Auto forecast: 2018 pivotal for electrics, robotics

Ian Thibodeau

Next year will be a watershed year for electric and self-driving cars, analysts believe, even as overall sales continue to slip.

The overall market share for electric vehicles will surpass 4 percent for the first time ever in 2018, according to a forecast released Monday by California-based industry analyst Edmunds. That’s expected to be driven by Tesla, which CEO Elon Musk has said will make 5,000 Model 3 sedans per week by March 2018. General Motors Co.’s all-electric Chevrolet Bolt will be available for the entire year for the first time as well, analysts said.

Even if Musk misses that deadline by a couple of months, its new mass-market Model 3 will boost electric vehicle sales. Joined by the Bolt and the new Nissan Leaf, 2018 could be the U.S.’s most “green” year of sales.

This comes as Edmunds and others in the industry forecast that U.S. auto sales will decline again in 2018 following the record 17.55 million vehicles sold in 2016. Some doubt the U.S. auto industry will ever surpass that record. Ride-hailing services, subscription rental services like GM’s Maven, shuttles — in addition to demographic shifts — will all chisel away at sales.

Sales forecasts for next year all are down from the 17.2 million expected to be sold in 2017: Edmunds expects 16.8 million vehicles to be sold in 2018; Atlanta-based analysis conglomerate Cox Automotive Inc. puts that number at 16.6 million; London-headquartered IHS Markit is more optimistic with a forecast of 16.9 million.

Sales will slip again next year because market is correcting itself after record abnormal years, Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell said. The fight for market share will also get more intense as sales shrink, which could result in more incentive spending by carmakers.

The sales decline comes as automotive and technology companies are spending millions to develop electric and self-driving vehicles that won’t earn much money for a while. Profit-rich SUVs and trucks will offer stability and profits while they invest more heavily in the cars of the future.

Electric cars will inch closer to “mainstream” automobiles in 2018 as autonomous programs enter a “pivotal” year for testing, Caldwell believes. “Electric vehicles will go from a very small niche to something that is not quite mainstream, but definitely going in that direction,” she said.

Both GM and Ford Motor Co. have announced plans for full and partial electrification, respectively, for their self-driving cars.

Caldwell said 2018 will be a “transformative” year for new autonomous programs. Both GM and Ford executives have said repeatedly that the new year will be huge for their self-driving programs.

Ford has preferred to withhold details about the first iteration of its self-driving fleet scheduled to launch in 2021.

GM has only recently announced some specifics about the fleet it wants to launch; it plans to deploy self-driving Bolt EVs on public roads by 2019 to be used in a ride-hailing service. CEO Mary Barra and others have said those vehicles will be profitable.

With many carmakers targeting launches of self-driving vehicles for around 2020, they are running out of time for testing.

“2017 was the proof-of-concept year for autonomy, meaning automakers were trying to demonstrate to the naysayers that this technology is actually tangible and is no longer the stuff of science fiction,” Caldwell said. “2018 will be the year that automakers start to prove not only is autonomy possible, but it’s actually going to come to market, and maybe even sooner than consumers expect.

“We anticipate that real-world testing will accelerate, and that more automakers will be bullish to prove to both the public and their shareholders that they're leading this race.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau