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On Nov. 11, 2010, General Electric (NYSE: GE ) made an announcement that shocked the automotive world: Over the next five years, the industrial powerhouse would convert half of its global corporate car fleet to electric power. At $1 billion in estimated value, GE noted that its commitment to purchase 25,000 electric cars -- that's what it worked out to -- was "the largest single EV commitment ever."
It was not, however, an entirely altruistic decision. As GE explained, the whole idea behind making this commitment was to help jump-start the electric vehicle industry. Corporate partner FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) quickly endorsed the idea, pointing out that corporate fleets in America comprise some 16.3 million vehicles. Converting these fleets to electric, en masse, would be one of the quickest way to "drive initial ramp-up scale in the battery industry and OEM supply chains," and help get the e-car industry off the ground.
And once that happens, predicted GE: "From renewable power generation to smart grid transformers to EV chargers -- GE estimates that a wide-scale EV transformation will lead to up to $500 million in near-term business for GE." So not only would GE help "green up" the environment. Not only would it save money by switching from gasoline power to electric. The company would also quickly get back half its investment in the form of other e-car users buying infrastructure products from GE. In the process, GE would grab pole position in the race to build an infrastructure for a new wave of electric vehicles -- Ford's (NYSE: F ) electric Focus and C-Max, Tesla's (Nasdaq: TSLA ) Model S, Toyota's electric RAV4 (also made by Tesla), and on and on.
All of which sounds great. But it does beg one question: Why is GE dragging its feet?
Dude, where are all the electric cars?
It's been nearly 15 months since GE announced commitment to EVs. At the time, management elaborated that it intended to begin e-car purchases in 2011. First on GE's shopping list was General Motors' (NYSE: GM ) new Chevy Volt, which went on sale that year. But in future years, GE was fully committed to buying e-cars from Nissan, Ford, Tesla, whomever -- just as soon "as manufacturers expand their EV portfolios."
And yet, it isn't. At least, not in any way that's moving the needle.
How do we know this? Earlier this month, the good folks at GM and Nissan -- the two companies that have been quickest out of the gate with mass-produced e-cars -- revealed the 2011 sales figures for their Volt and Leaf, respectively.
Each company fell short of the 10,000 sales mark. GM rang up 7,671 Volt sales in 2011; Nissan moved 9,674 Leafs. ("Leaves?" I still don't know how to pluralize this car.) And while we don't know the precise identities of every person who bought these cars, The Wall Street Journal informs us that California residents accounted for 23% of GM's Volt sales, while residents of that sunny state snapped up roughly 60% of Nissan's Leaf production.
Result: We can reliably report that at least 7,569 of the 17,345 electric cars sold last year were not bought by General Electric. Maybe this means GE bought the other 9,776 cars GM and Nissan produced -- but I'm guessing it actually bought a whole lot less than that. (California is, after all, just one of several states where the cars are being marketed.)
After crunching these numbers, I got curious as to exactly how far along GE was in its commitment to buy "25,000 electric cars." Ringing up investor relations, I was informed first that GE (or at least its IR department) did not possess any "information about GE's electric vehicle purchases in 2011." (Which is strange, considering what a fuss GE's PR department made over the announcement just one year ago.) Pressing for more information, I was informed that "specific numbers" of EV purchases "are not disclosed, nor will future projections be given."
Which basically translates as: "Since making the announcement more than a year ago, we've done almost nothing to implement it. Now please stop asking questions."
Well alrighty then
Of course, this still leaves us with the question: If GE is not buying EVs in quantity, then why not? Why isn't GE doing everything it can to help kick-start an industry if it expects to reap "up to $500 million in near-term business" from it? Because judging from the anemic sales data I'm seeing at GM and Nissan, they clearly could use the help.
Personally, I can't think of a good reason... and GE isn't telling.