The electric vehicle revolution is supposed to be taking place in front of our eyes. Ford (NYSE: F ) , General Motors (NYSE: GM ) , and Nissan are just a few of the companies that either have launched electric cars or are planning to soon. But the EV industry is still miniscule and not all carmakers are having success selling the few vehicles they do make.
The Chevy Volt in particular has struggled recently. The car's ability to use electricity for short trips and gas for long ones was supposed to give the car more mass-market appeal. But after 302 Volts sold in August, versus 1,362 of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, the car is already in trouble.
It may be a vote of no confidence in Chevy or it could be part of a larger picture that buyers just aren't ready for an "every man" electric vehicle.
Sell to those with the money to buy
One of the issues is that buying an electric vehicle isn't like buying a regular car. Unless you want to count your charge time in days, you'll need to have a high-voltage car charger installed at home. Unless you buy a plug-in hybrid, you're also going to need another vehicle for longer trips, and these vehicles still aren't comparable price-wise with a traditional car.
So in this tough economic environment, how can Chevy possibly expect to sell a significant number of vehicles to the typical Chevy buyer? They just don't have the money.
The people who do have money to have an extra vehicle are those spending $50,000 plus on a car, and they want something different. What the cutting-edge EV buyers want is sex appeal in their tree-hugging vehicle.
At the high end of the EV market, Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) has already accumulated more than 5,300 reservations for its Model S sedan that's nearly a year away from delivery. Fisker Automotive, a maker of high-end plug-in hybrid cars, reportedly has about 3,000 Karmas on backlog. When you compare this with the paltry numbers for Chevy and Nissan, which should have wider appeal, you can see that the high end is where EVs belong right now.
How not to invest in EVs
With the high end of the EV market looking strong and the low end looking extremely weak, how should investors be investing right now?
I would avoid companies that cater to buyers that aren't at the top end of the passenger-vehicle market. I expect Chevy, Nissan, Ford, and any of the other mass-market auto manufacturers to post disappointing sales of EVs for now. The average buyer just doesn't have the money to make the investment necessary. And the buyers that do have the money aren't looking for an EV with a blue oval or a Chevy symbol on it.
Of course, these companies are much larger than their electric vehicles, but this should at least factor into the equation.
Investing in EVs
I still argue that the best way to invest in EVs right now is by buying companies that build the infrastructure. AeroVironment (Nasdaq: AVAV ) and General Electric (NYSE: GE ) are making chargers that can not only go in your home, but will be fueling EV stations on the road as well. As this infrastructure is built out, we may start to see EVs become an economically viable purchase for more drivers, but we're still far from that right now.
Battery makers can also offer exposure to commercial electric vehicles, a market that's growing as companies like United Parcel Service (NYSE: UPS ) and PepsiCo buy electric delivery trucks. A123 Systems (Nasdaq: AONE ) is still a very risky stock, but the company has built a large list of clients in passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, and grid storage solutions. The company currently has too much capacity and is reporting large losses, but fortunes could turn quickly as its end markets ramp up demand.
But the best pure play may be Tesla. The company makes cars that have experienced strong demand and is becoming a supplier to manufacturers like Toyota. Profit is still a long ways off, so the company's operations require a bit of a leap of faith.
Foolish bottom line
Being on the cutting edge of EVs manufacturing may seem like a nice idea for GM, Ford, and Nissan but evidence shows that the mass-market just isn't ready for prime time. High-end buyers will lead the EV charge until costs come down and a national charging infrastructure is built. I would like to say that I see more hope for EVs than just a small market, but that's what the evidence shows.
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