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Tesla still swings wildly between profits and losses from quarter to quarter. But sales of its more affordable Model 3 sedan are strong. It was Western Europe’s biggest selling battery car in the first half of 2019. In the United States, it’s outselling luxury gas-powered competition from BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Lexus.
For the past few years, journalists who cover transportation have been wondering: Is this the time that electric vehicles finally become a major part of the market? With Tesla still being a pretty specialized vehicle, will EVs be available on every lot?
Marketplace’s Jack Stewart spoke with Chelsea Sexton, a longtime EV advocate and enthusiast. She’s been deeply involved in the EV world since the radical General Motors EV1 came out in 1996. Stewart asked her how EV sales are going now. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Chelsea Sexton: We are seeing some things starting to happen. Certainly, more models are starting to be introduced; at the same time, sales aren’t hockey-stick growing the way that certain folks would have hoped and assumed they would. Electric cars are basically compelled by three regulations around the world: [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards in the U.S., the California zero emission mandate and CO2 standards in Europe. China is going all electric, too, but it’s sort of an island market now, not that much cross-pollination. Automakers are all getting ready to do electric cars and accepting it as something they’re going to have to do … but not terribly excited about it. And the more they can be allowed to delay, many of them will.
Jack Stewart: It feels like this is an exciting time for EVs. It feels like I’m seeing more [models] marketed and on the roads. What’s happening?
Sexton: There are a few more that have just hit that everyone’s been excited about. It’s been the year of the mostly-premium-but-small-SUV category. The Jaguar I-Pace, the Audi E-Tron and even in the more economy brands, the Hyundai Kona and the KIA Niro, all of which are in this small-to-medium-size SUV category. It’s a category that folks have been looking forward to having bigger vehicles that can do a little bit more and just have some alternative to Tesla, which as cool as it is, there is no single brand that everybody’s going to like.
Stewart: Are any of these going to be that competition to Tesla?
Sexton: It remains to be seen. Certainly they have the potential as vehicles to help present some competition to Tesla. It’s too soon to say if any of the brands involved will really structure them that way, promote them that way and make as many as would needed to be made to do that.
Stewart: Tesla likes to cite the statistic that its car, its Model 3, is outselling all the competition combined, all the other luxury cars on the market in the U.S. now. Is that because people want EVs and that’s the best one available? Or is that because people want Teslas?
Sexton: Yes [to both]. There’s no question that some people would probably buy a Tesla even if it had a V-8 in it, just because it’s cool and the brand is cool.
Stewart: That’s a weird thought.
Sexton: It is a weird thought, although we’ve had it about a few other EVs in the past. But, at the same time, that’s also where the rest of the industry gets defensive and they go, “Oh, no, there’s not really demand for EVs. There’s a demand for Tesla,” which is also crap. So the answer is somewhere in the middle.
Related links: more insight from Jack Stewart
That idea of a Tesla with a V-8 in it might sound outlandish now, but it’s not unprecedented, as Sexton said, in the roller-coaster history of the electric vehicle.
One of Tesla’s early competitors was the Fisker Karma. Like the Model S, this car was a large four-door sedan, but it came with a hybrid electric and gas powertrain. It was a beautiful car but struggled with battery supply and a still-tough economic climate in 2012.
Bob Lutz, a Detroit industry titan, remade a version with a Corvette V-8. Road & Track magazine has the details.
So is an EV right for you? The answer is still: It depends. But for a greater proportion of the population in the United States, it might make sense and save you money as well as cutting your emissions.
Consumer Reports has a breakdown of your choices and their underlying technologies.
And I say cut your emissions, but that’s something that’s worth looking into in a little more detail. The electricity to charge a car must come from somewhere, and the ways that power is generated around the world, and across the country, can vary widely in their global climate impact. If your local grid is heavily coal-dependent, then your electricity is less clean than someone who has solar panels or a heavy mix of renewables.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has a great tool that factors all this in. Put in your ZIP code and the type of car, and it’ll tell you how green it is. For example, someone driving a Volkswagen e-Golf and charging it in Los Angeles would have emissions equivalent to a gas car that gets 131 mpg. In Kansas City, that falls to 54 mpg.