Though early sales have indeed been disappointing, the glass is at least half full when it comes to electric cars. Last week, General Motors said it was going to boost production of its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid a full 20 percent, with maybe 36,000 (including the Cadillac ELR and European Opel Ampera) coming out of the gates this year. That's a good number.
That's not a huge stretch — GM sold 30,000 Volts and Amperas in 2012, and this year the Caddy will be added to the lineup. The ELR is a very upscale companion to the Volt, and it's expected to be a relatively low-volume car, maybe 2,000 to 3,000 per year, at least at first. It's not going to move the needle on Volt sales appreciably.
If I were GM, I'd have instead gone with a crossover SUV on the Volt platform. GM actually showed a crossover Volt concept, the MPV5, in Beijing circa 2010, but is very closed-mouthed when asked about it these days.
The Volt alone sold 24,461 in 2012, which is a tripling of what it did in 2011. But it's also, as Automotive News reported, about half of General Motors' target. EV numbers are, in fact, very easy to manipulate. If I say that sales tripled, you're going to be impressed, and if I say they were half of expectations, you'll be disappointed.
It's kind of that way across the spectrum. A spokesman for the Electric Drive Transportation Association gave me a very upbeat assessment of how plug-ins are doing last week. He cited rising gas costs, a growing commitment to automaker electrification, and some 22 new plug-in models next year. Sales are up 198 percent, he said. Wow.
But let's not forget that the total U.S. industry sales of battery electrics and plug-in hybrids were 52,583 in 2012, up against 14.4 million total car sales. Of course, hybrids are selling very well, so if you include the 434,000 of those you get to a 3.3 percent market share, which sounds much better as total "electric drive" sales.
Reuters recently whacked battery cars. "Recent moves by Japan's two largest automakers suggest that the electric car, after more than 100 years of development and several brief revivals, still is not ready for prime time — and may never be." But the article reached that conclusion on flimsy evidence, and citing an automaker, Toyota, that has never, ever been enthusiastic about battery EVs, though it loves hybrids.
I say what I've always said, that it's going to start slow, build from there, and end with an electrified transportation fleet. I can't be confident about a timetable, because there are so many variables — global warming legislation, the price of oil (I'm not expecting a peak), breakthroughs in battery cost and performance — that make the crystal ball cloudy at best. The modest bump in Volt production is in line with my expectations.