How Did Obama’s Goal of 1 Million Electric Vehicles Fall Short?

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Though we’re only several weeks into 2015, it’s clear the Obama administration’s goal of 1 million electric vehicles sold in the U.S. will not be reached by the end of the year. At a time when things are good for green cars — over 400,000 EVs are expected to sell by 2016 — we are taking a look at how the industry fell so short of that lofty milestone, and why analysts believe we will reach the million mark by 2018.

U.S. now at 300,000 electric vehicles

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz conceded EVs would fall well short of 1 million sales following an appearance at the Washington Auto Show, but he told The Detroit News the country was not far away.

“We’re going to be a few years after the president’s aspirational goal of the end of 2015,” Moniz said in the interview, “but I think that we are within a few years of reaching that goal.” Having hit over 295,000 sales at the close of 2014, we have already passed the 300,000 mark for lifetime sales of plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles, based on figures provided by HybridCars.com.

Projections expect the total to top 400,000 sales by the end of this year, which will not reach the halfway point of the DOE’s 2011 goal for the end of 2015. Looking at the administration’s ambitious plans from four years ago, a combination of light supply and weak demand exacerbated by infrastructure problems were the main drivers of electric vehicles’ performance on the U.S. market.

High costs, few options

The story of the industry’s worse-than-expected EV sales is very much a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. As we outlined in a recent post on issues facing electric vehicle adoption, consumers who shop for an EV encounter high-priced products with limited range and few charging stations to support them. Costs of plug-in cars have been prohibitively expensive because they have yet to reach mass production, and they have yet to reach mass production for the reasons outlined above. There is hope for the coming years.

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JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Initiatives to increase the number of public chargers should make it easier on consumers who want to invest in an electric vehicles, but the chips are still stacked against the average auto consumer. Aside from pricey Tesla vehicles, there are no cars on the market that break 100 miles of electric range. (None are expected to appear in 2015, either.)

Further complicating the issue are overwhelming practical concerns. The type of city driver who could deal with the range of a Nissan Leaf (84 miles) would need a private garage to charge their cars after a day of short-range driving. In a city setting, the luxuries of private and paid public garages are for the privileged few.

Production of mainstream EVs

When calculating its goal, Obama’s team believed many more options would exist on the market by 2015. HybridCars.com compiled a chart revealing production goals that seem hyperbolic in retrospective. From the bold vision of 505,000 Chevy Volts produced by GM to the 221,000 models of Fisker plug-ins expected by 2015, the total of 1.22 million in projected production ignored economic realities — especially as consumers were clawing their way out of the recession.

Chevy Bolt

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In essence, the story is simple supply versus demand. Automakers could not get range up and costs down in the past four years, which left consumers unable to afford them or use an EV in everyday commuting when they could.

Secretary Moniz thinks that will change in the coming years, and green car analyst Steve Baum told HybridCars.com he sees the one-million mark arriving for plug-in cars in 2018. It will take the arrival of mainstream electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3 (expected by 2017) to push EV sales into the hundreds of thousands by 2018, so the goals remain ambitious.

The technology is not there yet. Tesla’s Gigafactory will need to ramp up battery production on the automaker’s grand scale in order to get costs to the point where mainstream consumers can afford the vehicles they propel. GM hopes to be right there with Tesla, and as of now the General is the only automaker with a mainstream EV concept on the record. (Benchmarks remain at 200 miles of range and a price at or around $30,000, after rebates.)

President Obama is putting together an impressive record in environmental conservation nearing the end of his second term. Once upon a time, he dreamed very big for the electric vehicle industry. We’re far from the goals his team set, but you can’t fault them — and in many ways have to admire them — for trying.

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