In San Diego, which has the highest per-capita adoption rate for electric vehicles in the country, supply isn’t anywhere close to demand, says Leon Kamins, general manager of Mossy Nissan Kearny Mesa.
“There are a lot of people who would buy a Leaf if it were for sale in a lot like any other car,” he said, of the Nissan Leaf, which launched in December 2010, but has a waiting list of at least three months. “We have people just standing by for one to become available.”
Despite what Kamins and other local auto experts describe as soaring interest for the Leaf — the dominant pure-electric vehicle in the U.S. — sales are severely strained by limited production capacity at Nissan Motor Co.’s only Leaf plant in Yokosuka, Japan.
The plant builds just 50,000 cars annually, requiring Nissan to ration its supply in the five U.S. markets where the car is sold. Kamins was allowed a maximum of 40 orders per month in the beginning of the year, but that number has fallen to less than 20, he said, in part due to manufacturing disruptions from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunamis in northeastern Japan. The standard 2012 Leaf starts at $35,200.
Some relief is in sight for Kamins; a second Leaf manufacturing facility is slated to open in Smyrna, Tenn., in late 2012, adding 150,000 cars per year to the supply. “I can envision a time when we’ll sell 100 of these a month,” Kamins said. “I can’t wait for the U.S. factory to start producing.”
Kamins, a Leaf owner himself, has sold a total of 243 since December — accounting for more than two-thirds of the 600 electric vehicles in San Diego County.
More Crowded Market in 2012
By the time that Kamins will have the chance to see whether his 100-per-month sales projection becomes a reality, there will be a number of other formidable competitors to the Leaf in San Diego, most notably Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius Plug-In Hybrid, to be released in spring 2012 at a starting price of around $32,000.
Mistubishi Motors’ i Electric Car, also arriving in early 2012, will start at $21,625, while General Motor Co. will be seeking greater traction with its 2012 model of the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid that runs on a gas-powered generator after the lithium-ion battery is depleted.
The 2011 Volt, priced at around $40,000, now accounts for about 100 of the electric cars on the road in San Diego, according to estimates from green car expert Mike Ferry, transportation programs manager for the San Diego-based California Center for Sustainable Energy, a nonprofit organization that manages the state’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project.
Marc W. Harlow, a Detroit-based consultant to the New Car Dealers Association of San Diego County, said that the development of a charging-station infrastructure in San Diego will add to the existing demand for electric cars and plug-in hybrids, easing the “range anxiety” of driving on a battery charge.
Through a project with the U.S. Department of Energy, ECOtality Inc. of San Francisco has committed to building an infrastructure of 1,500 charging stations in San Diego County, located in public parking lots, at office buildings, grocery stores and shopping malls.
That infrastructure, along with government incentives, will be enough to get many drivers to make the switch, Ferry said. Owners of pure electric cars such as the Leaf qualify for a $7,500 credit from the federal government and a $2,500 rebate from the state of California. A lesser state rebate of $1,500 awaits buyers of plug-in electric-gasoline hybrids such as the Prius Plug-In Hybrid and the Chevy Volt.
Owners of plug-ins also get a Clean Air Sticker from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, allowing them to use the car-pool lanes when driving alone — a benefit that no longer applies to standard gasoline-electric hybrids. “For a lot of commuters, that’s a bigger incentive than the rebate,” Ferry said. “Being able to access the car-pool lane is a critical part of people’s lives getting to and from work.”
Role of Incentives
Why give incentives when buyers are already lining up for electric cars? Ferry said the rebates are just as much for the automakers, convincing them that demand will be there if they invest in large-scale rollouts in California. The strategy already has proven to be a success with hybrids, he said.
Today every major automaker from Chrysler to Porsche offers a hybrid model. The Toyota Prius leads the pack at more than 140,000 sold nationally in 2010, followed by the Honda Insight and the Ford Fusion, at around 21,000 each, according to the Energy Department’s national figures. “Incentives for a Prius are gone, and yet, it’s winning in the market,” Ferry said. “It would have taken a lot longer for that technology to be fully commercialized without the subsidies.”
While the market mindset seems to be clearly shifting “to more electric power,” Harlow said that gasoline-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, which rely mainly on gas with supplemental electric power, will continue to be the most popular green auto choice for the next year “simply because those are the vehicles that are in production the most.”
Both Harlow and Ferry see Toyota leading the pack with its plug-in car next year. “Toyota is already the leader in hybrid vehicles and pricewise it will be a good option,” Ferry said, adding that Prius drivers had access to the car-pool lanes until this summer and might be looking for a way back.