Automakers and ride-hailing firm Lyft have asked Congress to unify self-driving car guidelines by a national standard.
Executives from Toyota, General Motors, Volvo, and Lyft urged lawmakers in Washington yesterday to unify the patchwork of state laws governing testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles. The federal government has constitutional authority to override conflicting state laws, they said.
Laws, and enforcement of them, are varying by state. California has become known for sparring with companies including ride-hailing firm Uber, over self-driving test protocols. Michigan’s recently adopted rules are considered to be much broader, making room for fully autonomous vehicle to eventually be allowed on the state’s public roads.
Nine states – California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia, along with Washington D.C. – have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The association also said that governors in Arizona and Massachusetts issued executive orders related to autonomous vehicles.
This patchwork of varying and conflicting state laws threatens to hold back innovation, said Lyft government relations vice president Joseph Okpaku in testimony before a House subcommittee. Legislators in more than 20 states have proposed nearly 60 bills to regulate self-driving vehicles since January 1, he said.
Lyft is looking forward to test driving autonomous Chevy Bolts with partner company General Motors. The two companies are preparing to test out a fleet of self-driving Bolt taxis beginning this year. GM has already started testing out 50 of these electric vehicles in California and Michigan.
GM would like to the U.S. Department of Transportation secretary have power over the question.
Congress should grant authority to the Transportation secretary “to grant specific exemptions for highly automated vehicle development,” said Michael Ableson, a General Motors vice president, during a hearing.
These companies were likely pleased to hear the September announcement by then-DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx issuing long-awaited federal guidelines on testing and developing fully autonomous vehicles. The DOT called for uniform nationwide policies applying to autonomous vehicles.
State and federal lawmakers have been concerned about laws keeping up with self-driving vehicle technology breakthroughs. Car shoppers can now purchase semi-autonomous, connected car features; some auto executives predict that fully automated vehicles could be available within five years.
The Congressional subcommittee gave signs of bipartisan support for the development of autonomous vehicles. They were noticeable silent over the question of adopting a national standard that would override state rules, according to USA Today.
Toyota Research Institute CEO Gill Pratt expressed concerns over vehicle safety. A federal standard should be clear on how safe autonomous vehicles should be on roads. The public won’t support the new technology until that issue is addressed, he said.
“Society tolerates a significant amount of human error on our roads. We are, after all, only human,” he testified. “Humans show nearly zero tolerance for injuries or deaths caused by flaws in a machine.”
The Obama administration made statements about supporting self-driving car technology as a way to eliminate road fatalities within 30 years. The Trump administration so far hasn’t been clear about policy on autonomous vehicles.
A seven-state Midwest coalition is preparing to strengthen plug-in vehicle sales beyond the west and east coasts.
Launched during a Chicago Auto Show news conference, a new group called Evolve will bring together supporters of electrified vehicles from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Non-profit entities, including the American Lung Association, are joining together with these states to promote the campaign.
“Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular, due to their better batteries, decrease in cost, an increase in choice, and the rollout of charging infrastructure,” said Lew Bartfield, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest.
“The Midwest is often overlooked as a market for electric vehicles,” he said.
Evolve is also partnering with eight regional Clean Cities coalitions. These coalitions, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, will be hosting more than 200 events across the Midwest states starting this year through 2020.
Promotional events include 78 ride-and-drives featuring plug-in electrified vehicles. There will also be several conferences and other educational events spreading the word on the benefits of owning and driving a PEV.
The goal is to “get the word out,” Bartfield said. “There’s no better way to learn about the performance and environmental advantages of electric vehicles than personal experience.”
Delivery services and other fleets will be invited to attend these Clean Cities events. These fleets will be very interested in how reliable range will be in urban settings. They’ll also have questions about the impact of severe weather conditions, especially sub-freezing temperatures, will have on lithium battery pack range and longevity.
Automakers have been seeking more hands-on experiences for car buyers to break through their reservations and concerns about driving and owning a PEV. Nissan, General Motors, Ford, and BMW, have been visible sponsors of green-themed events in recent years; ride and drives have been part of it.
Tesla has been a strong believer in the hands-on experience through its scheduled driving events; and Tesla’s store protocol where interested consumers can drive a Model S or Model X with a Tesla employee riding along.
Now these types of experiences need to spread to the Midwest, and the coalition is seeing signs for hope in the region.
“We believe we’re having great success moving (electric vehicle) technology forward,” said Michael Berube, the director of the Office for Vehicle Technologies at the U.S. Department of Energy, during Evolve’s Chicago Auto Show announcement.
Clean Cities may not see much support from the Trump administration on its campaign, but they will reach out.
Berube said that his office “will work with the new team (as it) sets the direction.”
While the longer-range second-generation Nissan Leaf launch date remains clouded in mystery, a spy photo gallery may shed more light on the subject.
Autoblog just published spy shots of a camouflaged Leaf with a Michigan license plate being driven and viewed from all angles. The overall size and shape are close to the current Leaf all-electric car, but several changes appear to have been made.
As reported in Autoblog, the Nissan IDS electric concept car design appears to have spilled over to the next-generation Leaf. The revised Leaf looks like it will share a few elements including roof, angular headlights and taillights, and similar side angles. It may also look like a smaller version of the Nissan Murano crossover.
The Nissan IDS concept was shown at the Tokyo motor show in fall 2015.
The front end of the second-generation Leaf is being revised, with the futuristic headlights being toned down, smaller and less vertical than the current Leaf. The Leaf’s rear angle looks more aggressive with a large spoiler.
The IDS concept is supposed to come with a 60 kilowatt-hour battery pack that could carry the IDS up to 200 miles per charge; and would be twice the size of the current Leaf battery. The Nissan Leaf and its battery, which could come out as a 2018 model year vehicle, have been the subject of differing predictions, varying from 140 miles to 186. The current Leaf can travel up to 107 miles on a charge.
During a keynote speech at Consumer Electronics Show in January, CEO Carlos Ghosn said that a second-generation Leaf is coming “in the near future,” though he gave no information regarding driving range or a date and model year. He did focus on the Leaf coming with Nissan’s ProPilot autonomous driving technology.
“The model will be equipped with ProPilot technology, enabling autonomous drive functionality for single-lane highway driving,” Ghosn said.
While Leaf sales continue to fall in rank in the U.S., global sales have been solid.
According to a HybridCars.com report, the Tesla Model S finished first in global sales last year with 50,931 units sold. The Leaf came in at a close second with 49,220 units sold, far ahead of the other vehicles on the list.
As far as sales are concerned, Nissan does have a good reason for launching the second-generation Leaf.
Just six years ago when the first major manufacturer plug-in electrified vehicles were experimentally launched, who knew that by now there’d be more plug-ins for sale in the U.S. than more-established regular hybrids?
What began with the extended range 2011 Chevy Volt and all-electric 2011 Nissan Leaf after Tesla’s 2008 Roadster blazed the path has led to 19 brands and counting proffering either plug-in hybrids or battery electrics or both.
At most recent count, excluding discontinued models winding down their finite stock, there are for sale in the U.S. 26 non-plug-in (regular) hybrids and 29 plug-in electrified vehicles (battery electric and plug-in hybrid).
Modern electrified cars in the U.S. date back to the 2000 Honda Insight and Toyota Prius hybrids. The 2000s saw hybrids proliferate as a means to save fuel and cut emissions, and new models are still being introduced and will continue to be.
Behind goals achieved by electrified powertrains are regulations that have in turn spurred automakers to go one step further with cars that can run either part time or full time on battery and motor power.
About Those Numbers
A look at the HybridCars.com sales Dashboard reveals 33 hybrid electric vehicles which sold units in January, but seven are discontinued and selling down existing supply, so we’re not counting these as current models.
Those discontinued hybrids, by the way, are in order of January sales: Honda CR-Z (89), Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid (73), Honda Civic Hybrid (16), Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid (13), Honda Insight (1), Buick Regal Hybrid (1), Mercedes E400H (1).
Actually, both hybrid vehicles and PEVs do see a rotating roster of models coming and going.
Among plug-in electrified vehicle (PEVs), there are 13 battery electrics, and 18 plug-in hybrids – if one counts the BMW i3 REx as a “plug-in hybrid” – adding to 31 PEVs. Within these vehicles, two – the Chevy Spark EV and Cadillac ELR – are discontinued, so we’re not counting them as current models.
That leaves the count at 27 hybrids to 29 plug-in cars, but this could be a measure of quantity over quality, if the key metric to measure them by is sales.
Despite there being almost equal numbers of models for sale between PEVs and hybrids, last year hybrids spoke for 1.99 percent of the 17.5-million passenger vehicle U.S. market, and PEVs amounted to 0.9 percent.
The tally of hybrid sales came to 347,029 units in 2016, and the market was down 9.7 percent from 2015. By contrast, plug-ins – factoring the combined strength of both BEVs and PHEVs – added to a record 157,181 sales, well above 2015’s 114,301 PEV sales (43,143 PHEVs and 71,158 BEVs).
What this means is despite not being eligible for subsidies, hybrids sell a little more than twice the volume. This can be attributed to a few factors, including hybrids are more established in consumers’ minds, and their extra cost over conventional cars is less than it is for PEVs, they require no new behaviors (plugging in), and have zero range anxiety.
Plug-in hybrids share the benefits of no range anxiety due to gas back-up, but battery electrics do not, so they are tethered to the well-documented list of objections cited by those consumers who are passing them up at this point.
More Reasons For The Disparity
Tesla has done a lot to spur the market along.
Plug-in electrified cars are also helped significantly by federal tax credits from $2,500-$7,500 per new car sale. State subsidies are variously available in some states too.
In California, cars like the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Bolt, Volt, Teslas, and others can qualify for $10,000 or more per car to offset their prices.
By contrast, hybrids stand on their own, as federal tax credits which were never nearly as much ended early this decade.
Notable also is California itself accounted for half of the U.S. PEV sales last year which speaks of a lopsided state of affairs. Many of the PEVs for sale are available only in California and markets that follow its zero emission rules.
Those are pejoratively called “compliance cars” because they are sold to comply with ZEV rules, and other markets, even if they want them, do not see them offered for sale.
On the flipside, hybrids are nationally distributed, and that also accounts for their superior sales numbers.
Winners and Losers
Among hybrids and PEVs there are a few models which do relatively well, and essentially carry two-thirds of the load for a slew of comparative sales laggards.
Does that sound harsh? It’s actually just honest, and some have wondered why some carmakers even bother to engineer and market certain cars that sell in negligible volumes, in cases fewer than 20 or even 10 units per month.
January was a down month for all types, but its numbers are telling.
On the hybrid list, eight current model cars sold fewer than 20 units in January, four sold between 20 and 100 units, 10 sold between 100 and 500 units, and only seven hybrids sold in excess on 1,000 units. Even without the “compliance car” factor weighing them down, hybrids mirror PEVs in terms of cars that do their share of sales, and those that do not.
Among PEVs, 12 sold fewer than 100 units last month, 11 sold between 100 and 500 units, and only five sold 1,000 or more units – though admittedly, January is an especially weak month for plug-ins. In December, where volumes were at a peak because people buy when they have the shortest wait to get the tax credit, there were seven vehicles selling over 1,000.
And this brings us to the cars that do the heavy lifting. We’ll look at an entire year, 2016, to give a clearer scope of how the leaders do.
Factoid: If the new Prius had been more successful this year, and sold 38,000 more units than it did (within realm of its best years), the hybrid market would have been only flat last year, instead of down by 10 percent.
Among hybrids, the top five by order of 2016 cumulative sales were: Toyota Prius Liftback (98,863), Toyota RAV4 Hybrid (45,070), Ford Fusion Hybrid (33,648), Toyota Camry Hybrid (22,227), Toyota Prius c (20,452).
Among PEVs by order of cumulative 2016 sales, the top sellers were: Tesla Model S (29,156), Chevy Volt (24,739), Tesla Model X (18,028), Ford Fusion Energi (15,938), Nissan Leaf (14,006).
As you can see, the Prius Liftback hybrid’s 98,863 units were not far behind the sum total of the entire top-five best selling plug-in cars, which amounted to 101,867.
The total of the top-five hybrids tallied to 220,260 out of 347,029 U.S. hybrid sales last year, or about 63 percent. The total of the top-five PEVs last year was, as mentioned, 101,867 out of 157,181, or about 65 percent.
Pretty close, isn’t it?
What Else Can Be Said?
Lots more could be said in slicing and dicing the data, but as a commentary on the numbers, it’s been reported gas prices are hurting sales, and that is only partly correct.
The market for electrified cars of all types is affected by many other factors including new/desirable models for sale spiking sales, old models on their way out hurting sales, and so much more.
Gas prices have otherwise more-significantly hurt hybrid sales which are down to 1.99 percent from a peak 3.19 percent in 2013, but plug-in sales were up to a record 0.9 percent in 2016.
Actually, some of this may just represent a shift among an approximate 4 percent of the U.S. market that buys either hybrids, plug-in hybrids, or battery electrics.
