Two Record Months of Electric Vehicle Sales

In the Middle East, sectarian violence and geopolitical tensions have boiled over, causing gas prices to rise to near-record levels for this time of year. American motorists are feeling the pinch, as the unexpected cost dampers Fourth of July plans for many this holiday weekend. But a certain class of automobile owners can smile as they drive past the gas station, with zero stress about prices at the pump. June sales numbers tell us that 222,495 Americans  now own electric vehicles. June is the second consecutive month that electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (referred to collectively as plug-in vehicles or PEVs) have set new records for highest monthly PEV sales. The data serves as proof of what we already know; more and more consumers are fed up with high and volatile gas prices, and they are willing and excited to embrace a cleaner and more secure energy future. First, let’s look at the numbers.

At the beginning of every year, plug-in vehicle sales naturally slow. This is a function of the entire automotive industry, which tends to experience higher sales at the end of the year, as dealerships offer promotions to clear their lots and make way for next year’s models. After spending on Christmas presents and holiday vacations, consumers tighten their belts in the first quarter, and car sales drop accordingly in January, February, and March. A quick look at the sales data confirms these trends.

Every year since their market debut, PEV sales in the second half of the year have significantly outpaced those in the first. In 2013, for example, 41,047 PEVs were purchased in January through June—only 35 percent of the total vehicles sold that year. In 2012, the 17,833 units sold in the first half of the year were only 33 percent of that year’s sales. In 2011, 37 percent were sold in H1. This year, a total of 54,731 plug-in vehicles have already been sold. If the trends of previous years continue, in which nearly two-thirds of sales occur in the second half of the year, we can safely estimate that total sales for 2014 will reach over 150,000 units. Not too bad, especially considering that currently the total number of  electric vehicles on America’s roads is nearly 225,000. Of course, when looking at cumulative sales, one thing becomes clear. Not all plug-in vehicles are created equal, especially when it comes to their sales volumes.

Right now, the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius Plug-In, and Tesla Model S represent 81.7 percent of cumulative EV sales. Despite the current commercial availability of 17 models, these four are carrying the vast majority of all plug-in vehicles on the road. The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf alone, the first two vehicles on the market, comprise 53 percent of all EVs sold so far.

After the “Big Four”—Volt,  Leaf, Prius, and S—the biggest contributor to EV sales is the Ford family of electric vehicles, which is quickly gaining market share. The Ford Focus Electric, C-Max Energi, and Fusion Energi equate to 12.5 percent of PEVs on the road, an impressive number given that the three models only entered the game in mid-2012 to early 2013. The Ford Focus, which has had the least impressive performance of the three, came to the market in May of 2012, and has only sold 3,314 vehicles since. The Ford Fusion Energi, on the other hand, was introduced just over one year ago in February 2013, and has sold four times as many as its sibling, with a total of 12,324 units sold. In terms of monthly sales, the Fusion has outperformed Ford’s middle child, the C-MAX Energi, which came to market in September 2012 and has sold 13,456. That means that the remaining models (the Mitsubishi I, now defunct BMW Active E, Smart for Two, Honda Fit, Toyota RAV4, Honda Accord, Chevy Spark, Fiat 500, Porsche Panamera, Cadillac ELR, and BMW I3) collectively account for only 5.3 percent of total PEVs on the road today. The Porsche, Cadillac, and BMW models were all introduced within the past six months, suggesting their performance may improve considerably over time.

Going back to Ford, an interesting thing happened this month: for the first time in the PEV industry’s young history, more Ford Fusion Energis were sold than any other plug-in hybrid. Furthermore, it was the second best-seller this month after the Nissan Leaf. The Chevy Volt has almost always been the best-selling PHEV, although the Prius Plug-In and now the Ford Fusion are challenging its preeminence as of late.

How much do gas prices influence electric vehicle sales? It’s hard to say, but it’s difficult to imagine that there is no relationship between how much consumers spend at the pump and their willingness to buy an electric vehicle. A quick chart illustrating month-over-month changes in both suggests that oftentimes a gasoline price jump leads to an upward swing in monthly electric vehicle sales. Of course, there are other market factors to contend with: cyclical sales of all automobiles, consumer confidence, and more. But it’s probably safe to say that the record numbers of people who have bought electric vehicles in the past two months are happy they did during this weekend’s near-record prices.