The second coming is upon us, or more appropriately in the auto world the third coming. Tesla’s legendary-before-its-been-seen Model 3 will find its way into a few customers’ hands later this month. The third of Tesla’s pure electric vehicle (EV) models – the first being the groundbreaking, heavy selling Model S; the second the futuristic, modestly selling Model X – has advance orders of 400,000 and a cult following akin to a new iPhone launch.
Starry-eyed millennials, and a few genuine car buffs, lined up for hours just to order one, enjoying the comfort of belonging to the new brotherhood of fellow planet savers, though peculiarly and totally disinterested in the perfectly good (but homely) Nissan Leaf EVs gathering enough dust on dealer lots that organic potatoes could be planted on their hoods (30,000+ sold in 2014, 14,000 in 2016).
In addition to the brouhaha surrounding the baby Tesla, two EV announcements this week caused an onslaught of manic headlines in the news that captured the spirit of the fledgling movement, though said capture required sidestepping some fairly fundamental facts. The stories were an aching reminder of just how good propagandists are at using the media.
First, Volvo announced that by 2019 the company would no longer offer autos powered solely by internal combustion engines; all vehicles sold from that time onward would at a minimum be supplemented by an electric motor. In other words, the company will make only hybrid gas-electric vehicles, or pure EVs. It was crystal clear that gasoline/diesel engines would continue to be built and sold, but the nifty turn of phrase that did the trick was that “all cars would include an electric-power component.” There is a clear and important distinction there, which the mass media completely avoided when it came time to pick the headlines; they went for the bait like piranhas on a chicken carcass.
From the UK: Volvo sounds death knell for petrol cars. From the US: Geely’s Volvo to go all electric with new models from 2019. Canada: Volvo vows to go all electric as auto makers bank on consumer acceptance. No no no no no. Every story ultimately reported the facts correctly somewhere in the article, but no matter – the web was awash with headlines that hit the lowest common denominator reader right between the eyes. This is a war of fear, remember, not information.
Next on the agenda was France’s display of a comprehensive mastery of Soviet-era propaganda tactics. The country wants to get off fossil fuels within the next generation, a fair enough target these days. To outline France’s objectives, the Ecology Minister unveiled six themes and 23 policy proposals, one of which was to end the sale of fossil fuel powered vehicles by 2040. In case you are both unfamiliar with government announcements and are less than 5 years old, I will point out that government policy themes and proposals are not real things, they are less real than leprechauns. They are as real as a government vowing to end poverty, or me proposing to fill in the Grand Canyon with my shovel. Anyone over 5 years of age will know the difference between a government’s dream and it’s laws, right? Except…oh no, please say it isn’t so, surely they can’t be this stupid…I give up. Reuters’ headline: France to end sale of diesel and gasoline engines by 2040. Not proposes, not hopes, not anticipates…will end sale of etc.
Here in the land of reality, where some of us are forced to deal with actual physical phenomenon and not just wishes, these are actual sales figures for EVs and hybrid vehicles for the past few years:
These are extremely valuable for context when the headlines make it sound like EVs will overrun the world in the next few years. Yes, EV/hybrid sales are growing substantially, and yes the Tesla Model 3 will have a significant impact on these numbers. But the trajectory is not what is implied. Despite the proliferation of new hybrids on the market – every manufacturer offers at least one, including Ferrari – their sales numbers remain marginal to date. Some like to call this “exponential growth,” though perhaps they’re the sort that would choose to call ice cubes small glaciers.
It is true that growth will likely grow strongly, mostly with hybrids, but also through true electrics. However, remember that they’re not all Teslas; many look like this:
These types of micro EVs make a lot of sense for running around cities, just as Smart cars make a lot of sense as rentals-by-the-minute but not for many others.
In sum, EVs and hybrids are growing in popularity, a lot, but nowhere near what the media is portraying. The majority of sales in this category continue to be hybrids, which still utilize gas or diesel and often only represent a 20-30 percent mileage improvement. Significant, but about to destroy fossil fuel dependency? Not even close.
Times are changing. Autos will get more efficient through a number of means such as smaller engines, turbochargers, electric motors, and some pure EVs. The barking of the media will serve its purpose and convince some that the EV tide is inevitable and right here, but that is not the case.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here