So, while hybrid sales have been dwindling, plug-ins have been on the rise. Does this represent hybrid drivers jumping ship and going to a plug-in? While plug-ins have captured sales from all over, in cases the answer is yes.
This adds a degree of nuance beyond the soundbite journalism saying the alternative energy market is down because gas prices are down.
A closer look at the “take rates” (market share) for entire calendar years is as follows:
2012 HEV take rate – 3.01 percent
2012 PEV take rate – 0.37 percent
Total: 3.38 Percent
2013 HEV take rate – 3.19 percent
2013 PEV take rate – 0.62 percent
Total: 3.81 Percent
2014 HEV take rate – 2.75 percent
2014 PEV take rate – 0.73 percent
Total: 3.48 Percent
2015 HEV take rate – 2.21 percent
2015 PEV take rate – 0.66 percent
Total: 2.87 Percent
2016 HEV take rate – 1.99 percent
2016 PEV take rate – 0.90 percent
Total: 2.89 Percent
Indeed, total electrified vehicle take rates have declined, but those for PEVs have risen progressively except for a relapse in 2015. This is not surprising, as it’s easier to move the percentage upwards when starting from almost nothing, but it also indicates the increased commitment by automakers.
What else does this mean? More insights could be drawn out, but it’s safe to say the market is growing, and more will be needed to push beyond a 4-percent market share ceiling that’s been in effect in the U.S.
This could happen with more electrified cars, although political realities could add a new twist to the plot – time will tell.
Otherwise, new models promised are expected to incrementally grow the market. New plug-ins that stand to sell in signifiant volume include the Chevy Bolt, pending Tesla Model 3, and 2018 Nissan Leaf. New hybrids include the Hyundai Ioniq, Kia Niro, new Camry Hybrid, and Nissan Rogue Hybrid, among others.
Automakers, as noted, are committing to more of everything globally. If things are not happening as fast as some would like, they are at least happening.
Chevrolet says its Bolt EV has “cracked the code” toward far greater acceptance for an electric car, but whether it can sell in far greater volume is an open question.
How does one define “crack the code?” It’s akin to saying the Bolt EV hits the key wish list requests of many more fence-sitting consumers in terms of its price, range, and design.
And to be sure the front-wheel-drive compact crossover raises the bar quite a bit. Its 238 miles range is well above the minimum “200 mile” target set a few years ago that GM believed was widely desirable, and which Tesla said it was aiming for with its then Model E (now Model 3). And, the Bolt’s pricing below $30,000 after a $7,500 federal tax credit is reachable for many more intenders. Further, adding state incentives where available – and possibly eventual discounting and promos – the net value proposition could become even more attractive.
All this is for a commuter car with a subtle fun factor. The Bolt zips from 0-60 in about 6.5 seconds compared to about 10 seconds from a 107-mile-range Nissan Leaf, and it’s packed with innovative details, so what’s not to like?
Chevrolet showed extra utility value with an optional roof rack while showing the Bolt in January to the media at Henry House in Portola Valley, Calif. (Photo by Martin Klimek for Chevrolet)
Could the Bolt also “crack the code” on EV sales and break out to unprecedented highs?
In an interview with Steve Majoros, lead marketing director for Chevrolet cars and crossovers, it became clear the automaker is feeling confident about the engineering and design of its product.
What’s less apparent however is whether the Bolt can blow the ceiling off the 30,200 unit limit of the present sales record in its segment set by the Nissan Leaf in 2014.
Majoros refrained from making Bolt sales projections for 2017 as it’s rolling toward national distribution by September – nor is Chevrolet predicting 2018, for that matter, when the car will be available in 50 states.
Chevrolet was once stung by trying to predict more sales than actually happened with the 2011 and 2012 Volt, and since then its policy is to say it will meet demand, and do its best in marketing and dealer support.
Majoros’ ability to project Bolt market acceptance is otherwise tempered, he said, by lack of historical sales data. Unlike a Cruze or Malibu Hybrid or Equinox, etc., a 200-mile EV in this segment has no sales history, Majoros said.
It’s expected Bolt sales will come first from enthusiast-consumers following this space, including people now with money down or otherwise talking to their dealers in advance of the Bolt even getting there. After everyone who wants one gets one, as the saying goes, Majoros said natural demand is to be determined.
“It’ll be interesting to see. We really don’t have a good sense; are the Bolt EV sales going to come from Prius, Volt, i3, Leaf, or just an internal combustion engine person that said ‘I’m finally ready?’” Majoros said. “We’ll see what happens here. We’ll have a much better sense after a year on where people are coming from, and what that may do to change up or maybe make us think a little bit differently about who we target or how we go after them. But I think we have enough general attention that we’re going to get people from across all those segments.”
