Throughout the past decade, analysts and policymakers have promoted electric vehicles (EVs) as the cars of the future, highlighting their potential to provide effective, environmentally friendly transportation for individual and business purposes alike. Pure EV sales in the United States rose from just over 10,000 in 2011 to nearly 500,000 in 2021, and the country is expected to add 1 million new EVs to its roads in 2023, aided by government subsidies. However, over the past year, the EV market has been struggling with price cuts and rising inventories; in August 2023, it took about twice as long to sell an EV in the U.S. as it did the previous January. Given the expectations for an EV takeover of the automotive industry, it is important to understand what is driving this slowdown, and how it may affect individuals and businesses in the years to come.
The Transportation of Tomorrow
Though fuel-powered motors were traditionally preferable due to their superior energy storage and range, concerns over their environmental impact in the late 20th century propelled people to consider electricity-powered substitutes. Hybrid EVs, which use electric motors alongside internal combustion engines, became more widespread starting in the 1990s, while fully battery-powered electric cars, which only use energy stored in on-board batteries, have increasingly become practical options in the consumer market starting in the 2010s, though their recharging requirement remains a sore spot. Given the efficiency gap between fuel-powered motors and contemporary battery technologies, as well as typically higher costs for EV production, governments have often stepped in to offer economic incentives for EV purchasing and manufacturing, attempting to guide long-term automotive supply and demand toward sustainable transport options.
Government incentives for EV adoption have grown steadily over the past three decades, with large markets like the U.S. and EU commencing efforts in the 2000s, later followed by developing economies such as China and India. For years, the U.S. federal government and state governments have offered tax credits for producers and consumers adopting qualified electric drive motor vehicles, with states like California going even further by offering HOV lane access for EVs operated by a single occupant. President Biden designated increased EV adoption as a substantial element of his Investing in America agenda, setting a goal for 50% of all new vehicle sales in the U.S. to be electric by 2030. However, despite increasing environmental awareness and policy pressures, consumer demand has not always followed suit.
Wavering Consumer Demand
Currently, there is an oversupply of electric vehicles in the industry, reflecting continued automaker and government investment against slowing consumer demand. While most American consumers view adopting EVs as an inevitability, their anxieties relating to the range that the battery can produce and a lack of public charging infrastructure still induce uncertainties over dependability. During the COVID-19 pandemic, shelter-in-place orders reduced the need for frequent personal transportation, allowing consumers greater flexibility to adopt EVs. However, now that pandemic restrictions no longer present a substantial external variable and more workers are required to return to the office, vehicles powered by internal combustion engines remain preferable as the most reliable transport option. This is supported by the changing profile of the EV consumer – the percentage of EV shoppers trading in a vehicle they already own has doubled over the past decade, indicating that many EV consumers do not rely on them as their primary mode of transport. Amplifying the charging concern, a Pew Research Center survey from July found that Americans have low levels of confidence that the U.S. will build necessary EV infrastructure, including critical charging ports, dampening enthusiasm that the Biden administration’s EV goals will be met on time.
On the other hand, pricing continues to be another hurdle for greater EV adoption. According to Cox Automotive, the average transaction price for a vehicle in the U.S. was around $48,000 in September 2023; for EVs, the number was between $53,000 and $60,000. The higher price tag for EVs tends to be a result of manufacturing costs remaining more expensive than they would be for producing gasoline-powered vehicles, given the auto industry’s substantially longer experience making internal combustion engines compared to EV technologies and the still-inflexible EV supply chain. High interest rates render borrowing money for car payments more expensive, along with inflation reducing consumer purchasing power and global supply chain disruptions contributing to the issue as well. According to S&P Global Mobility, while 86% of U.S. car buyers were considering an EV in 2021, the number fell to 67% in 2023. Despite government tax credits, investing in a relatively more expensive EV purchase is a hefty request for many American consumers concerned about short-term costs in today’s economy.
Effects on the Auto Industry
The auto sector is facing the classic problem for a sector in transition, i.e., growing supply to pace with developing demand. The current market condition is not a problem of declining demand but supply outpacing demand and the auto industry is already making corrections. Ford, having opened reservations for its fully electric F-150 Lightning model in May 2021, closed them by the end of the year due to excess supply, and by September 2023, announced it was ramping up production of its hybrid F-150s in response to lowered than anticipated sales of the Lightning. Lucid, a high-profile luxury EV brand, has seen two consecutive quarters of weaker than expected demand, most recently delivering 600 fewer of its Air luxury sedans than Wall Street had expected in the second quarter of 2023. Tesla’s aggressive price cuts have hindered the growth of competition in the EV industry, with two-thirds of all EVs sold by the Elon Musk-owned automotive giant, as consumers find it difficult to afford suitable alternatives. At the end of the second quarter of 2023, several automakers announced their decision to move to the Tesla charging standard, stranding many vehicles on factory floors with an obsolete charging outlet, thus further exacerbating the dilemma.
Pushback against public sector efforts to mandate EV adoption may also reshape expectations for how the auto industry will move forward in the coming decade. On November 8, the U.S. Senate voted 50-48 to overturn Biden’s decision to waive some “Buy America” requirements for government-funded electric vehicle charging stations. Western lithium and graphite miners have started charging the EV supply chain higher prices to reduce dependence on Chinese supply of these materials. Owing to anxieties over cheap Chinese-manufactured EVs flooding the American market as has happened in Europe and a potential Chinese monopoly of rare earth minerals critical in EV production, these protectionist moves on an already inflexible EV supply chain are likely to further delay progress toward the administration’s vehicle electrification aims. EV adoption also remains inconsistent across U.S. regions, being significantly lesser in states like Texas where gas prices and home energy rates are lower, compared to others like California where the opposite is true. Nonetheless, there are reasons to remain optimistic about the long-term growth of EV sales in the auto industry – an S&P study in 2023 showed that people were willing to accept charging times of less than an hour and less range on an EV compared to a gasoline equivalent, and while the number of EV buyers fell from 2021 to 2023, it was still higher than in 2019. Understanding that a gradual shift towards electricity-powered vehicles is still probable, individuals and businesses alike should note that it will likely occur over a longer period than analysts and policymakers predict. Meanwhile, greater hybrid vehicle production and purchasing could generate a slew of new opportunities in the short to medium term.