Electric cars edge forward in 2017 but still have a long way to go

Electric car sales in the U.S. are set to rise nearly 30% in 2017.

“This was a notably good year,” said Genevieve Cullen, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Assn.

But the raw number of pure-electric and plug-in hybrid cars sold won’t top 200,000, which represents barely more than 1% of the total 17 million cars and light trucks sold.

“There’s been a lot of publicity, but on the demand front, nothing has moved the needle much,” said Haig Stoddard, industry analyst at WardsAuto.

In fact, a mix of hype and publicity about future products is what marked 2017 on the electric car front.

The one notable market success was the Chevy Bolt EV, the $37,000 base-price hatchback that technically was introduced in December 2016. It has drawn great reviews and is selling at a respectable, though not eye-popping, rate of 2,000 to 3,000 cars a month.

Also notable for 2017: the slow-motion introduction of the Tesla Model 3, starting in July. Tesla was supposed to be filling thousands of orders a week for the electric sedan by now but has been delayed by serious manufacturing problems at its Fremont, Calif., assembly plant and at its Nevada battery factory. So far, only a few hundred have been reported sold.

Tesla issues sales results by quarter — not by month like the rest of the auto industry — and is due for an update next week.

Nissan also unveiled a new version of its all-electric Leaf in 2017, improving its looks and expanding miles between charges to 150 from the previous model’s 107.

Otherwise, future plans dominated electric car news, as manufacturers touted their aggressive moves into “electrification.”

Volkswagen announced it will put 50 all-electric models on the market by 2025 and 30 plug-in hybrids, which travel a few dozen miles on batteries alone until a combustion engine takes over.

Audi said a third of its sales will be all-electric or plug-in hybrid by 2025. Renault-Nissan said it plans 12 new all-electric models by 2022.

But most automakers couched their electric-car promises with the nebulous phrase “electrified.”

Mercedes-Benz said it will have electrified versions of each of its models by 2022. Jaguar promised the same. BMW pledged 25 “electrified” cars by 2025, 12 of them all-electric.

“Electrified” is more a marketing slogan than anything else. It encompasses not just plug-in cars but traditional hybrids that run mostly on internal combustion engines. It can also include “mild hybrid” cars that improve on decades-old 12-volt car batteries with 48-volt versions that match with a small motor to give a gasoline or diesel engine an occasional boost and save a bit of fuel. No one in the industry would call that an electric car.

In 2018, only a few all-electric models are expected to hit the market. They include the Jaguar I-Pace luxury SUV and the Porsche Mission E sports car. They’ll be closely watched and important to those manufacturers but won’t move the needle much on electric car volume.

The only car that could do that is the Tesla Model 3, if it fulfills its promise to make and ship hundreds of thousands of cars a year. The company says that more than 400,000 customers have placed refundable deposits for a Model 3.

Although mass-market demand for electric cars and plug-in hybrids remains questionable, all major automakers are spending millions of dollars to develop them. They are driven mainly by government regulations and incentives favoring electric vehicles and, eventually, possible bans on the sale of internal combustion engines in parts of Europe, China and even California, where legislators plan to introduce a bill banning sales of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040.

The main aims are to cut carbon dioxide emissions to slow global warming, and to reduce pollution in big cities.

European automakers were hoping big diesel sales would help with greenhouse gas reduction, but the emissions-test cheating scandals put an end to that.

“It’s ‘dieselgate’ that’s driven much of Europe to get conviction on battery vehicles and plug-in hybrids,” said Mark Wakefield, managing director at AlixPartners. “But the cars aren’t here yet.”

Automakers are also under pressure from a burgeoning electric car industry in China, the biggest automobile market.

China manufacturers account for less than 50% of market share in China, with American, European, Korean and Japanese companies making up the rest.

But “on electric vehicles, China companies have almost 90% market share,” Wakefield said. “It’s very clear that China wants to win this,” he said. “And the risk is, if you’re not participating in that you’re going to get leapfrogged.… If you can win in the EV market in China, you’re in a good position in other markets.”

Chinese companies are preparing to export electric cars to the U.S. and Europe — or to build car plants in Western markets. The first to make a splash in the U.S. is likely to be a luxury, technology-packed SUV from Lynk & Co., a new brand created by Volvo and Volvo’s Chinese parent, Geely. The Lynk & Co. Model 01 went on sale last month in China. It’s expected to hit U.S. dealerships in 2019.

Chinese capital is behind niche electric automakers in the U.S., including Lucid Motors, Faraday Future and SF Motors, all based in California. China is the powerhouse in electric cars so far, with more than half the world market of about 1 million cars and light trucks.

Meantime, policymakers in California are goosing electric car manufacturing in the U.S.

Allowed by federal law to set its own air quality regulations, California is sticking by requirements that require manufacturers to continually increase their share of cars with low or no tailpipe emissions. Already, California accounts for about half of the electric and plug-in hybrid cars sold in the U.S. State Sen. Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) intends to introduce a bill to ban new sales of internal combustion engines by 2040.

But that’s 22 years from now. “It’s difficult to predict what will happen between now and 2040,” said Brandon Mason, an automotive and mobility specialist at PwC.

What will ultimately determine the global success of electric vehicles, virtually all analysts agree, is a price decline that puts them on par, at least, with internal combustion engines, with enough range for a full day’s driving.

That’s likely to happen within several years, they say, under pressure from the mandates and regulations the automakers are attempting to address.

russ.mitchell@latimes.com

Twitter: @russ1mitchell

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