electric Car is definitely here to stay.” Article by Jose Pontes
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Having been a car aficionado since I’ve known myself, I had already read about electric cars during the ’90s, but found them only suitable for hardcore fans, given that for double the price of the regular gas car, the electric car had only 100 kilometres range and 100 kilometres maximum speed. I hadn’t given much thought to electric cars until one fine spring afternoon in 2002, when I had the chance to try a Citröen Berlingo Electric van, and then something clicked. Yes, the range was limited, but for small trips, like a work commute or to do the grocery shopping, it was more than enough, with the added plus that you could recharge it anywhere, as long you could find a socket.
The maximum speed didn’t make it highway suited, but for the urban environment, it was sufficient. Then, I found two virtues of electric cars I hadn’t read before: the instant torque and acceleration at low speeds. For a few seconds, it made the Berlingo van feel like a powerful hot hatch. While the absence of engine noise first felt strange at first, my mind quickly appreciated the added silence, making the driving experience much more serene. The shock came afterwards, when I returned to my diesel Fiat Uno, when I felt I had transitioned from an oasis of tranquility to an inferno of noise and vibrations.
From that moment on I became a fan of electric cars and believed that even then, in 2002, if prices were reduced by mass production, there would be a selling case for Electric Vehicles (EVs). Unfortunately, neither carmakers nor governments were willing to push these kinds of vehicles into the mainstream, as shown in the 2006 “Who Killed the Electric Car” documentary.
By then I discovered that electric cars had a long history which in fact predated gas cars by two years (the Elwell-Parker electric car started production in 1884). In the first years of the automobile at the turning of the century, EVs already had a Golden Age with a share in something like 38% of the US auto market. But after World War I, the price of gasoline came down, which together with an extended road infrastructure and mass-produced cars like the Ford Model T, allowed the cheaper gas cars to go faster and farther than in the past, effectively killing the business case for this first generation of electric cars.
After the failure of the 1990s EV revival, electric cars seemed to be put on ice for a long time, until in 2008 a little known start-up company called Tesla presented a two-seater sports car, the Roadster. At first it seemed like nothing more than a Lotus Elise conversion, but it was a real revolution in how people saw electric cars. Instead of being a slow, small range conversion of a regular car, this was a sexy, Ferrari-quick vehicle (0–60 mph was achieved in less than four seconds), with a range close to 400 kms, thanks to the use of lithium-ion battery cells, a first for a production car.
At US$109,000, it was expensive for the regular Joe, but comparing it to the equivalent Porsche, a 911 4S Cabriolet (US$104,000 at 0–60 mph in 4.7 seconds), you could argue it was playing in the same league.
The Roadster showed EVs the recipe for success with quick 0–60 mph acceleration, at least 300 kms real-world range and a competitive price. Dressed in a sexy outfit, making people associate Tesla with coolness, EVs finally started to get out of the tree-hugger appliance niche it had lived thus far.
After all, we all prefer to see a cool movie than do the house chores, right?
But the Third Age of the Electric Car only really started in 2011, when the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt started to be sold in the thousands, while in China BYD made their first steps into electro mobility with the F3 DM plug-in hybrid and the e6 full-electric models, seeing the Chinese company register their first 1,000 plug-ins that year.
Sure, these first models had little of the Tesla cool-factor, but nevertheless were important to give visibility to plug-ins and create economies of scale (the Nissan Leaf has already surpassed 250,000 units), with numbers jumping from 45,000 units in 2011 to 211,000 units two years after, and then to 539,000 in 2015.
In 2016 sales have reached nearly 800,000 units, with the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S running for the Best Seller trophy. However, the real breakthrough year is the one we are living now. The original concept shown by the Tesla Roadster will finally be available at affordable prices, thanks to new models (Chevrolet Bolt, Tesla Model 3), but the fast growth of plug-ins in China (over 350,000 units in 2016 — already the largest hub of EVs), means that this year plug-ins will surpass 1 million units by a wide margin, with the World PEV Market Share finally surpassing 1%, a number considered by many the “Point of No Return” for the success of plug-in vehicles.
Long story short, after decades of ups and downs, 2017 should prove that the third time’s the charm for plug-ins and the Electric Car is definitely here to stay.
Like my grandpa Manuel used to say: “If at first you don’t succeed…try, try and try again!”
Jose Pontes, EV-Volumes
Jose has been overviewing the sales evolution of plug-ins through the EV Sales blog since 2012, allowing him to gain an expert view on where EVs are right now, and where they are headed in the future. The EV Sales blog has become a go-to source for people interested in electric car sales around the world. Jose is now a partner at EV-Volumes.