Hybrid, EV sales tumble in 2015

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Sales of hybrid and electric vehicles fell sharply in the first half of 2015, hurt by low gas prices, fewer incentives and a broader market shift away from cars.

This is shaping up to be the toughest year for electrically powered vehicles since General Motors Co. and Nissan Motor Co. launched mass-market advanced vehicles in 2010.

A new Georgia law takes effect this week that ends the $5,000 state tax rebate on EV sales and adds a $200 yearly registration fee for EV owners to pay for road repairs.

Despite hefty discounts, low gas prices and aging EV models are helping to drag down sales of fuel-sipping, plug-in electric hybrids and full-electric cars. They are also being hurt by a consumer shift away from cars toward crossover and sport utility vehicles.

Chelsea Sexton, a long-time industry consultant and electric vehicle, advocate, says a big reason for the slow down is "aging models" and "anticipation of fall updates than gas prices or market interest," Sexton said, saying it is not a surprise and may not fully rebound until 2017 as California mandates will boost industry offerings.

Some studies have suggested that EV buyers — who are wealthier than buyers at large — are not deterred by declining gas prices. The Energy Information Agency says current gas prices are averaging $2.80 a gallon — down $0.90 over a year earlier.

GM said sales of its plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt fell 31 percent in June to 1,225, and are down 35 percent in the first half of the year to 5,622. Volt sales had their worst year in 2014 since its first full year of sales. Last year, sales fell 19 percent.

GM said sales of the Cadillac version of the Volt — the ELR — fell 36 percent in June, but are up 52 percent to 593 for the year after the automaker announced a $9,000 price cut — and some dealers have cut prices even further.

Nissan said sales of its all-electric Leaf fell 12 percent in June and are down 23 percent this year to 9,816. At the current pace, the Leaf is on target to have its worst sales year in the U.S. since 2012.

Nissan noted that Atlanta has been one of its best markets for the Leaf because of state incentives and access to carpool lanes by single drivers.

Last week, the California Air Resources Board unveiled a pilot project in the Los Angeles area boosting EV rebates for lower income buyers and cutting them for higher buyers.

Ford Motor Co. said last month that sales of its hybrids through the first five months of the year are down 29 percent, and sales of its electric Ford Focus are down 6 percent to 659. Ford will release EV and hybrid June sales figures Thursday. Autodata estimated last month that Tesla Motors Inc. sales are down 7.8 percent to 6,950 in the first five months of the year.

Honda Motor Co. said sales of hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles fell 15 percent in June and are down 21 percent this year. The company said last month it ended production of the Civic hybrid and Accord plug-in hybrid.

The automaker said it ceased production of the Accord plug-in as it works on the a new plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. Honda is temporarily halting sales of the Accord hybrid as production moves from the U.S. to Japan. The new Accord hybrid is expected to debut in early 2016.

Toyota Motor Corp. said sales of its plug-in hybrid Prius are down 72 percent in June and 69 percent for the year. All Prius sales are down 19 percent in June and down 16 percent for the year to 90,149. The company said it was ending Prius plug in production in June before it introduces a new version expected late next year.

GM is introducing its second-generation Volt this fall. The revamped 2016 Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric hybrid with increased electric range is about $1,200 cheaper than the current generation.

In May, the automaker said it did not expect to meet its goal of having 500,000 GM vehicles on the road in the U.S. by 2017 that are powered in some way by electricity. GM said it is building the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt that will have 200 miles or more of range at a price near $30,000 after a federal tax rebate.

GM, which is investing billions into electrification, blamed the slower sales pace on lower gasoline prices and a "surge" in competitive product offerings.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told The Detroit News in January the United States will not meet President Barack Obama's goal of getting 1 million electric vehicles on the road by the end of this year, and said hitting the target could be a few years away.

"We're going to be a few years after the president's aspirational goal of the end of 2015, but I think that we are within a few years of reaching that goal," Moniz said.

In April, the National Research Council — an arm of the National Academies of Science — said in a report that the government should take other steps to boost EV use including eliminating "the proliferation of incompatible plugs and ensure that all drivers can charge their vehicles and pay at all public charging stations using a universally accepted method, just as conventional vehicles can be refueled at any gas station."

Other issues include vehicle cost, current battery technology, and inadequate consumer understanding.

"Developing less expensive, better performing batteries is essential to reducing overall vehicle cost, and a market strategy is needed to create awareness and overcome customer uncertainty," the report said.

The $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles and plug-in vehicles — and after an automaker sells 200,000 EVs, it is phased out over a 12-month period.

For the last four years, President Barack Obama has called for an increase in the federal tax credit for EVs from $7,500 to $10,000 . But Congress has taken no action.

Despite lagging sales, automakers are moving full-speed ahead building electric vehicles to meet government zero emission vehicle mandates.

"I don't know how you can meet the regulations in terms of emissions without electric vehicles. I think it is going to get stricter and stricter — I don't think it's going to get looser," said Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn in New York in April. "Zero emission is here to stay."

Many of the dozens of new EVs that have gone on sale have been sold in very low numbers — and often only in California. Automakers have been forced to cut prices and offer heavy discounts to sell EVs, even with $7,500 federal tax credits and state incentives.

Plug-in hybrid and full electric vehicle sales were up about 25 percent to 123,000 in the United States last year.