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Will 2013 Be the Year of the Electric Car?

Published: January 7, 2013 | 6:59 am
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The Hague —Last year was a good one for electric and plug-in hybrid cars, according to 2012 sales figures and experts.

For example, sales of the Chevrolet Volt, one of North America’s most popular plug-in hybrid cars, tripled in the United States, according to year-end figures.

The 23,461 Volts sold last year represented only about a third of a percent of all new passenger cars sold in the United States, but such sales might be the harbingers of an automobile market shift toward green vehicles.

A new market study estimates annual global sales of 3.8 million electric or plug-in hybrid cars by 2020. The study, released by Pike Research last week, estimates that sales of plug-in cars will grow by 40 percent annually. During that same period, general car sales will grow by 2 percent, according to the research firm. In a press statement, Dave Hurst, the author of the study wrote:

Chevrolet Volt owners plug-in their vehicles on Sept. 22 at Serra Chevrolet in Southfield, Michigan.

“Sales of EVs have not lived up to automakers’ expectations and politicians’ proclamations, but the market is expanding steadily as fuel prices remain high and consumers increasingly seek alternatives to internal combustion engines.”

Plug-in cars, be they hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt, or all-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf (both of whose successes in the United States in 2012 were reviewed in this story by my colleague Bradley Berman), will contribute most of the growth, while non-plug in hybrids — now the most dominant force on the low-emission front — are expected to grow at 6 percent.

By 2020, there could be as many as 4.4 million all-electric vehicles on the world’s roads and another 3.4 million plug-in hybrid cars, predicts the report’s author.

Currently, all-electric vehicles make up only a sliver of the market, while substantially more drivers invest in hybrid cars. (Our report on fuel efficient vehicles last year explains the difference and the advantages of the competing technologies).

In the United States pure electric vehicles made up roughly 0.3 percent of cars sold in 2012, while hybrids or plug-in hybrids accounted for 3 percent, according to another market study. Here in Europe, electric cars are mostly seen as part of corporate fleets or city car sharing programs, like the Parisian “autolib” program.

Despite the fact that Europe is lagging behind the United States in plug-in cars on the road, the company predicts that by 2018 Germany will come in at third place for plug-in hybrid cars, after the United States and China. Japan, meanwhile, will dominate the non plug-in hybrid market, with almost half of all plug-in cars sold in that country.

In the United Kingdom the number of all-electric cars is expected to double in the coming year, according to one industry expert.

Ben Lane, the managing editor of nextgreencar.com, told the Guardian newspaper:

“The pricing is not yet quite right and the range is still not long enough. Very few people in 2012 were willing to pay a significant sum more for a car that still cannot do everything.”

There are other issues, too. A recent University of Indiana survey of 2,300 adult drivers in the United States, found that most were ignorant and apathetic about plug-in electric cars, as Bradley Burman reported for the Wheels blog some weeks ago.

Quoting John Graham, who designed the latest study, Bradley wrote:

“We found substantial factual misunderstandings of electric cars in our sample of 2,000,” Dr. Graham said. “In some cases, the misunderstandings would cause one to be more pessimistic about the vehicle than they should be. And in other cases, it would cause people to be more optimistic than they should be.”

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