Electric Cars: Some Are Real, Most Are Only ‘Compliance Cars’

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Green Car Reports. Author credit goes to John Voelcker.

Since last year, you’ve likely heard a lot about electric cars. You’ll hear much more in the years to come.

But whether you’re a fan or a foe, understand this: A few of the battery-electric cars you’ve heard about are “real”–meaning their makers want to sell as many as they can.

Focus Electric car pool HOV

image via Ford

But quite a few of them aren’t. They’re not meant to lure in consumers, or sell in any kind of volume.

They’re only built to meet California regulations for zero-emission vehicles–which is why they’re called “compliance cars.”

It’s important for buyers, electric-car fans, and the greater public to know which is which, because the automakers won’t tell you.

All about volume

“Compliance cars” will be made in much lower volumes: only up to a few thousand, versus the tens and hundreds of thousands that makers like Nissan hope to sell.

Today, there are three battery electric cars on sale in the U.S.: the Coda Sedan, Mitsubishi ‘i’, and Nissan Leaf. Later this year, they will be joined by the Ford Focus Electric and the Tesla Model S.

By 2014, we’ll see further new plug-in entries from BMW, Chevrolet, Fiat, Honda, Scion, Smart, Tesla, Toyota, and Volkswagen.

Starting this year, California requires that carmakers of a certain size ensure that at least a small portion of their volume comes from zero-emission vehicles–either battery electric cars or fuel-cell electric vehicles.

Carmakers can meet the overall requirement using a combination of car types, including larger numbers of plug-in hybrids with partial electric range.

The first round of requirements applies only to the carmakers with the highest California sales. In order, they are: Toyota, Honda, GM, Ford, Nissan, and Chrysler.

What is real?

So what makes a battery electric car “real,” and distinguishes it from a compliance car?

We’d suggest that any plug-in car has to meet the following criteria before it can be considered real:

  • It’s sold outright to consumers, not only leased; and
  • It will sell at least 5,000 or more a year in the U.S. or reach total global sales of 20,000; and
  • It’s offered outside the ‘California emissions’ states, or will be within 18 months

Any car that doesn’t meet those tests at a minimum isn’t a serious volume car; it’s either part of a test fleet or it exists just to comply with the ZEV requirement.

Applying that test, we can find only four battery-electric cars that are or may be “real” during 2012. Three are on sale now, one isn’t yet:

  • 2012 Nissan Leaf
  • 2012 Mitsubishi ‘i’
  • 2012 Coda Sedan
  • 2012 Tesla Model S

The Coda Sedan just went on sale in March (and Coda refuses to say how many it’s sold), so we’re reserving judgement until we see if the company can come anywhere close to its first-year sales goal of 14,000.

We’re also convinced that Tesla intends to sell every Model S it can build, but that car won’t arrive on the market until July, so it will take a few months more to verify its “realness.”

(By the way, we also consider the Chevrolet Volt , the Fisker Karma, and the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid to be real–but they have gasoline engines as well as plugs, so they don’t qualify as pure ZEVs in California–so this article doesn’t apply to them.)