Study: Electric Cars Catching on Faster than Hybrids Did

Mass-market electric cars may still be viewed by many as low-volume niche vehicles, but a study from IHS Automotive suggests that EVs are actually catching on more quickly than hybrid vehicles did when they were first introduced to the market. This study compares cumulative global sales of the original Toyota Prius hybrid, the Chevrolet Volt Plug-in hybrid, and the Nissan Leaf EV over the first four years after these vehicles initially went on sale.

The Toyota Prius gasoline-electric hybrid first went on sale globally in 2000 after initially being offered for sale in Japan only starting in 1997, so IHS Automotive’s data uses 2000 as the starting point for calculating global cumulative sales of the Prius. By 2004, 52,200 Prius models had been sold across the world. Surprising at is may be, both the Chevrolet Volt (and its Opel Ampera twin) and the Nissan Leaf have both totaled significantly more vehicles sold over the respective four-year periods after these models’ debuts. The plug-in hybrid Volt totaled 68,507 units, and the electric-only Leaf has racked up 96,477 sales.

While it’s true that Toyota Prius sales really began to take off when the second-generation model was introduced in 2005, the IHS analysis attempts to directly compare the success of early EV models with the success of early hybrid cars. “Most EV drivers still own their first-generation electric vehicles,” said IHS Automotive analyst Ben Scott in a statement. “Furthermore, there have been insufficient product offerings to effectively legitimize the market and show to consumers that EVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) represent the way of the future.”

Despite the limitations that electric and plug-in vehicles have faced in terms of early development and market availability, these models have still sold better than hybrids did at first, according to this data. The IHS study also mentions that early expectations for electric cars may have been too high, leading many to think of early EVs and plug-ins as failures for not meeting these inflated expectations despite these models’ relative sales success in the global market.

Going forward, this IHS Automotive report speculates that plug-in hybrid vehicles will be more successful than EVs in the coming years because they give buyers the opportunity to travel longer distances without being limited by charging and range concerns. By 2020, IHS expects plug-in hybrid vehicles to outsell traditional EVs by a ratio of 55:45. Additionally, both plug-in hybrid and electric models should continue to rise, while the future success of traditional gas-electric hybrids is unsure. For instance, The Detroit News reports that hybrid sales are falling in California in Q1 2014, while plug-in hybrid and EV sales are rising.

What do you think about the growth of electric and plug-in vehicles compared with traditional hybrids? Sound off in the comment section below.