The early results are in: electric vehicles (EVs) are selling faster than the Toyota Prius hybrid did when it was first introduced to the market, and this is particularly true in the Northwest.
In a Scientific American blog post, Tali Trigg examined where EV sales were expected to be today in terms of technological development by comparing EV sales against the Toyota Prius Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) from its launch. Trigg looked at new vehicle sales over time since initial market launch and found that all major battery electric vehicles (BEV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) were on track or doing better than how the Prius HEV was selling at a similar point in its introduction to the market.
The graph shows compares the various trajectories of different EV vehicles and the Prius HEV (introduction dates are indicated in parentheses next to each vehicle).
Source: “Electric Vehicle Deployment–Where Should We Be Today?”
Scientific American Blogs, Feb 20, 2013
This comparison is not strictly apples-to-apples because it does not take into account the overall vehicle market, nor subsidy effects, but does indicate that EVs are out-selling the Prius.
Further, the Northwest is leading the way nationally. Mass market EVs went on sale fully in the Northwest in 2011 with the introduction of the Nissan LEAF after a few were sold end of 2010. Just two years later, in March 2013 Inside EV reported that Nissan dealers in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle were selling LEAFs at "unbelievable rate" and were requesting additional cars.
One month later, in April 2013, LEAF outsold every other Nissan model in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Honolulu.
The chart shows new LEAF registrations in Washington State from when the LEAF was first introduced through 28 months until April 2013, as well as projected sales through the end of 2013.
Source: Washington State Department of Licensing Data
As of April 2013 in Washington State, LEAFs were clearly in the lead in new vehicle registrations with the Chevy Volt and Tesla second and third. The Tesla S had a particularly strong first quarter with 411 registered, as the chart below shows.
Source: Washington State Department of Licensing Data
By the end of 2013, based on current trends, I project that 4,000 LEAFs, 1,000 Teslas, 1,000 Volts, and a couple of hundred other EVs will be on the road in Washington State, with the vast majority of them in the Puget Sound and Vancouver, WA.
So what is driving sales, and in particular, sales in the Northwest?
Michael Mann, founder of Cyan Strategies, and his LEAF
1. Driving an electric vehicle is really fun.
When you step on the accelerator, even a compact EV has sports car-like acceleration and the vehicle is luxury-car quiet. Driving an EV is more relaxing to drive because it is smoother, quieter, and easier to control. After driving an EV for a few months, drivers commonly report that driving a gas car feels primitive, jerky, and unresponsive and is way too complicated. EVs are also more convenient to fuel because you "fill up" with a home charger instead of going to the gas station. Some EV drivers report not having been to a gas station in two years!
2. EVs are used for specific driving missions rather “everything-for-everybody.”
A November 2009 McKinsey and Company report, "A New Segmentation for Electric Vehicles," suggested that EV automakers should embrace a radical new form of market segmentation and assume that EVs will be driven for specific driving missions rather than the “everything-for-everybody” approach that is typical for conventional car design.
Drivers of the Nissan LEAF have figured out that you can have a vehicle to achieve a specific set of driving missions, e.g., around town or a 50-mile or less round-trip commute, breaking the pattern that each car in a household has to be capable of dropping the kids off at school or running a local errand as well as driving across the country and back. With two-car households, the LEAF is used for almost all driving and the regular gas car is used for the occasional long distance trip.
We are seeing this radical idea embraced in the Northwest, where Nissan LEAF drivers are racking up thousands of miles for everyday use. Northwest drivers who bought the vehicles in 2011 regularly report on local social media sites that they have enjoyed 20,000 to 36,000 gas-free miles.
A PHEV such as the Chevy Volt has a backup gasoline engine on board. For one-car households or commuters with roundtrips greater than 50 miles that want to dramatically reduce their use of petroleum, a PHEV may be the best option. Volt drivers today are driving around 60% of their miles on electricity and greatly exceeding 100 MPG.
3. It is cheaper to drive a LEAF than a regular Prius.
The 2009 McKinsey report on EVs also noted that in order to be adopted, EVs need to be cost-competitive: "To reach beyond the early adopter affluent, environmentally conscious, or technically enamored buyers, EVs need to satisfy the consumers’ main concern—good value for money."
We use Total Cost of Ownership to compare the major costs associated with driving over time, such as lease or loan payments, fuel, and, in the case of an EV, home charger installation. There are several Total Cost of Ownership calculators on the web that can be used to compare vehicle choices. The Electric Car Calculator allows for side by side comparisons with lease and financing options.
Currently, very attractive lease deals are creating favorable Total Cost of Ownership figures. Based on nationally advertised lease deals, Total Cost of Ownership over three years or 11,250 miles is $2,000 less for the LEAF than a Prius, including the cost of setting up a typical home charger for the LEAF.
Currently in Washington State, there is no sales tax for BEVs or their EV charging stations.
4. Northwest area was one of the first markets for the LEAF
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels signed an agreement with Nissan in April 2009 that made the Seattle area one of the first of five US launch markets for the LEAF. When the agreement was implemented in 2010, the area was expanded to include all of Washington state. Portland General Electric, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, and Nissan signed a similar agreement in November 2008, making both Washington and Oregon early markets for the LEAF.
It is now more likely that someone living in the Seattle and Portland areas will know a friend, family member, or co-worker that has a LEAF. LEAFs are also used as fleet cars by many of the areas’ cities and counties and dealerships are using LEAFs for loaner cars, allowing hundreds of people to experience driving electric firsthand.
5. Early Market for Infrastructure
Federal funding considerably boosted publicly available charging infrastructure in western Washington and Oregon, which helped make it possible for a LEAF driver to accomplish more regional and commuting trips knowing that a charge is close by. However, there are many EV drivers that only charge at home and never use a publicly available charging station.
A BEV can be used for long distance trips, but this is not ideal. The West Coast Electric Highway project has installed DC Fast Chargers (DCFC) that will charge up an EV in under 30 minutes along I-5 and other routes in the Northwest. However, if one of the central innovations behind the purchase of a LEAF is achieving specific driving missions rather than an “everything-for-everybody” approach, long distance road trip capabilities via DCFC EV charging infrastructure are helpful but not essential for driving sales.
Fast charge infrastructure in and around the metro area, however, is very important to enable fuller use of a BEV for days with multiple trips that in total exceed the range of the vehicle.
6. Very Supportive Dealers
Committed car dealers are crucial to the successful introduction of a new vehicle. The Seattle and Portland areas have proven to have very supportive dealers that committed significant resources to advertising, lease deals, trained staff, special repair equipment, and charging infrastructure.
So expect to see more EVs in the Northwest and think about test-driving one today!
Video: Driving the EVolution. With charging stations in Bellevue and all along the West Coast, electric vehicle drivers can now travel the I-5 corridor from Canada to Mexico without needing a drop of gasoline. Click on the image to check out this great Solutions Story from Climate Solutions:
Rich Feldman worked on EV-related policy as part of the Washington State Apollo Alliance and as a senior advisor in Seattle Mayor Nickels office. From 2009-January 2013, Feldman was Pacific Northwest Regional Manager for the federally-funded The EV Project, which installed thousands of home and commercial EV chargers in Washington and Oregon. For his work on EVs, Seattle Magazine named him one of Seattle's Most Influential People in 2011. He currently is a consultant developing and implementing business strategies for the CE and EV sectors. Contact: feldman.rich (at) gmail.com
 Using vehicle registrations is a good proxy for vehicle sales but not perfect as out-of-state vehicles registered in Washington will be counted as a new registration by the Department of Licensing.