Green along the edges
Many electrified vehicle launches are limited to U.S. coasts, for now
When General Motors launched the Chevrolet Spark EV late last month at the Los Angeles Auto Show, GM said the electric car has so much torque the driver wouldn't miss the internal combustion engine.
But what many will miss, at least for a while, is the Spark EV in dealer showrooms. Initially, Chevrolet will sell it only in California and Oregon.
"We don't have any final guideline for expansion of the sales areas," said Cristi Landy, marketing director for Chevrolet small cars. "We're going to come in at a nice, controlled, slow ramp-up."
GM is among several automakers limiting the launches of EVs or plug-in hybrids, waiting for demand to rise before going national. But boosting demand will require a coordinated effort between the public and private sectors, auto industry executives say.
Toyota launched a plug-in version of its Prius hybrid in February in 14 states -- mainly along the coasts -- that have adopted California's so-called zero-emission mandate (California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia).
The mandate requires ZEVs to account for 15.4 percent of automakers' vehicles sold in the state by the 2025 model year. So far, half of the 10,000 Prius Plug-in sales have been in California.
A Toyota spokeswoman says nationwide distribution of the Prius Plug-in will start in 2013.
For now, complying with the ZEV mandate is "really our top priority with the Prius Plug-in and the RAV4 EV," says Ed LaRocque, national brand manager for advanced technology vehicles at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.
The RAV4 EV went on sale in September in California. Toyota will expand sales of the vehicle to other states if there is demand, he says.
Fiat’s Kuniskis: 500e launches in California first
Sales of EVs and plug-in hybrids remain small. Pike Research forecasts U.S. sales of fewer than 50,000 such vehicles this year. Most of those sales will be in a few states. California accounts for 32 percent of the market this year, according to Edmunds.com.
Raising demand for the vehicles will require a partnership in which automakers bring products to market and governments provide infrastructure and incentives such as tax credits and high-occupancy vehicle lane access, auto executives say.
Fiat introduced the electric 500e at the Los Angeles show. The company will market the car nationally as part of the 500 family, but will launch it first in California, then in the ZEV states, then in the rest of the country, says Tim Kuniskis, head of the Fiat brand in North America.
Launching plug-in vehicles as part of a family of cars is a good strategy, says Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics.
"You can't advertise them individually because they are too low-volume," he says.
“We don’t have any final guideline for expansion of the sales areas. We’re going to come in at a nice, controlled, slow ramp-up,” says Cristi Landy, marketing director for Chevrolet small cars.
Chevrolet's Landy says that mass adoption "will probably take an evolution in battery technology" that produces a lower-cost battery with more driving range. But Hall says range is an excuse many consumers use to put off buying an EV. The lack of a charging infrastructure is really holding them back, he says.
"Until the infrastructure is there, it is tough to do a national product," Hall says.
California is a poster child for collaboration among diverse players in the electrified vehicle world. The California Plug-In Electric Vehicle Collaborative, which includes automakers, state officials, utilities and interest groups, meets quarterly to recommend ways California can encourage EV ownership.
It persuaded the state to simplify the process for installing home charging units, among other successes, said Diane Wittenberg, executive director of the group. She adds: "If you asked our members, what are the two most important things to expanding plug-in vehicle ownership, they would say incentives and infrastructure."