MONTREAL -- The electric vehicle industry has an identity problem.
As gasoline prices inch up from their 12-year low, the market conditions look ripe for more sales of EVs and plug-in hybrids -- and yet consumers aren't responding. And still, automakers are lining up to invest ever more in the segment.
"Consumers adore these vehicles," Britta Gross, director of advanced vehicle commercialization policy at General Motors, told an audience at the global Electric Vehicle Symposium and Exhibition here in June. "People love the quietness, the smoothness, the seamless drive."
And yet, she asked: "Why don't consumers flock to these vehicles? What's missing? What do we have to do? We're at the point where we have a lot to do."
GM is actually a standout at the moment. Sales of its second-generation Chevrolet Volt are up 79 percent through the end of May.
But half a decade after the U.S. industry began introducing cars that consumers could attach to an electrical outlet instead of a fuel pump, the market remains meek. Sales of plug-in vehicles fell 5 percent in 2015 from 2014 levels. And for the first five months of this year, alternative-powered vehicles of all kinds were down 21 percent.
Through five months, the entire segment -- excluding the hybrid Toyota Prius, which is not a plug-in -- has averaged fewer than 4,800 vehicles a month in a market that's averaging 1.4 million a month.
Time to flee the business?
To the contrary.
Carmakers have answered nagging consumer concerns about driving range by producing ever-more advanced EVs powered by more efficient, powerful batteries. Ford and Nissan have indicated their intentions to join Tesla and Chevrolet in making EVs capable of going 200 miles or more on a single charge. Nissan revealed in June that it will add a range-extender plug-in to its portfolio this year in Japan.
Late last year, Ford announced it will invest $4.5 billion in EV research. Volkswagen is mulling a decision to invest $11 billion in a large-scale EV battery plant in Europe. Tesla has taken 373,000 reservations for its more affordable Model 3 electric, currently in development.
Despite all the activity, there was an undertone of anxiety at the EV symposium. Addressing a forum at the worldwide industry gathering, Robert Langford, American Honda Motor Co. manager of electric vehicle sales, said carmakers are poised to bring a broader array of EVs to market.
"It's really an exciting time going from now to 2020," Langford said. "With all the new product coming out, hopefully, a whole new group of customers [will come] to drive electric."
However, he acknowledged: "Barriers are still many."