Chevrolet has been credited with having a “first mover” advantage, but several factors stand as challenges to the “world’s first” 200-mile mass market EV in its segment.
Tesla Model 3
The 215-plus mile range, $35,000 and up Tesla Model 3, with over 400,000 reservations, has strong public interest. It has so much in fact, that it threatens all by itself to suck a lot of the air out of the proverbial room following its second reveal this year prior to its sales launch.
Exterior styling is the top reason why many consumers pull the trigger on a purchase, and the Model 3 has a style that’s resonated with many, at a price that’s agreeable. The prototype 3 models shown appear to promise at least 75 percent of what one gets in the immensely popular Model S for half the price. It’s been said the Model 3 targets a different demographic than the utilitarian Bolt, but given there are no other sub-$40,000 EVs with over 200 miles range, it will by default be cross shopped by some.
Optimists and pessimists have fought over questions including whether the Model 3 will arrive on time and exceed or fall short of expectations – in terms of the car’s desirability, and quality control once on the road.
As for the timing, analyst Alan Baum projects 5,000 sales before the end of 2017 after a fall first delivery. More will be clear on the ultimate value proposition when Tesla reveals what one specifically gets for how much money as the options list adds up.
The Model 3 is expected to come in upper level trims first, meaning base models may take quite some time before they’re available. Baum says maybe two years from launch. This is not so for the Bolt, which can be ordered with little time lag in base LT trim. That said, first Bolt orders so far have been predominantly for the Premier priced from $41,780, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said the average Model 3 transaction price will be around $42,000.
Although Chevrolet rushed a first few Bolt deliveries in Fremont, Calif. under Tesla’s nose in December, its timing this year is otherwise just a few steps ahead of the Model 3, so how this affects Bolt sales remains to be seen.
2018 Nissan Leaf
Nissan IDS Concept with 60-kWh battery. Some believe design cues from it will find their way to the next Leaf.
A similar story goes for the Nissan Leaf, and its front-wheel-drive hatchback layout makes it more a direct competitor for the Bolt.
There is plenty of interest for the follow-up to Nissan’s original pioneer since 2011 in the vehicle segment in which the Bolt has it for now upstaged.
CEO Carlos Ghosn has said the Leaf will be competitive with the Bolt, and with over 250,000 sold worldwide, it will be coming in as an evolved second-generation incumbent from the Japanese automaker.
Several more 200-plus-mile EVs are in the works, if not for this year, then within the next 2-3 years by decade’s end.
These include cars from Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen, Ford, and more to come.
Since the Bolt is being presented as an ostensible mainstream alternative for all but cross country driving due to lack of charging network and only 50-kW fast recharge capability, it actually faces competition from all cars, not just EVs.
These include hybrids and plug-in hybrids – even its own Volt sibling – not to mention any other loosely comparable car that offers a value to the mind of individuals weighing whether they want to go with a first-year EV from Chevrolet.
“The crossover segment is certainly hot, and the Bolt could be considered a crossover, albeit a small one,” said Baum. “There will be a fair amount of competition in this and larger crossover segments going forward.”
If you have not gotten the memo, the “New GM” is producing far-better and more competitive cars than some remember from decades past.
And for this new GM, the Chevrolet Bolt is a symbol of technological leadership with which CEO Mary Barra has said the company wants to show the way. That means corporate pride is riding on the new car, and that ought to lend reason for faith in the Bolt as a well-engineered and effective car which by all indications so far, it is.
GM wants the Bolt – that’s also paving the way with its autonomous and ride sharing efforts – to succeed, and be the forerunner of a new chapter in the company’s history.
This said, Majoros acknowledged old stigmas can die hard. Some people have been turned off by Chevrolet, some by GM in general, some by anything domestic.
We asked whether it would be a simpler matter to sell 75,000 Bolt EVs per year if the car had come from BMW.
“Working on the Chevrolet brand has been paramount for us,” said Majoros. “Again, not there, but much better than where we’ve been, but to your point, it takes time.”
And time rebuilding consumer trust has been spent already. GM has sold over 100,000 Volts with an even more complicated powertrain and drive unit than the Bolt’s. Its battery cells have had only two problems per million, and no battery packs have needed replacement under premature range loss warranty. The Volt has garnered some very vocal fans attesting to what a marvelous solution it is for them.
