Good News, Bad News Underlies Obama’s Failed EV Goal

Drew Winter, Contributing Editor

June 15, 2015

3 Min Read
Good News, Bad News Underlies Obama’s Failed EV Goal

Beginning as a candidate in 2008 and continuing to his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama promised 1 million battery-electric and plug-in hybrids would be on U.S. roads by 2015.

Since the beginning of the year, political opponents gleefully have pointed out he is going to miss the target by a mile, but the Obama Admin. has quietly acknowledged the fact since 2013.

According to WardsAuto data, 336,954 BEVs and PHEVs have been sold in the U.S. since 1997, not counting 3,676,097 HEVs. 

The good news is that automakers responded to federal incentives – and California’s stern zero-emissions vehicle sales mandate – by creating a highly desirable fleet of EVs and PHEVs. The head-turning Tesla Model S and BMW i8 are good enough to make hard-core petrol heads drool. The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are solid mainstream cars that are innovative, fun-to-drive and affordable (after federal and state incentives).The BMW i3 has some consumers scratching their heads, but almost 1,000 shoppers a month are reaching for their wallets.

Even the EVs dismissed by the environmental press as “compliance cars” because they are converted gasoline models are good. The Fiat 500e is a blast to drive and made our Ward’s 10 Best Engines list in 2014. The i3, Leaf and Volt also have made our list, as have several hybrids. The Model S and i8 probably would have too if they fit under our $60,000 price cap.

The bad news is that EVs, PHEVs and more conventional hybrid-electric vehicles are vastly underperforming sales expectations. Many EV companies have failed. Fisker, which made the gorgeous Karma PHEV, anticipated building 230,000 cars by 2015. Instead, it declared bankruptcy in 2013 after building less than 2,500.

But even strong companies with excellent products are struggling to sell BEVs, PHEVs, HEVs and diesels simply because consumers do not see the value when gasoline prices are low.

Federal and state incentives of up to $12,000, and special automaker deals that can bring lease payments below $100 per month for 36 months with as little as $1,000 down on BEVs such as the 500e, still don’t interest most buyers. EV market share is stagnating at 0.40% despite all the spiffs.

PHEV share, which includes fairly mainstream cars such as the Volt and plug-in versions of the Ford Fusion and Toyota Prius, sank to 0.23% through May from 0.34% at the end of 2014.

The conventional HEV segment, which includes almost 50 vehicles, from the standard Prius to numerous Lexus models, dropped to just 2.23% market share from 2.75% last year.

But even with the share of HEV, PHEV and diesel vehicles down from 2014, and consumers gobbling up CUVs and muscle cars, the average fuel economy of light vehicles sold between January and May has improved 1.2%.

While alternative powertrains may not be meeting consumer needs as well as hoped, conventional internal combustion engines have made huge strides. Downsizing and turbocharging, 7-, 8- and 9-speed transmissions, cylinder deactivation, gasoline direct injection, stop/start systems and other technologies are having a major impact on fuel efficiency and carbon-dioxide emissions while meeting consumer demands.

Perhaps the starkest example is Ford’s 3-cyl. 1.0L EcoBoost engine. The small turbo is a hit in Europe where it powers 20% of the vehicles Ford sells there. It also is a returning Ward’s 10 Best Engine this year in the ’14 Fiesta SE sold in the U.S. with a starting price of $15,450. It makes 123 hp and delivers 31/43 mpg (7.6-5.5 L/100 km) city/highway.

The Triumph Speed Triple is a mid-priced motorcycle that starts at $12,799. It has a naturally aspirated 1.0L 3-cyl. engine that makes 135 hp. The Fiesta weighs 2,537 lbs. (1,151 kg), and the motorcycle weighs 472 lbs. (214 kg), yet the bike’s fuel efficiency isn’t that much better at 34/50 mpg (6.9-4.7 L/100 km) city/highway.

In fact, the Fiesta actually gets better fuel economy than many motorcycles. Ford engineers used turbocharging, aerodynamics and smart engineering to create a motorcycle-sized engine that works amazingly well not only in cars but light trucks as well.

The Obama Admin. overestimated the potential of electric cars, but it also vastly underestimated how much conventional internal-combustion engines could improve.

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About the Author(s)

Drew Winter

Contributing Editor, WardsAuto

Drew Winter is a former longtime editor and analyst for Wards. He writes about a wide range of topics including emerging cockpit technology, new materials and supply chain business strategies. He also serves as a judge in both the Wards 10 Best Engines and Propulsion Systems awards and the Wards 10 Best Interiors & UX awards and as a juror for the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year awards.

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