You know things are getting scary when terms like "carnage" and "Armageddon" start turning up in conversations about electric vehicles.
But that's the sentiment from a few auto executives I spoke with privately this month. They were referring to the landscape for EV sales in the U.S. next year.
We are wrapping up a year that will see the number of electrified vehicles launched globally top 100 for the first time. The exact figure — 130 — comes from AlixPartners, which counts full-electrics (75) and plug-in hybrids in its tally. Most are bound for China.
Automotive News charts more than two dozen destined to reach the U.S. market alone. Some will be all new, such as Volkswagen's ID4. Others will be electrified versions of existing nameplates, including the plug-in hybrid Kia Optima. A handful will be updates of existing models, such as the Chevy Bolt EV.
And if current trends continue, getting all these electrified vehicles from dealer lots into consumer driveways is going to be a lot like discharging a fire hose through a drinking straw.
EV-volumes.com projects that combined U.S. sales of battery-electrics and plug-in hybrids will fall about 6 percent this year, to around 337,000, or 1.7 percent of the market. This follows a big jump last year, driven by Tesla's Model 3.
Electric vehicles "have not had the lift that [the industry] expected," said Penske Automotive CEO Roger Penske in the dealership group's latest earnings call.
He pointed to the Audi e-tron, an early entry in Volkswagen Group's $66 billion assault on the EV market.
A "significant" number of customers have canceled their e-tron preorders, he said. The main reason: affordability.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra cited affordability repeatedly in her Dec. 5 announcement of a $2.3 billion investment with LG Chem in an Ohio battery factory.
She's pushing for an all-electric future, after all. And GM won't get there if EVs are even more out of reach than cars are today.
"It's got to be affordable to drive the volumes," she said.
For its part, the industry can't afford not to invest massively in curbing tailpipe emissions. As much as it's been criticized over the decades for being a laggard on safety and environmental matters, in many respects, it's leading on this front.
The reasons are clear. Cities from Amsterdam to Vancouver, British Columbia, are pushing to remove gasoline- and diesel-powered cars from their streets. Entire countries will follow.
The U.S. — excluding California and a few other states — may be in a benign regulatory mode right now while federal EV tax credits start to wind down. But it's a solid bet that politicians of the future will fully understand the ramifications of students storming a football halftime show to protest climate change and a 16-year-old activist, Greta Thunberg, being named Time magazine's Person of the Year.
The savviest among them might even rally the citizenry around the notion of not handing global leadership in battery technology to Europe and China.
So what happens in the meantime?
Mark Wakefield, co-leader of AlixPartners' global automotive practice, says EVs that aren't distinctive are going to be a tough sell.
Automakers will benefit from some creativity. That could be in the vehicle itself. Or in a recharging solution. Or in an exchange program that allows EV owners to swap for a gasoline-powered SUV for that summer trek into the mountains.
Still, he says, an awareness of the uphill climb has begun to sunk in.
"There is more realization that this is a multi-, multi-, multiyear effort," he says.
Being "practical and pragmatic upfront" will help make the risks more manageable and will be a key to finding ways through what he calls the "profit desert" ahead.
The good news: That drought won't last forever. The key is to get through the near-term challenges and be in shape when battery costs come on par with those of internal combustion engines.
Some experts say that could happen within five years — a lot sooner than anyone expected not so long ago.