That said, some consumers are more inclined to give benefit of the doubt to a newcomer like Tesla because it has created some stellar cars, lacks any dirty laundry to speak of, and the company is presented as much as a mission and cause as a for-profit business. This is true even though it has had numerous documented issues with the Model X, some with the Model S, and it’s widely agreed it will face huge challenges ramping from niche to mass marketer pushing as much as 10-times the volume in just a few years.
Nissan too may get a broader pass by the GM-jaded, given who it is, and where it originates. Depending on what its closely guarded secret – the new Leaf – presents, it stands to prevent a certain number of sales for the Chevy Bolt.
And other brands too – Hyundai, Kia, BMW, VW, Ford, etc. – also will face the Bolt not just with products, but the reputation of the company that backs them, and their respective brand recognition values also stand to dictate how the Bolt ultimately fares.
Chevrolet dealers must opt in to sell and service the Bolt, and GM says it has a numerical advantage with more such dealers than Tesla has stores and service centers, but there are two sides to this story.
“Even with Chevrolet’s strong dealer footprint, only a portion of the dealers have opted into selling and servicing the vehicle,” said Baum citing investment in equipment and staff training that may make some dealers shy away.
Further, anecdotes have been plentiful of unmotivated Chevrolet sales people during the past six years of offering the Volt. Dealers are independent franchises, and how they come across is largely a reflection on them, despite GM’s prodding and support.
There are however also bright spots, and some Chevrolet dealers have sales specialists who do understand the product and the customer, and this is expected to increase as the market grows.
Majoros said one of the reasons why the Bolt is rolling out at the pace that it is, is because Chevrolet wants to ensure a quality experience. It needs sales and service personnel trained, ready, and is doing all it knows to prevent disappointments.
Marketing and Advertising
Chevrolet is using multiple avenues to get the word out for its new whiz-bang electric car.
Ultimately, between social media, staged grassroots-level drive events, video spots, customer testimonials, and – yes, positive press in the media – the automaker is hoping to create positive vibes for the car.
Matching Tesla’s synergy on this score remains a challenge to say the least, and to a lesser extent, this is true of other brands which have a perceived better reputations.
And whether GM even believes it can ever explode consumer interest for a small car like the Bolt when consumers tend to like bigger cars is also up in the air, Baum said.
“The fact that GM is heavily marketing the vehicle to both its own mobility services and potentially others suggests that it believes the retail demand is somewhat limited,” he said. “Of course, the use in mobility services is designed to expose the vehicle to potential customers, similar to the approach taken by exposing vehicles to rental fleets.”
So maybe that synergy for a plug-in car from the Bowtie brand will happen at long last?
For years, Volt fans have lamented the company either lacks vision, initiative, or motivation to really sell that car, and they’ve offered suggestions for how to better get the word out.
To its credit, GM has tried many angles. It early on tried to explain the plug-in technology, but that often went in one ear and out the other for all but the technically savvy.
GM could also trump its documented strengths including quality record for the Volt and more, but that, Majoros said, could set it up for an “age old dilemma” of pounding people with facts who still don’t believe in Chevrolet.
Chevrolet has also tried saying in other ways what its products can do for people on a more basic level, and this general slant is still there.
Chevrolet’s “real people, not actors” campaign is one such effort trying to strike a responsive chord with a public it would like to trust it, become interested, and ultimately buy from it.
These new customers it aims to keep too. The goal is to change the legacy, and this is a work in progress.
Conflict of Interest?
Chevy Cruze hatchback.
Like other major automakers, Chevrolet is carving out a new market for an electric car that could shift customers’ minds away from buying one of its other internal combustion powered products.
The company makes the majority of its money selling trucks, SUVs, crossovers, and mainstream gas-powered cars. In these it is heavily invested, and so, if it were to price the Bolt so compellingly as to erode significant sales from itself, that could be an unwelcome dilemma.
Tesla’s Musk has said something similar of car dealers who stand to steal sales from their bread and butter cars if they push the features, advantages, and benefits of a completely different technology too far.
This discussion could go on to cite points and counterpoints, so it is an open question.
What’s more clear is Chevrolet, like all automakers, is veering into plug-in powertrain technology under the prodding of emissions and mpg regulations. It’s also incurring maximum costs at this stage.
Majoros said despite articles floating “hypothetical” questions of whether the Bolt is unprofitable, the automaker does not comment on that question.
