The Near Future of Electric Cars: Many Models, Few Buyers

Source: By Keith Naughton, Bloomberg • Posted: Friday, December 22, 2017

There will be more than 100 different battery-powered vehicles available in five years, despite little interest so far from drivers.

Illustration: Cathryn Virginia

Automakers with ambitious plans to roll out more than a hundred new battery-powered models in the next five years appear to be forgetting one little thing: Drivers aren’t yet buzzed about the new technology.

Electric cars—which today comprise only 1 percent of auto sales worldwide, and even less in the U.S.—will account for just 2.4 percent of U.S. demand and less than 10 percent globally by 2025, according to researcher LMC Automotive. But while consumer appetite slogs along, carmakers are still planning a tidal wave of battery-powered models that may find interested buyers few and far between.

“When you hear people talk about the tipping point, it’s really that they’re counting the number of product offerings,” Hau Thai-Tang, Ford Motor Co.’s global head of product development and purchasing, said of electric cars. “Nobody can cite what the actual demand will be.”

With battery costs declining rapidly and Tesla Inc.’s stock price on a tear, automakers are rushing to get in the game with their own all-electric models. General Motors Co. has announced plans to roll out 20 models by 2023, while Ford and Volkswagen AG are among those planning new electric lineups in China. Toyota Motor Corp. this week promised more than 10 electric models by early next decade.

In total, 127 battery-electric models will be introduced worldwide in the next five years, Thai-Tang said, with LMC predicting pure electric offerings will increase by more than five-fold to 75 models in the U.S. alone.

“There’s certainly more hype than real growth in sales volume,” Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC, said in an interview. “How long have we been talking about EVs? We’re now finally seeing them in numbers, but the sales numbers are not taking over the industry by any means.”

It’s a mix of panic and promise that’s driving automakers to set ambitious goals to catch up to perceived market leaders like Tesla and GM, which each are enjoying a run-up in their stock prices this year. GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra said her company will sell more than 1 million electric vehicles per year—profitably—by 2026. Tesla CEO Elon Musk had been planning to build half a million electric cars in 2018, although that timeline could be jeopardized by missed production targets for the $35,000 Model 3 sedan.

Wall Street continues to reward Tesla and values the Silicon Valley electric-car maker as worth more than Ford, even as the Detroit automaker dwarfs Musk’s company in nearly all metrics, from output to revenue. Tesla shares are up about 60 percent this year, while Ford has gained closer to 5 percent.

“Tesla has a cult following and that helps build the hype,” Schuster said. “Other companies say, ‘How do we capture some of this buzz Tesla has? Can we do it by electrifying our lineup, too?’”

There’s a growing optimism that the electric market is ready for liftoff, based in part on improvements in battery chemistry and costs and in part on the Field of Dreams adage: If you build it, they will come. Still, the rush to electrify in the face of uncertain demand has left auto suppliers on edge. They have to build factories and invest to develop components of battery-powered propulsion systems to support the automakers’ aggressive ambitions.

Magna International Inc., for example, the largest auto supplier in North America, is having vigorous debates over whether to add capacity to tool up for electric cars when its executives don’t see much demand for them over the next eight years. The company predicts EVs will only grow to between 3 percent and 6 percent of global auto sales by 2025, said Jim Tobin, chief marketing officer at the Canadian company.

Industry executives convinced drivers will abruptly exit their internal combustion engine vehicles in favor of electrics may find themselves too overzealous, with LMC forecasting gasoline-powered engines will still make up about 85 percent of U.S. new car sales in 2025. But that shift could accelerate as electrified vehicles reach price parity with gasoline-powered cars, which Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts will happen by 2029 or sooner for most models.

Rick Haas, former chief engineer of the Tesla Model S who now runs the North American operations of Indian automaker Mahindra & Mahindra, counts himself in the optimistic camp. Although today’s drivers aren’t too excited about battery cars, tougher regulations in places like China and the power-thirsty needs of driverless features could help speed the transition along.

“Things move about 10 times the speed that they moved 25 years ago,” Haas said. “As soon as the ball crests the hill and everyone thinks, ‘I’m comfortable with this,’ then the whole industry will flip.”

And no automaker wants to be left behind to sell the 21st Century version of the buggy whip: a car that runs on fossil fuel.

“There will be a lot of winners and losers,” said Haas. “Companies will die because of this.”

Ford does not want to be one of the casualties. Thai-Tang said his engineers and suppliers are working hard on developing a cost-efficient battery that is better and cheaper than today’s lithium-ion versions. Toyota is working on energy-dense solid-state batteries, seen as the next frontier in electric power, with Panasonic Corp.

Yet the greatest challenge may not be technological. It could be marketing, as more than 10 dozen models fight over a sliver of market share.

“The question we’ve been asking ourselves is, ‘OK, if you’re going to launch in that clutter of 120 competitive products, what’s going to allow somebody to want to even consider your product?” Thai-Tang said, noting that the “provocative” design for the small electric SUV Ford’s planning may help differentiate it in a crowded field. “But not in a weird science-fair kind of provocative” way, he added.

While the math doesn’t yet add up for the glut of models chasing the tiny market for EVs, no automaker wants to be caught short when the switch gets flipped to battery power.

“Our ambition for electrification is not modest,” Jim Farley, Ford’s executive vice president of global markets, said in an interview. “We’re going for it.”