[DETROIT] Automakers have introduced more zero-emission vehicles than ever before, but US consumers are increasingly bypassing them in favor of larger vehicles made more affordable by cheap gas prices.
New car sales in the US came in at a record 17.5 million in 2015. Yet sales of electric and hybrid vehicles dipped to just 116,500, only 0.7 per cent of the overall market.
In contrast, sales of sport-utility vehicles, pickup trucks, crossovers and other large vehicles reached new records, as oil prices slumped to multi-year lows.
Gasoline prices are currently about a fourth of their level in 2008, shortly before Barack Obama was elected president.
In 2009, Obama raised the fuel economy standard to 35.5 miles per gallon (6.63 liters per 100 kilometers) in 2016. In 2011, Obama got even more ambitious, raising the average to 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025.
Since that time, automakers have introduced about 30 electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles.
In some cases, as with the Volvo XC90, named the North American car of the year, carmakers have offered a plug-in hybrid model in addition to conventional designs.
"Electric cars are coming to the US because of policies to cut emissions, not because of spontaneous demand," Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn said.
Nissan's Leaf, which sold 17,000 last year, is second among electric car models sold in the US to Tesla's Model S with 24,000.
Mercedes-Benz has introduced six plug-in hybrids and plans 10 by 2017, said Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche.
"Obviously in the short term, the development on the regulatory side on the one hand and the consumer demand on the other side is more diverging than it was before, and obviously fuel prices play a major role in this regard," Zetsche said.
"On the other hand, I think we all agree that the long term direction is electric." Some in the industry say policymakers must also consider tax incentives to promote electric cars.
Generous incentives in Norway lifted electric's market share in that country to 17.1 per cent.
"You need tough targets on one hand, and encouraging incentives on the other hand," said Ian Robertson, head of sales at BMW.
"If you don't have the two things, then it's a real challenge." Robertson dismissed speculation that Washington will retreat from the tough fuel economy standards, even if Republicans win the presidency in 2016.
The US standards "are here to stay," Robertson said, in part because Europe and China have also enacted tough fuel economy standards.
Also arguing in favor of the standards: A December agreement led by the United Nations among 195 nations to reduce emissions in response to climate change.
"If all the automakers are making electric cars, it's because there is no other solution for limiting emissions," Ghosn said.
"We think long term, electrification is part of the solution," said Mary Barra, chief executive of General Motors, which last week announced plans to build the Chevrolet Bolt, an electric car aimed at the mid-price market.