Otherwise, GM is wading into a new market with a potential conflict factoring cannibalization of its own bread and butter models, costs, and ultimately it is doing it because it has to now that a budding market is underway.
This has opened the question of how much Chevrolet really wants to sell the Bolt en masse at this stage.
Majoros sidestepped direct answers to whether Chevrolet would like to sell, say, a hypothetical 75,000 units after the first year of 50-state availability in 2018, if such a thing were possible.
“I’d like to see what customer demand is going to be and we’ll do our best to fulfill that,” he said.
Ultimately the will to make the Bolt – ostensibly a mainstream solution – a mainstream seller is the prerogative of GM’s upper management.
At this stage, no one at GM is saying they will sell the Bolt in bunches like bananas, but if that happens, the company would be OK with that too.
Given Chevrolet’s track record, other competition pending, and more variables besides, Baum does not believe the Bolt will sell beyond the limit of the Chevy Volt before it.
“I have spoken with GM engineers involved with the development of the Bolt and Volt who are justifiably proud of the technical capability of these products,” said Baum. “However, they are frustrated that the sales of these products have been below expectations given the marketing program.”
How many sales then could the Bolt see in a partial year for 2017? An estimated 21,000. Last year the second-generation extended-range Volt sold 24,739 in its first calendar year.
For 2018, the first year in which the Bolt is for sale in all 50 states, Baum projects 25,000 Bolt sales. And, for 2019, by which time there are expected several competitive models for sale, he projects 23,000 Bolt sales.
Of course anything could change to shift things, but this is the outlook at this point after weighing objective and subjective factors for a new car in a new market in flux.
Last month the equivalent of the sun not rising happened in the U.S. hybrid market: Toyota’s Prius Liftback did not finish the month with the most sales.
Since last decade, the Prius has been the proverbial king of the hybrid market, and in recent years its monthly sales regularly doubled or tripled those of the next-closest hybrid, often a Prius c, Prius v, or Camry Hybrid, but that streak has been broken.
What, you may ask, was the vehicle that for the first time this decade outsold Toyota’s hatchback that’s as associated with the term “hybrid” as “Kleenex” is with tissues? The Ford Fusion Hybrid, and its 4,856 sales mildly surpassed the 4,553 of the Prius Liftback.
This turn of events follows a lackluster first year in 2016 for the fourth-generation Prius in which sales were down by 13 percent.
What does this mean? Maybe nothing much, or more likely it’s a symptom of several factors.
According to analyst Alan Baum, the indignity of a Ford Fusion Hybrid ousting the Prius from January’s top spot should probably be treated for now as an anomaly.
January 2017 happened to be the best sales month on record for the revised 2017 Ford and the worst month since April 2011 for the Prius. Ford has had a few other months in the middle 4,000s, so it was not that much of an outlier for it, but the Prius is otherwise quite down from sales above 6,000 it’s previously enjoyed.
So, chalk last month up to bad timing, and forget it right? Potentially. Odds are good next month the Prius will rebound to number one again, but that does not mean all is well.
2016 Prius Sales Down
More telling is the entire first year of sales that were not better, but actually 13-percent worse than those of the outgoing 2015 Prius. Given pent-up interest prior to the fully redesigned 52-56-mpg car, one might have expected a year-over-year sales increase, but this did not happen.
Toyota’s Claudia Rodriguez, Prius marketing manager, said the Prius still holds a strong lead however, and 2016 was a time of overall decline in the hybrid market.
“In 2016, we saw that low fuel prices continued to drive sales towards trucks and SUVs,” said Rodriguez. “But we know fuel prices ebb and flow over time. We take a long-term view when it comes to our product decisions and we believe Prius is well-positioned to deliver environmental benefits and a lot more.”
The phenomenon of car purchases being tied to fuel prices is a long-documented reality for a reactive buying public. That hasn’t helped the hybrid market, and the status of the Prius is actually related to the perceived health of the entire hybrid market.
That is, because it carries so much weight, the Prius Liftback’s sales can swing the total market’s share.
Its peak year this decade, 2013, saw 145,000 units sold. Last year it sold 98,863 units followed by the RAV4 Hybrid’s 45,070, the Fusion Hybrid’s 33,648, and after that only a couple sold in the 20s, a couple in the teens, and many more hybrids sell fewer than 10,000 units annually.
That it is not as vigorous as it has been in years past is evident, and this may be dependent on a few other subjective variables besides low gas prices.
The number one deciding factor among a list of other considerations consumers weigh in purchasing a car is exterior styling, and the new Prius has been polarizing.
