There’s an Emerging Electric Vehicle Market—But Some Automakers Are Lagging Behind

Manufacturer Reluctance to Offer Electric Models Nationwide a Barrier to Adoption

Published Aug 24, 2016

Washington (August 24, 2016)—Drivers looking to take advantage of the many benefits of driving electric are up against a real barrier: automakers just aren’t bringing enough electric vehicles to market. That’s the finding of a new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). While automakers vary widely in terms of how many electric vehicle models they offer and where they sell them, all automakers could be doing more to take full advantage of the potential EV market, especially outside of California.

The new study, “Electrifying the Vehicle Market: Evaluating Automaker Leaders and Laggards in the United States,” evaluates efforts by major automakers to bring plug-in vehicles to markets across the Northeast and West Coast by examining sales, model offerings, and availability on dealer lots. More than half of U.S. electric vehicle sales are in California, with 22 models available in 2015, but in other states, most EV models are difficult to find, or not available at all.

“You can’t buy a car you can’t find,” said David Reichmuth, a vehicles engineer at UCS and the lead author of the study. “One of the biggest barriers to EV adoption is that too many automakers fail to make electric options available. The future is electric, but when automakers don’t put effort into building and selling these cars, they’re missing out on an evolving market.”

BMW, GM, Nissan and Tesla are doing better at making electric options available, with the largest percentage of plug-in sales and strongest effort to make vehicles available nationwide . In 2015, BMW was second only to Tesla (which only sells plug-in vehicles); plug-ins made up 3% of its nationwide vehicle sales, and 7% of sales in California. GM and Nissan were early leaders in the market with the Volt and LEAF the top selling plug-in hybrid and battery electric models since 2010.

Automakers behind the curve include Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai/Kia and Honda, who have been slower to bring plug-in vehicles to market, or have limited vehicle production or availability. Toyota had some success with a plug-in version of its popular Prius model, but currently has no plug-in vehicle on the market. Fiat Chrysler has had success in selling its 500e plug-in model in Oregon and California, but does not offer the vehicle for sale in other markets. And Honda has only offered plug-in models in limited numbers over the past several years, with sales since 2011 lower than GM’s EV sales in a single month.   

While most automakers focus on the market for electric vehicles in California, consumers in the Northeast are missing out, with fewer models to choose from and fewer vehicles available on the lot.   Even when plug-in models are available in markets outside California, finding one at a dealership can be a challenge. For example, in the first 6 months of 2016, showed on average more than 2,800 electric vehicles for sale in the Oakland/San Francisco area, but only 317 in the Boston area.

A recent UCS and Consumers Union survey of driving habits and requirements indicated that the electric vehicle technology of today can meet the needs of millions of drivers. The survey found that more than 40 percent of drivers in both California and the Northeast could use an electric vehicle today without changing their driving habits. A strong majority of respondents expressed interest in electric vehicles and want manufacturers to offer more electric models. The survey also found that over 85% of consumers would not buy a vehicle without test driving it.

Research by UCS experts shows that electric vehicles produce less than half the global warming emissions of comparable gasoline vehicles.

“Electric vehicles have real potential, but they can’t succeed if automakers don’t give customers the opportunity to test drive and buy them,” said Don Anair, research and deputy director for the Clean Vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “State and federal policies are helping drive the EV market forward, but automakers are in the best position to help Americans access the benefits of driving electric vehicles.”