Electric vehicle sales have been slow out of the box, despite marketing hype, government incentives and the hopes of green car advocates.
Total sales last year were 17,425, which is less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. car and light truck market.
Nonetheless, automakers show no signs of pulling back their multibillion-dollar bets: They need electric cars to meet tough new fuel-efficiency standards. About a dozen new plug-ins and fully electric cars will go on sale in the next year.
Auto executives point optimistically to March, when electric cars had their best-ever sales month: Nearly 4,000 vehicles sold in the United States. Still, three in every 1,000 cars drove off dealer lots under battery power.
News in recent months has done little to reassure skeptical buyers: General Motors Co. slowed production of its plug-in Chevrolet Volt. Two crash-test Volts caught fire; a government investigation ultimately found no safety problems. Politicians ridiculed electric cars and called for an end to government assistance. Battery companies and suppliers laid off hundreds of employees, while several electric vehicle startups went out of business or struggle to survive.
Even with gas prices flirting near $4 a gallon nationwide, most consumers remain reluctant. Plug-ins or fully electric cars cost $8,000 to $20,000 more than comparable gasoline versions, and it can take years or decades to recoup the higher initial cost.
Drivers worry about limited driving range in fully electric cars. Even some executives admit doubt.
“Right now, from a cost standpoint and a performance standpoint — range for customers — I don’t think EVs are ready for primetime,” said Toyota Motor USA Sales CEO Jim Lentz.
Toyota will launch two electric vehicles later this year. Toyota sold nearly 900 of its new plug-in Prius in March, but that was 3 percent of the more than 28,000 plug-in and gasoline-electric vehicles that Prius sold last month.
Ford Motor Co. sold about 12 Focus Electrics in December and January to fleet customers — and none in February and March, said Erich Merkle, a Ford spokesman. The Dearborn automaker plans a slow ramp-up as it begins production this spring for retail sales; the New York area and California are the first markets.
Analysts forecast modest gains. The auto website Edmunds.com predicts 40,000 electric vehicles will be sold this year, with 70,000 sold in 2013. The projection for 2017 rises to 250,000 cars — about 1.5 percent of the market.