Which Automakers Are Actually Serious About the Business of Making EVs?

Every automaker in the U.S. has an EV program of some kind, but which of them are truly serious about it as a viable business?

Jul 6, 2014 at 1:41PM

Every automaker with the intention of selling vehicles in the United States has an electric vehicle program of some kind in the works. For many, the decision to produce an electric vehicle was not by choice, as California regulations mandated a certain percentage of cars sold in the future must be of the zero emission variety.

Along the way the US federal government made the job of marketing EVs a little easier for the OEMs, and the pricetags more palatable for consumer, by offering up to $7,500 in credits off the MSRP of plug-in vehicles.

Tesla Fremont Hq

Since the "next" generation of electric vehicles first hit the market at the beginning of this decade, the segment as gone from a niche curiosity – selling just 345 cars in December of 2010 – to more then 12,000 in May, meaning that 1 in every 133 vehicles sold in America came with a plug last month.

However, the bulk of those gains have been made by a relatively small portion of the automakers. Here is our list of which OEMs who have embraced plug-in vehicles as a viable part of the automotive industry...and those who have not!

Musk Q A

Tesla CEO Elon Musk Has Put Tesla In The Pole Position When It Comes To EV Manufacturing

Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) -- As Tesla only sells pure electric vehicles this is an easy one. The company, like its CEO Elon Musk, has a singular vision for the future of the automobile industry; specifically that it comes with a plug. The Model X SUV based on the Model S debuts in early 2015, with a more affordable 3rd generation EV debuting in 2017 for the masses. Commitment level: All-in

Nissan (NASDAQOTH:NSANY) -- If Tesla is the obvious front-runner, Nissan (along with partner Renault) is the clear choice for number two. While some of the major automakers have cut out a nice business from themselves selling PHEVs (plug-in hybrids), only Nissan has embraced the fully electric vehicle as Tesla has. Nissan sold more than 3,100 LEAFs just last month, while the rest of the industry (ex-Tesla) have sold less than 4,000 for the entire year combined. Nissan also has an industry-best 4 EV manufacturing facilities around the world. Commitment level: Strong

General Motors (NYSE:GM) -- Judging GM's seriousness to the business of selling plug-in cars is a tricky one. Before the company's emergence from Chapter 11 in 2009, any talk about future plug-in vehicles had to focused on GM. They had a huge, knowledgeable production team behind the Volt, and an open-door policy about that car's development.

This golden-age of electrification at GM was followed by 4 years of President (then CEO) Dan Akerson and government oversight focused on returning American's forced investment in the company. The production team, almost to a man, left for greener pastures while the EV-program pretty much went silent-running. Recently, the company put new leadership in place, and with that a new, less expensive, higher range Chevy Volt is coming next year, along with 2 new plug-in stable-mates.  Commitment level: Growing...Again

Toyota (NYSE:TM) -- If there ever was a mixed message being given out, it is from Toyota.  The company produces the all-electric RAV4 (at a loss), but only sells it where it gets those valuable zero emission credits. And once they sell 2,600 of them, the amount they figure they need to stay 'compliant', the company is discontinuing the RAV4 EV and moving on to pumping out FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles)-which generate 3x the credits as the plug-in EV.

On the other side of the coin, the Toyota Prius Plug-In is a runaway success (selling almost 2,700 of them in May), although Toyota certainly didn't envision it as such when it debuted in February of 2012. Commitment level: Tepid

Ford Plug Ins In Geneva

Ford's Plug-Ins Hit The Stage This Year In Geneva As The Focus Electric Starting European Production

Ford (NYSE:F) -- Much like Toyota, Ford introduced the all-electric Focus Electric in limited quantities in the United States, mostly for compliance reasons.

Unlike Toyota, they now have two facilities which can build the EV and have not talked down the technology. Also like Toyota, Ford has found success in the plug-in hybrid business through two choices of cars; the C-Max Energi and Fusion Energi, both with 19 miles of electric range before the gas engine takes over. Commitment level: Strong when it comes to PHEVs

BMW -- The German company is the newest kid on the EV block, but are possible one of the most serious.

The BMW i3 comes in both an all-electric version with 81 miles of range, and a REx (or range extended) version that offers a gas backup. BMW clearly is not looking to just 'do the minimum', but to really make a profit on the i3 as the company as increased production capacity of the car three times in just the first year on the market. The high performance i8 supercar also demonstrates BMW's desire to be known as a player in the industry. Commitment level: High

Sergio Marchionne

Fiat CEO on 500e: "I Hope You Don't Buy One..."

Fiat Chrysler -- If there is any automaker out there who has been dragged into making EVs kicking and screaming, its Fiatsler. It seems like hardly a press opportunity goes by that CEO Sergio Marchionne doesn't talk down his company's Fiat 500e, claiming they lose $14,000 for every one they build. Recently his was quoted as saying "I hope you don't buy one..."  As for Chryslerm they did unveil 'future plans' for a plug-in hybrid van and SUV, but we aren't buying in just yet. Commitment level: Non-existent

The above listed OEMS cover the top selling plug-ins in America today.  Below is our bullet-point synopsis of the rest:

  • smart (High) -- Although Daimler's offshoot mini-car brand is excessively small, 30% of smart ForTwos sold in the US are of the  smart ED (electric drive) variety
  • Honda (Low) -- Like Toyota, Honda has fuel cell dreams; while the company waits on FCEV sales to materialize they are 'doing the minimum' by producing a limited run of 1,100 Fit EVs to stay compliant.  The company is still producing the Accord PHV, but only in limited numbers
  • Mitsubishi (High) -- Originally, the company seemed almost apologetic offering the i-MiEV in the US and disinterested in the segment...that is until someone figured out it would be a really good idea to offer an extended range, 4WD plug-in SUV.  The Outlander PHEV is now a huge success around the world (coming to the US the end of 2015) and Mitsubishi now rarely doesn't talk about its plug-in future.
  • Mercedes-Benz (Subtly Strong) --The company really doesn't need to bring an electric vehicle to the United States with the smart ED in the fold, but parent Daimler has very quietly been involved in this business since the beginning.  First with the development (and partial ownership) of Tesla Motors, then the aforementioned smart ED.  Now the B-Class Electric Drive is coming to market next month.  With an available 104 miles of EPA range and a starting price just above the BMW i3, the B-Class ED looks to be a strong offering in the premium EV segment.  Daimler has strong intentions to add plugs to much of its lineup over the next few years
  • Volkswagen/Audi/Porsche (confusing...but turning the corner) -- At one point VW couldn't talk about anything unless it involved a diesel engine, while Audi went out of their way to not only talk down the EV segment, as well as seemingly introduce (and then cancel) the high performance R8 e-tron repeatedly. Today, the VW group is the undisputed king of the 'EV announcement press release', saying that just about everything in their lineup with be offered with a plug...at some point in the future.  For today, VW has the e-Up! and e-Golf in Europe, the low volume Porsche Panamera S-E Hybrid in America, with the Audi A3 e-tron, e-Golf and Passat PHEV coming soon-ish to the US.  How they price them in the US will ultimately decided their final rating
  • Hyundai/Kia (Low) -- Sure the Kia Soul EV is coming to the US this fall, but Hyundai is more focused on the 2015 Tucson Fuel Cell

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Jay Cole has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends BMW, Ford, General Motors, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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