Its design is being well received in its home country Japan, where it is manufactured and treated as a mainstream car, but armchair pundits with North American aesthetic sensibilities have in cases moaned and groaned for the strain on their eyes.
Others say they find the new Prius quite fetching, but meanwhile, though the Prius carries a far more solid pedigree, and superior efficiency versus the Fusion Hybrid’s, the Ford blends in with the mainstream-handsome appearance of the Fusion family line
Toyota and Ford sales also include an unknown quantity of fleet sales in addition to retail sales, but a breakdown is not available between the two brands.
Another shift since last year has included the RAV4 Hybrid ascending to the second or third place in the U.S. hybrid sales roster, as the older Prius v wagon and Prius c subcompact have slipped a spot or two down.
Despite getting mpg only in the mid 30s, the RAV4 Hybrid’s AWD small sport-ute visage and pricing only $700 over non-hybrid versions with same equipment has helped its popularity a lot.
Another competitor, the Nissan Rogue Hybrid, is also due and said by its maker to be priced less than Toyota’s new hybrid sales leader.
More Competitors Coming
There are already several high-mpg sedans that have recently come along like the 48-mpg Honda Accord Hybrid, 46-mpg Malibu Hybrid, as well as those from Hyundai and Kia and others that represent choices opposed to a Prius Liftback.
Its design makes it as a true expression of the phrase “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but more than flattering, Hyundai wants market share.
The Ioniq – a trio, really, to come in hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric form – is being driven by the media next week, and the hybrid is due on sale then also.
Another alternative threatening to take mindshare is the Kia Niro Hybrid, available in three trims from 43-50 mpg, and starting at a bit below $23,000.
Soon enough all three will be out, and with regard to the Hybrid and PHEV Ioniq variants, the styling has been said to be more “welcoming” which is a euphemistic way of saying the Ioniq is more attractive then the Prius.
Depending on how it is priced, its alternative appeal and superior on paper efficiency could add to a strong alternative which was the goal since it was known for the past several years that Hyundai was gunning for Toyota’s hybrid.
Unknown, Baum said, is how effectively it will be marketed, supported at the dealer level, and what the bottom line value proposition shall be. Also not helping it necessarily is the Ioniq is a newcomer, whereas the Prius has been evolved since 1997 when it was first launched in Japan.
It’s widely believed that many of the most progressive-minded buyers who once looked several years back at the Prius as a pinnacle of environmental effectiveness now look to plug-ins as a brighter shade of green.
While sales in the teens or 2,000s per month are not threatening to topple the Prius which sold 7,800 in December 2016, it is clear mindshare has been sapped by cars like the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and even upscale Tesla Model S and others. There are now actually 30 plug-in cars on the market which is quite an assortment of alternate choices.
Last year, when launching the new Prius, Toyota did what it could to invoke its environmental contribution – which remains significant – but it also broadened the appeal.
It gave the car superior handling to any Prius that came before, and is appealing to anyone who wants an economical and known reliable car.
That it’s not seen as an ultimate any more is otherwise a factor.
Another variable in the Prius Liftback’s relative competitiveness is its own plug-in sibling.
In its third month, the Prius Prime plug-in hybrid was the second best-seller in January – and unlike the Prius Liftack’s being January’s second-best seller, this was a badge of honor for the aspiring PHEV.
The Prime actually topped Tesla Model S and X sales after that automaker had sprinted to a December 2016 record finish and only the Chevy Volt beat the Prime’s 1,366 sales by just 245 units with 1,611 in January 2017.
In California, which has traditionally spoken for half of all plug-in sales, the Prime may be a prime competitor against the Liftback as it is priced midway in the Liftback’s range.
Rodriguez said on this possibility, it is too early to tell.
“We do not have that data yet to help us determine that with certainty,” said Rodruguez. “Unfortunately there is a lag on the data sources that allow us to do an analysis to be able to determine this.”
In any case, the Prime’s styling has been said by some to be a bit more attractive, so the Prime does represent a viable challenger to its own sibling.
It also qualifies for federal and state credits which may let it net for less than the Liftback, while getting the same 52 mpg in hybrid mode, plus 25 miles electric range versus none.
Hybrid Market Fading?
Analyst Alan Baum flatly refutes the notion that the hybrid market is in danger of being superceded by plug-ins. Plug-ins, though they have nearly as many models as hybrids for sale now, only account for 0.9 percent of the U.S. market and were top-heavy in California which takes half of them.