Automakers are preparing to introduce dozens of fully electric cars and plug-in hybrid vehicles over the next three years. But to sell all those cars, the manufacturers have to attract a new class of customer: mainstream consumers, who may be harder to win over than the people who flocked to buy Teslas.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Just before Thanksgiving, Ken Westerman came close to buying his first fully electric car, a Tesla Model 3.
A retired music teacher with an interest in protecting the environment, Westerman was looking to replace the hybrid car he had been driving for years, a red Toyota Prius, and test-drove a Model 3. He was dazzled by the car but concluded that the limits of its range — 300 miles on a single charge — would complicate his regular trips from Ann Arbor to the East Coast and Arkansas.
“Those are six- to eight-hour trips, and if you have to stop to charge up, that would add two hours each way,” Westerman said. “I absolutely loved the car, but the range was the killer.” Instead of the Model 3, he bought another Prius.
Westerman’s decision should serve as a caution sign during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Electric vehicles will be a hot topic at the showcase, which opened to the news media and industry executives Monday, and will open to the public Saturday.
Automakers are preparing to introduce dozens of fully electric cars and plug-in hybrid vehicles over the next three years, and Hyundai, Kia, Mini, Nissan and Audi will display electric models due in the United States this year. It is a gambit based on the idea that many mainstream car owners will rush to make the leap from gasoline.
But to sell all those cars, the manufacturers have to attract a new class of customer.
Mainstream consumers may be harder to win over than the wealthy luxury-car buyers, hard-core environmentalists and early adopters who have flocked to buy Model 3s and delivered Tesla’s rapid sales growth. That may be especially true in the middle of the country, because charging stations are more sparse there than on the coasts, where most Tesla models are sold.
Westerman, for example, said he’d like an electric car with a range of 600 miles — about as far as his Prius takes him on a full tank of gas.
Manufacturers are developing so many electrified models primarily to compete in China and Europe, where government subsidies and stringent environmental laws are spurring sales of zero-emission vehicles, said Mark Wakefield, a managing director at AlixPartners, a consulting firm. The sales pace is less certain in the United States, in part because gasoline remains cheap and the Trump administration has pulled back on emissions regulations.
“In the U.S., you can’t assume you’re going to be selling 100,000 of one model,” Wakefield said. “You don’t want to dedicate an entire factory to EVs” — as Tesla has done.
Last year, 361,000 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles were sold in the United States, just 2 percent of car purchases, according to estimates by InsideEVs.com. Tesla, which has struggled with production and delivery problems, accounted for half those sales.
But automakers have ambitious plans. Next year, Ford plans to introduce a small electric SUV with a look influenced by its Mustang. The company is spending $11 billion to develop 16 battery-powered vehicles and 24 other types of electrified cars over the next five years.
“It’s still early days, but we think people will be coming to us for electric vehicles,” said Ted Cannis, leader of Ford’s Team Edison, which is developing its electric vehicles. “We think we’re coming at the right time.”
General Motors is making a similar push. On Friday, its chief executive, Mary Barra, said GM was increasing production of its Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle and planned to make electric cars a key part of Cadillac’s lineup.
Automakers have concluded that improvements in battery technology and declining battery prices will enable them to produce electric cars with much greater range. Westerman’s 600 miles may be unlikely soon, but far speedier recharging times are becoming a reality.
For electric cars overall, one big hurdle is the availability of charging stations. While more are popping up in shopping centers and parking garages, with about 20,000 in the United States, they are vastly outnumbered by the 150,000 gas stations across the country. Homeowners can install charging units in garages, but the millions who live in apartments don’t have that option.
Chris Torrella, a college student who lives in a rented home in Ann Arbor with no garage, bought a Model 3 in March and found he had to go too far out of his way to get to the city’s public chargers. His solution was one that few others may try: He persuaded his landlord to pay about $8,000 to modify the sidewalk in front of the house and install a public charging station at the curb.
“Now I can park on the street and charge up, and anyone else in the neighborhood who has a Tesla can, too,” Torrella said.
Charging time is another issue. Even Tesla’s Superchargers require 40 minutes to provide an 80 percent charge. Doing the trick at home is generally an overnight job.
Automakers are trying to address those challenges. GM, Nissan, Volkswagen and others are working with partners to install more chargers. They are getting help from Electrify America, a company that Volkswagen funded as part of its agreement to settle lawsuits over its deception on diesel emissions. With a budget of $2 billion, Electrify America is aiming to install an initial wave of 600 chargers at gas stations, and 1,500 at office parks and apartment buildings. Three more waves are to follow.
But even so, Electrify America’s network will probably provide only 10 percent of the country’s charging needs by 2021, the company’s chief executive, Giovanni Palazzo, said at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November.
“We can’t make it happen on our own,” he said. “We need more players.”
Electrify America is also hoping to install 350-kilowatt chargers within the next few years, which in theory could provide a full charge in about 15 minutes. About 80 percent of the chargers currently installed use 120 kilowatts, Palazzo said.
One advantage that automakers are counting on is the wider variety of cars they will bring to the market. The Model 3, the Chevrolet Bolt and the Nissan Leaf are all small cars, a type of vehicle that fewer Americans are buying. Like Ford, Nissan is working on a roomier, SUV-like model that it thinks will have wider appeal.
“There’s not a lot of variety right now, but as more vehicles come up in the small and midsize SUV body styles, it will bring in more people,” said Brian Maragno, Nissan’s director of EV sales and marketing strategy. “The market, in just a couple of years, is going to look very different.”