Union of Concerned Scientists

2018 LA Auto Show: Automakers Promise an Electric Future While Moving Backwards on Emissions?

Photo: Tracey Adams/Flickr

I’ll be at the LA Auto Show this week to check out the latest EVs and efficient cars from automakers from around the world, and to see what carmakers are saying about their future plans. The LA Auto Show is traditionally focused on new technology, and this year should bring more news and debuts of cleaner cars. I’ll also be listening for how the automakers present their lineups and future plans and am especially interested in hearing how the industry squares their efforts to rollback vehicle standards with claims of environmental responsibility and future clean models.

Cleaner cars and electric cars needed to compete in California: a tipping point?

I’ll be tracking how automakers talk about electrification and cleaner cars, but also what cars and trucks they highlight in their displays on the convention center floor. While the auto market is global, the LA Auto Show is also an important marketing event for the local automotive market. And in California, electric cars are a rapidly increasing part of the new car market. In August 2018, plug-in electric and fuel cell cars made up 10 percent of all new car sales in California, over double from just the prior year.

In both August and September of this year, the top selling model of car or truck in the state was the fully-electric Tesla Model 3. While some of these Tesla sales reflect pent-up demand for the wait-listed long-range battery electric car, it still is shocking to see a plug-in car atop the sales rankings for California. More efficient gasoline cars also account for other top spots on the sales list with 3 of the top 5 models available in a non-plug-in hybrid version. This means that automakers need to have electric and hybrid models to compete in a market that appears to be ready for cleaner cars. Traditional car companies must be a little nervous watching Tesla eat away at their sales. For example, from July through September of this year, Tesla has more sales than established brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Subaru in California.

We’ll have to see if EV sales continue to grow, especially from makers besides Tesla, but if California continues to exceed 10 percent EV sales, we may be at a tipping point for electrification of cars in the state, as automakers will need to ramp up efforts to meet this demand.

More long range, affordable electric cars coming soon

Last year’s show had several presentations about new electric cars. I’m hoping to hear more concrete plans this year.

Tesla grabbed the top spot by putting a long-range, more-affordable electric vehicle on the market. So what other new electric cars will I be looking for at the show?

First on the list is the Hyundai Kona battery electric vehicle (and the closely related Kia Niro EV). The Kona is rated at 258 miles of range on a full charge and has the crossover / tall hatchback body style that is currently popular. Pricing hasn’t been announced, but all indications are that it will be less than the Model 3 and roughly in line with the Chevy Bolt EV (the only other long-range EVs currently available in the $35,000-$50,000 range). One question though will be availability. The car will only be in California initially, and then will roll out to other states that have adopted California’s Zero Emission Vehicle standards.

Subaru is expected to debut its first plug-in vehicle at the show, a plug-in hybrid version of the Crosstrek all-wheel drive SUV. It’s expected to get about 17 miles on electric power, before switching over to gasoline for longer trips. This isn’t the only plug-in all-wheel-drive SUV on the market (for example: the BMW X5, Volvo XC90, and Mitsubishi Outlander all have versions that category), but it should be helpful to a have an EV from a brand like Subaru to highlight the fact that plug-in vehicles now come in a variety of sizes and types.

I’ll also be listening for announcements from BMW and Volkswagen. Both companies have been highlighting moves towards greater electrification lately, with VW announcing plans to build a giant electric car factory and a goal of 25 percent of its sales to be electric cars by 2025. BMW has also been talking recently about future EV plans, and has hinted that a new prototype will be shown this week.

Volvo’s not-a-car display plans. 

One new car I’m not looking for at the show: a new Volvo. In an odd move, Volvo has sent out a press release touting that they will have no cars displayed during the press days of the show. While obviously a publicity stunt, this does highlight an emerging trend in the automotive industry, the move from automotive companies solely focused on building cars to the more nebulous concept of “mobility”. Automakers are now involved in car sharing services, bike shares, and automated drive systems. The future of transportation and mobility could possibly change quickly over the next decade with advancements in automated cars and shared vehicles. However, no matter who (or what) is driving and how the vehicle is owned, the key themes remain: that we need to have more efficient vehicles, and we need to switch from petroleum to low-carbon fuels like renewable electricity as soon as possible.

Car companies talking cleaner cars while pushing for rollback of vital standards

At the same time that many of the auto companies are talking about plans for more efficient and electrified vehicles, they (either individually or through their trade associations) are asking for a rollback of fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards. Automakers are caught between the need to reassure investors that they are ready for the switch from gasoline to electricity both here and abroad, and the desire for short-term profits from selling inefficient gasoline cars and trucks now.

While electric cars are clearly the future, in the near-term most of the models at the show (and on dealers’ lots) will continue to be gasoline-powered. This is why we need both progress on electric vehicles AND strong standards that increase the efficiency of gasoline cars, which will continue to make up the majority of sales over the coming decade. Rolling back vehicle standards will both slow electric vehicle adoption and needlessly increase emissions and petroleum consumption from conventional vehicles. Given what we now know about the impact of climate change on our economy, infrastructure and health, rolling back vehicle standards is unconscionable. The auto companies need to stop directly and indirectly supporting attacks on the standards and instead focus on accelerating progress towards cleaner and more efficient cars and trucks.

Photo: Tracey Adams/Flickr
Source: IHS Markit
Photo: David Reichmuth
Photo: Volvo Car Group

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