Charging Ahead in Detroit

Automakers Keep Rolling Out Electric Vehicles


DETROIT — While sales of new cars and trucks are soaring, demand for electric vehicles is still sputtering along in the slow lane.

But that’s not stopping automakers from continuing to make huge investments in green vehicles, introducing one model after another.

On Monday at the annual Detroit auto show, General Motors rolled out a refreshed Chevrolet Volt, which runs on battery power with a gasoline-engine backup, and also introduced the Volt’s all-electric cousin, the Chevrolet Bolt, a concept car not yet in production.

And the Korean carmaker Hyundai said on Monday that it would produce a plug-in hybrid version of its midsize Sonata sedan.

They joined a host of other automakers that have rolled out electric cars of their own in recent years. Ford has introduced an electrified version of its Ford Fusion, and brands like Fiat and BMW now produce small volumes of electric cars. In all, more than 20 models, either all-electric or the kind with gas backup engines, called plug-in hybrids, have hit the market.

The announcements by G.M. and Hyundai are the latest attempt to find the winning formula for electric cars as automakers feel increasing pressure to meet strict federal regulations for emissions and fuel economy.

Yet it is proving to be a tough sell. With fuel prices dipping to historical lows and conventional gasoline engines becoming more efficient, electrified cars are languishing in showrooms.

Sales of new cars and trucks in the United States increased about 6 percent in 2014, to 16.5 million vehicles, the industry’s best overall performance since 2007.

But electrified models remain a tiny niche. Last year, automakers sold about 120,000 all-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid ones like the Volt — a 20 percent increase over the previous year, but still a fraction of the overall industry volume.

And that figure is not nearly what automakers will need if they are to meet the required corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Automakers currently average about 25 miles a gallon. The standard is based on an automaker’s fleet average, not on the cars it actually sells.

They face even tougher mandates in California, which requires that 15.4 percent of the vehicles automakers sell be powered by alternative technology by 2025. Because of this, some green vehicles, like the all-electric Kia Soul, are, at least for now, sold only in California.

“Like it or not, they have to do it to meet the government regulations,” said Joseph Phillippi, president of the consulting firm Auto Trends. “They really have no other choice.”

But for electric cars to earn widespread adoption, they will have to increase their driving range. G.M.’s all-electric Bolt tries to solve that by getting 200 miles on a single battery charge.

G.M. executives declined to say when the car would come to market, but pledged to bring it out at a price of about $30,000, with the inclusion of an existing $7,500 federal tax credit.

“We are pretty convinced that this is the right vehicle for the market at the right time,” said Alan Batey, G.M.’s chief of North American sales and marketing. “We would not be talking about the price and battery range if we weren’t able to make it happen.”

Until the Bolt comes out, G.M. will pin its hopes on the new production-ready version of its Volt.

The Volt has sold sparsely since G.M. introduced it to great fanfare in 2010.

The car, like all plug-in hybrids, runs primarily on electric power before switching to a small gasoline engine that recharges its battery. But while the first Volt could travel about 35 miles solely on battery power, the new model has a 50-mile electric range.

“It’s more efficient, more responsive, more refined, and has a greater range,” said Mary T. Barra, G.M.’s chief executive. “The Volt confirms our leadership position, and now we intend to take it further with the Chevrolet Bolt.”

Sergio Marchionne, the chief executive of newly merged Fiat Chrysler, which has lagged the competition in the industry’s push to electrify, said the proliferation of electric and plug-in vehicles was “inevitable” because of rules mandating lower carbon emissions and greater fuel economy.

“This is the beginning of a long process to try to deal with the issues of CO2 and mileage,” Mr. Marchionne said at a news briefing on Monday, referring to carbon dioxide emissions. Fiat Chrysler will introduce an electric minivan next year, he said.

But whether consumers are willing to pay high prices for green vehicles is still a question hovering over the industry.

Tesla, whose high-end Model S retails for $70,000 and higher, has proved to be the outlier, winning a devoted following.

The strong United States automobile market has increased profits for most automakers and allowed them to invest heavily in alternative-fuel technology. But Mr. Marchionne bemoaned the cost to companies of developing electric vehicles on their own, and suggested that manufacturers should collaborate on projects to defray expenses.

He was also outspoken on the need for industry executives to seek a slowdown in fuel-economy rules when the regulations are reviewed in 2017.

“I think there is a very strong argument that we should slow down the rate of the regulations,” Mr. Marchionne said. “And there is an opportunity in the 2017 review period to do that.”

Until the regulatory environment changes, automakers will continue to press ahead on electrification.

For G.M., the introductions of the revamped Volt and the Bolt concept car provide an opportunity to bolster its green credentials and send a message to consumers about its technological prowess.

“We cannot pull back on electrification just because gas prices are low,” Mr. Batey said. “Electrification is here to stay, and we’re investing in it for the long haul.”

That attitude was applauded by dozens of Volt owners whom G.M. invited to its unveiling on Monday.

Kate Sanford of Lansing, Mich., leased a Volt last year after previously owning a Chevrolet Malibu sedan.

She had wanted the car for some time, she said, but waited until G.M. cut the sticker price last year in an effort to increase sales.

“I wanted a Volt not just because it saves gas, but because it’s a statement car,” said Ms. Sanford, a 56-year-old insurance company employee. “The fact that I can drive to and from work without using any fossil fuels is important to me.”

Ms. Sanford said she drove solely on battery power about 80 percent of the time, and rarely had to fill up with gasoline. “I’ve driven it 17,000 miles, and taken it on long trips without any problem,” she said.

But despite her affection for the Volt, Ms. Sanford echoes the sentiments of many consumers about buying a purely electric car. Relying solely on a battery charge to drive, she said, is still out of her comfort zone.

“I’m not ready to go all-electric yet,” she said. “I won’t feel comfortable doing that until there are charging stations on every highway.”