EV Sales to Suffer in COVID-19 Economy, No More Than Gas Cars

After the economic dust settles from the impacts of the novel coronavirus, experts predict electric vehicle sales will finally hit their competitive stride in about 2025. For now, car sales across the board will suffer.

by Skip Descant / May 21, 2020
Shutterstock/Gorlov-KV

Electric vehicle sales should not be any more depressed than the sales of conventional cars during the ensuing world recession. This is one of the predictions offered by industry experts, hoping to offer some guidance around the future sales of electric cars.

“I like to believe EV sales are a little bit stickier, and people are a little bit more committed to buying EVs than ICE [internal combustion engine] cars,” said Joel Levin, executive director for Plug In America, an EV education and advocacy group. “We’ll see how that plays out. I think we’re likely to see a trend, something like that.”

During the last recession, car sales fell 40 percent in 2008. Sales this year are expected to follow a similar trend at the hands of economic uncertainty caused by the novel coronavirus, and may not return to 2019 levels until 2025, said Levin.

“EV sales are going to drop also, but not as much,” he added, during comments during a recent webinar hosted by EV education group Forth. “We’re seeing that already in Europe. There are countries where EV sales have fallen, but not near as much as overall sales of ICE cars. In fact, their market share has grown, as the [overall car] market shrank.”

The car market is driven, to a large degree, by supply and demand, said John Voelcker, a journalist and analyst covering advanced auto technologies and policies around them. If consumers are unwilling to buy a new car — and a depressed economy is often enough to empty out showrooms — the market contracts.

“Less than half of all Americans can afford to buy a new car now,” Voelcker added, noting that used cars make up three times the sales of new cars.

One variable influencing EV sales around the globe are the various pieces of public policy structured around lowering carbon emissions. China, said Voelcker, intends to dominate the plug-in car market. Europe is also accelerating its adoption of electric cars, in part, due to greenhouse gas-curbing regulations.

“Things are different in North America. I’ve maintained for the last couple of years, especially under the current administration, that North America is really in danger of falling behind the global trend and becoming less and less relevant to the global discussion on EVs,” said Voelcker.

The Trump administration has shown little interest in growing the EV car market, and has actively taken steps to weaken fuel efficiency standards put in place by the Obama administration.

“Even before coronavirus, there was so much focus on China and Europe, that what is likely true is the U.S. will continue backslide in terms of its regional leadership in EV deployment,” echoed Chelsea Sexton, a longtime adviser on EVs.

In the United States, these trends start to shift by about the middle of this decade, which is when EVs are anticipated to become profitable.

“Once everything becomes profitable in 2025, then [car companies] have an incentive to market the damn things, and actually get people to try to buy them, which they really haven’t been, in any meaningful way today,” said Voelcker.

Nearly 1.5 million electric cars have been sold in the united States since 2011, according to statistics compiled by Veloz.

Until the price parity between an electric car with a 200-mile range and a gas-powered car narrows further, incentives and rebates will continue to be needed to prime the U.S. EV market for the next five years, said Voelcker.

If automakers can make a gas car comparably priced to an EV with a 250-mile range “then I think the world starts to get really interesting,” said Levin. “Hopefully, we’ll be there in five years or so.”

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