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Buyers, electric cars slow to connect

By David Shepardson and Melissa Burden, The Detroit News
A Ferndale charging station goes unused. EVs account for a tiny part of the market.

Five years after automakers began introducing mainstream electric vehicles in significant numbers, the market is in need of a charge.

Electric vehicles, such as the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt, EV Nissan Leaf and electric Tesla Model S, captured the imagination of buyers who envision a world driving on electricity, cutting fuel use and reducing vehicle emissions. The vehicle launches sparked huge media attention and even a documentary, "Revenge of the Electric Car," that tracked their progress. Politicians touted them as the future of transportation.

But four years after the Volt went on sale in late 2010 to enormous fanfare, sales haven't met early optimistic predictions: While the idea of an electric car may be intriguing, most consumers aren't willing to pay the relatively high sticker price for an EV.

Falling gas prices have also dissuaded some buyers. And some continue to suffer from what the industry calls "range anxiety" — a fear they won't be able to find a recharging station and will run out of juice.

"(Electric vehicles are) getting tremendous competition from low gas prices and the tremendous improvements made in internal combustion engines," said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for "Consumers are saying, 'Why do I need to do the hybrid or electric car thing when I can get great fuel economy from a gasoline engine?' "

Automakers have spent billions to introduce the vehicles. They repeatedly cut prices in an effort to juice sales. Just this month, Ford Motor Co. cut — again — the price of its slow-selling Ford Focus EV. Its price tag is $29,995 — down $6,000 since last year and down $10,000 since the Dearborn automaker put the vehicle on sale in late 2011.

Honda Motor Co., citing slow sales, this year is ending production of its Fit EV after building about 1,100. Smaller startup EV companies Fisker Automotive, Coda Automotive and Think all filed for bankruptcy or went out of business. Some automakers such as Toyota Motor Corp., Hyundai Motor Co. and Honda are shifting more focus to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles instead of EVs.

Market is tiny

Still, EV sales overall are growing — with EVs up 25 percent and plug-in hybrid sales up 35 percent — but they still account for a minuscule .7 percent of U.S. car and truck sales. Some 20 models come in EV versions in the U.S.

The federal and some state governments are trying to boost EV sales and have approved hundreds of millions in low-cost loans to bankroll electric vehicle production. California and seven other states have mandated that automakers build zero-emission vehicles in the coming years, which is forcing automakers to proceed with EVs.

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said in May that it loses $14,000 on every electric Fiat 500 car it sells, about $4,000 more than the company's previous estimation. "I hope you don't buy it," said Marchionne of the 500e.

EVs are selling best in coastal states, especially California, plus pockets such as Atlanta, with tax incentives and other perks such as access to less-congested commuter lanes for single drivers.

But Congress has taken no action on President Barack Obama's repeated calls to hike incentives for electric vehicles in his last three budgets. As a candidate in 2008, Obama called for 1 million plug-in electric vehicles on the roads by 2016. The Energy Department has acknowledged that isn't likely but said it could happen a year or two later.

For the last three years, Obama has called for an increase in the federal tax credit for EVs from $7,500 to $10,000, and for making it an instant rebate — rather than making buyers wait to file their tax returns. .

Booming Tesla

For now, Tesla Motors is the buzz of the EV industry.

In March 2013, its stock price traded around $35; its closed Friday at $235.24, and the company is worth nearly $30 billion. The automaker published its patents, it says, to increase competition within the EV industry, and plans to build a build a $5 billion battery factory in Nevada.

Its only vehicle is the Model S that starts at about $70,000, but the Model X SUV will go on sale in 2015 and then a $35,000 family car in 2017.

Not to be outdone, General Motors — whose Volt in late 2010 was the first recent mainstream plug-in hybrid electric car in the U.S. — will showcase the next generation Volt at the North American International Auto Show in January, in Detroit.

Investors and analysts got a sneak peek at the new Volt during GM's Global Business Conference this month. Mark Reuss, GM's head of product development, purchasing and supply chain, indicated the new Volt, which will continue to have a gas-powered backup engine, will travel farther on an electric charge, and have an updated interior.

"I think you're going to be surprised with what the new efficiency and ratings are in the new Volt," he said. "And I think you're going to see the second gen of development in terms of battery capacity, chemistry and technology leapfrog a lot of the competition."

Krebs said the Volt needs the updating, so more consumers find it worth the money. She said the interior should be more upscale and it needs to find a balance "between a kind of premium car and a techy car."

GM plans another electric Chevy — it also offers the small Spark in an electric version in California and Oregon — but isn't releasing details.

The Volt has not met sales expectations set at its launch by GM officials. Volt sales also are off this year, down 13.2 percent through September.

But Brian Sweeney, U.S. vice president of sales and service for Chevrolet, told The Detroit News in a recent interview: "Volt's been doing exactly what we expect, what we want."

Cadillac ELR sales slow

Sales of the plug-in hybrid Cadillac ELR also have been slow, with just 885 sold through September.

Nissan, meanwhile, has sold 140,000 of the all-electric Leaf globally, including 64,000 in the U.S.

"The sales pace is becoming increasingly stronger," said Kenneth Kcomt, director of product planning for Nissan North America Inc., at a Society of Automotive Analysts conference in Southfield, earlier this month, adding charging station infrastructure also is growing.

"So from a customer convenience and range anxiety standpoint, I think a lot of that is really being alleviated."