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Why aren't sales of electric vehicles taking off?

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Recent sales figures from GM and Nissan show a drop in Volt and Leaf sales from December to January, despite strong year-over-year growth. Also, a report from The Detroit News investigates the state of Think City's struggling Elkhart, Indiana plant.

 Chargepoint EV charging station stock 1024 2
Chargepoint EV charging station stock 1024 2

Electric vehicles (EVs) have been getting a lot of press lately (not all of it good, mind you), but so far they haven’t seen the kind of mass adoption that advocates have been hoping for. While sales of Toyota's Prius hybrid have been strong, with over 11,000 sold in January alone, GM announced that sales of its "don't call it a hybrid" (but it's a hybrid) Chevy Volt fell to 603 in January. While the number reflects nearly 90 percent growth in January sales of the Volt year-over-year, it’s only half the 1,139 Volts the company moved in December. When it comes to "true" EVs, Nissan’s facing a similar story with its Leaf car — while it's the top-selling EV worldwide, with over 10,000 sales in 2011 in the US alone, sales of Leafs are down nearly 30 percent from 954 in December to 676 in January.

Elsewhere, The Detroit News takes a look at the Elkhart, Indiana Think City EV plant, reporting that it's been all but shuttered, with 100 partially-completed vehicles waiting to be finished, and only two employees watching the shop. The plant was once expected to create 400 or so green jobs in the city, and both Think City and Ener1, its battery supplier, were given financial incentives and tax breaks to boost employment and encourage investment in green technology. The paper reports that Ener1’s recently filed for bankruptcy, and that Boris Zingarevich, the Russian inventor who bought Think Global (Think City's parent) has been quiet about his future plans for the company. The lack of demand for Think City's cars might have something to do with their 65 mph top speed and $42,000 sticker price.

So why aren't electric vehicles taking getting the mass market traction they need? One reason is the lack of infrastructure — to date just over 5,500 charging stations are available in the USA, with none at all available in Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wyoming, or Alaska. If EVs really are the road ahead, someone's going to need to invest the cash to fix this chicken-and-egg problem.