Are sales of electric-drive vehicles disappointing? No doubt.
Has the buzz faded? Undeniably.
So are electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids dead? Not really.
Despite the gloom, electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are very much alive in the product plans of major automakers.
Automakers will launch a wave of electric-drive vehicles over the next three years. Because of the industry's long lead times, these vehicles -- conceived in the heady days of EV enthusiasm several years ago -- will roll out into a market that seems to have gone ice cold.
No one is predicting high volumes. But marketers still have to try to make inroads into the mainstream with high-priced electric-drive vehicles. It's probably the toughest marketing assignment in the industry right now.
Cristi Landy, Chevrolet's marketing director for small cars, says that the things the brand learned in the early days of selling the Volt plug-in hybrid still hold true. Initial buyers tend to be early adopters and new-technology enthusiasts. And they generally are highly satisfied with their purchases.
But there aren't many of them, which means marketers have a big job to do in attracting regular folks -- or "educating the more mass market consumers," as she puts it.
"There is still a large population out there who are very skeptical or hesitant of this new category," Landy says. "They have never driven a modern electric vehicle."
Landy and other marketers say they have effective selling points to make. Surprisingly, they're less likely to stress environmental benefits and fuel economy than to tout the driving experience.
Alexander Edwards, president of consulting firm Strategic Vision in San Diego, says that's wise. Green benefits, and especially fuel economy, are overrated as purchasing criteria, he says.
"Here's the secret: Even though everyone in a focus group will tell you that fuel economy is important -- and, in a way, it is -- when it comes to the final decision, fuel economy doesn't have as big of an effect as they would have you think," Edwards said.
Instead, automakers could attract buyers by persuading them that the quietness and instant torque of electric drive makes for a pleasing driving experience. Marketers also need to tout the thoughtful use of innovative technology, he says.
But, Edwards says, the high cost of EVs and plug-in hybrids will remain an enormous barrier. Many are powered by lithium ion batteries that can cost upward of $10,000. Yet Strategic Vision research shows that a $50 increase in the monthly car payment is enough to turn off prospective buyers.
"U.S. customers will be environmentally friendly when they can," Edwards says. "But when there's that cost involved, people will say, 'There are other purchases I can spend my money on.'"