Sales of plug-in hybrids tumbled to nearly half their level from September and October.
The optimist would be likely to note that sales of the Chevrolet Volt were up 30 percent in November, at least when compared with year-ago numbers. But pessimists, of which there are many, would be more likely to point out that sales of the plug-in hybrid tumbled to nearly half their level from September and October.
The Volt was toppled from its throne as the nation's top-selling electric car by both the Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius Plug-In. But even those vehicles slipped a bit during what was otherwise the best month the US auto industry has had, overall, since March of 2008.
There's no question that demand for battery-based vehicles has increased this year, but here again it's a case of half-empty or half-full. Most products have fallen well short of expectations. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has already acknowledged Leaf will miss its 2012 target and Volt will be lucky to get halfway to its original US goal of 45,000. For its part, Mitsubishi had hoped to nail down 20,000 units of its tiny i electric car this year, but it has only sold in the hundreds, not thousands.
"2012 wasn't a year that has convinced anyone these cars will be a success," acknowledges Terry O'Day, director of California business development for eVgo, a Texas-based firm hoping to set up a network of high-speed chargers that could help spur demand. On the other hand, should battery cars be written off, as former GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney argued when he declared Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive "losers"?
Despite the fear of being accused of equivocation, I'm tempted to waffle here and suggest, "Only time will tell." The reality is that it really is too early to write electric propulsion technology off. In fact, proponents will be quick to tell you that advanced battery vehicles – pure electrics like Leaf and plug-ins like Volt – are still selling more quickly than the first gas-electric hybrids, the original generation Toyota Prius and Honda Insight did a dozen years ago.
For those who subscribed to the Field of Dreams mantra, "If you build it, they will come," welcome to reality.
But for those who subscribed to the Field of Dreams mantra, "If you build it, they will come," well, welcome to reality. It's likely to be a long, hard slog
And one significant reason is that today's conventional automotive technology is just getting so much better than ever. "Most technologies will achieve their most significant breakthroughs when they are threatened by a new paradigm," Dr. David Cole, director-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, is quick to point out.
Perhaps nowhere is that more true than with the internal combustion engine. That was underscored by the fact that two of the five finalists for the Green Car of the Year relied on pure gasoline power – the Dodge Dart and the Mazda CX-5. The ultimate winner, the 2013 Ford Fusion, was chosen in large part because of the wide range of options it offers consumers, from its most basic inline-four to the 95 MPGe Fusion Energi plug-in. In between are two EcoBoost offerings which use such advanced features as direct injection and turbocharging to yield the once seemingly impossible combination of better performance and improved mileage.
It wasn't all that long ago that manufacturers screamed about the old 27 mpg CAFE numbers.
It wasn't all that long ago that manufacturers kicked and screamed about meeting the old 27 mile per gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy numbers, and one of the Obama Administration's first big efforts focused on winning support for boosting that to 37.5 mpg by 2016. As a story we recently ran on TheDetroitBureau.com suggested, 40 is now the new 30. In the small to midsize segments, manufacturers are quickly getting up to fuel economy levels that once seemed impossible. Once, as in perhaps five years ago.Of course, it helps to take other critical steps. Improved aerodynamics can add several miles per gallon to a vehicle's combined EPA rating. So can low rolling resistance tires. Add in the latest seven, eight, and nine-speed gearboxes, and such nifty little technologies as stop/start which shuts off your engine rather than idling then automatically starts it up when you lift your foot off the brake.
The bottom line is, well, the bottom line. The Fusion with a 1.6-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder gets a combined 29 mpg compared with 47 for the Fusion Hybrid. For a motorist doing a typical 12,000 miles a year, the EcoBoost will suck down just over 400 gallons. At $4.00/gallon, that works out to around $1,655 annually. For the hybrid the variables are 255 gallons and $1,020. Yes, that's a $635 savings, but it's one that doesn't look quite as beckoning when you pencil in the $6,700 price differential.
And a little understanding of math reveals that the better the conventional model does, the harder it becomes to make the case for battery power – even if the hybrid gap remains the same. A 40 mpg rating for a gas-powered compact would work out to 300 gallons a year, or $1,200. At 60 mpg, a hybrid would still use 200 gallons, so the savings would be just $400.
The better the conventional model does, the harder it becomes to make the case for battery power.
There are those who simply want to ban the gas pump from their lives and for them, the equation has to include the benefits of thumbing your nose at OPEC and doing just a little more to resist global warming. (We'll save the debate over coal-fired electric power for another column.)
The ultimate question is how far can conventional gas – or diesel – technology go? Can we reach the 2025 goal of 54.5 mpg without forcing everyone into vehicles the size of a European Volkswagen Up!?
The answer is likely no, not if we want to have the range of choice – at least when it comes to maintaining anything close to the vehicle size and functionality offered motorists today. Some form of battery assistance, at the very least, seems probably on a wide range of products a decade from now.
Of course, the equation shifts dramatically if the Department of Energy can meet its so-called "555" goal, a fivefold improvement in battery energy density and a fivefold reduction in price over the next five years.
We're a nation that has delivered on the seemingly impossible before, from moon shots to 40 mpg gas-powered sedans. So, perhaps, a few years from now buyers will find that battery cars are a bargain. Until then, they're likely to remain a hard sell.