Jan 22, 2020

Sluggish sales throw the future of electric vehicles into uncertainty

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The flurry of high-profile electric vehicle rollouts lately makes it easy to look past a big problem for the sector: tepid consumer demand means it's unclear when the EV age will begin in earnest, at least in the U.S.

Driving the news: Several recent stories underscore how drivers remain cautious about ditching gas pumps for plugs — even as automakers make big bets on bringing a slew of new models to market.

Why it matters: Year-end sales data tells the story of a sector struggling to find footing once you look past the big year by Tesla (which by the way saw its valuation hit $100 billion in trading yesterday before receding).

  • This Los Angeles Times story, citing Edmunds data, notes that 325,000 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles sold in the U.S. last year, down from 349,000 from 2018.
  • “The number of battery-electric models available more than doubled last year, but EV sales didn’t budge much. That’s troubling,” AlixPartners' Mark Wakefield tells the paper.
  • Sales also slumped badly in China, the world's biggest auto market, starting in the middle of last year when the government slashed incentives.

The intrigue: Bloomberg points out that Tesla saw record sales last year, but cautions that the Silicon Valley company's success isn't spilling over into the wider EV market — yet.

  • "Look at every other corner of the U.S. auto industry — the world’s most valuable automaker, dealers, consumer surveys and market forecasts — and a more ominous picture emerges," they report.
  • A growing number of models will be fighting for space in what will remain a small market for a while. Jeff Schuster of the firm LMC, quoted in Bloomberg, says of the EV future, "It’s a long road and there definitely could be some carnage along the way.”
  • A Wall Street Journal story this week features pessimistic comments from Subaru officials.

What we're watching: Whether the sluggish sales and policy headwinds in the U.S. and China are enough to substantially change long-term global forecasts.

  • The research firm BloombergNEF studies the EV future especially carefully and tends toward the bullish side, seeing major growth as battery prices fall.
  • Its last big outlook projected that annual global passenger EV sales will reach 10 million in 2025 and 28 million in 2030. The next one arrives in May.

Go deeper: Electric vehicles face an uncertain policy landscape in 2020

Go deeper

GM is eating Tesla's exhaust

Tesla Model 3. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

While Tesla shares went into Ludicrous Mode this week, GM executives were on Wall Street pitching investors on their own vision of an electric, self-driving future. But as Bloomberg notes, the market isn't buying.

Why it matters: GM may be investing billions to transform its business for the future, but to many investors, Tesla's lead in the fledgling electric vehicle market is seen as insurmountable.

Electric vehicle ads make up fraction of overall spending despite Super Bowl splash

Screenshot from Audi's Super Bowl ad for the e-tron Sportback

Last night's Super Bowl featured splashy electric car ads for Audi's e-tron Sportback, GMC's Hummer and Porsche's Taycan.

Why it matters: The ads are the latest sign of the growing volumes of electric models becoming available or in the offing, but the New York Times notes that just 0.3% of the $8.6 billion that the auto industry spent on local and national advertising last year promoted electric vehicles.

A stronger Tesla returns to the spotlight for Q4 earnings

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Tesla's Q4 earnings report will come Wednesday as the volatile Silicon Valley electric automaker's stock is near all-time highs with a recent run of positive news, including record 2019 deliveries and the recent launch of its Chinese factory.

Why it matters: Tesla is arguably the most important corporate actor in the movement of electric vehicles toward the mainstream, even as new manufacturers emerge and legacy automakers roll out new models.

Go deeperArrowJan 29, 2020