Back in the Edenic days when the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal and the people of this great nation were as one—way back in January 2011, that is—President Obama called on Americans to put one million electric cars on the road by 2015. It was a typically Obamian diktat, addressed to both producers and consumers, greasing both sides with other people’s money, and bearing no relation—none at all—to reality.
Well, 2015 is less than four months away, and like many other parts of the Obama fever dream, the idea of making and selling a million electric vehicles in America has turned out to be a mass delusion.
The Electric Drive Sales Association, the industry booster that puts these things in the most favorable light, recently crowed that there are now 246,426 plug-in EVs on the road in America. But even that likely overstates the appeal of the vehicles. Nobody really knows how many of these cars were sold to actual consumers, rather than corporate fleets. But a 2013 study by the firm Frost & Sullivan suggested that about half of all EV sales to that point had been to fleets.
Corporations may or may not be people, but their fleet purchasing decisions are often driven by the kind of second-order considerations that don’t move actual consumers. For instance, in 2010 General Electric announced that it would purchase 25,000 EVs by 2015. The announcement was made, to much fanfare, by CEO Jeff Immelt, who at the time was a member of the president’s economic advisory board and the following year would be promoted to chairman of Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. It’s unclear whether G.E. made good on Immelt’s promise. But if they did, it means that G.E. now owns 10 percent of all the electric cars in America.
And it’s not just private-sector corporations. In Washington state, Massachusetts, California, and elsewhere, government agencies have bought up electric cars, too.
It’s been obvious from the beginning that the president’s goal of one million electric vehicles by 2015 was nonsense. And his administration has been trying to walk it back for almost two years. In 2013, an Energy Department official told Reuters, “Whether we meet that goal in 2015 or 2016, that’s less important than that we’re on the right path to get many millions of these vehicles on the road.” Which is a nice sentiment, except that “we” won’t meet that goal in 2016. Or 2017. Or 2018. Or possibly even by the end of President Clinton’s second term.
Lost in the EV mania is the fact that plug-in electric sales seem to be coming at the expense of hybrid electric sales. Meaning that it isn’t people who would otherwise buy a Ford F-150 who are buying electric cars—it’s people who would otherwise be buying a Prius. From 2013 to 2014, the sale of all “electrified vehicles”—that is, both plug-ins and hybrids—declined just slightly. The number of plug-ins increased slightly, year-on-year, from 29,917 in 2013 to 40,349 in 2014. (For a sense of scale, Ford’s F‑series pick-up trucks sell about 50,000 units per month.) But the decline in hybrids swamped those gains, as sales dropped from 350,530 to 327,418.
Which means that even by its own standards of environmental do-gooderism, electric cars are over-promising and under-delivering.
By the by, when we said that America wouldn’t hit one million electric cars until the end of President Clinton’s second term, we meant President Chelsea Clinton. Because at the pace they’re going now, we won’t hit a million electric cars in America until 2030.