Sales of electric vehicles expected to grow
WARREN — Electrified vehicles are the future, according to industry experts and any average Joe on the street — but the often expensive battery-powered and plug-in cars still control only a small part of the auto market compared to their combustion counterparts.
“It’s still a relatively small part of the market compared to how much we talk about it in society in general,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights with Edmunds, a leader in automotive news. “We do see automakers trying to get into that space — some successfully and some not successfully.”
Cars that run on batteries — such as the battery to be produced at a General Motors and LG Chem plant expected to break ground in the Valley in mid-2020 — currently control about 2 percent of the market, according to Caldwell.
“It’s a kind of chicken and egg,” she said. Automakers are hesitant to jump feet-first into electric vehicle production when people won’t necessarily buy them, but consumers are hesitant to buy because of a lack of options. And in areas like Warren and Youngstown, a lack of accommodating infrastructure such as public charging stations.
Still, Caldwell said the electric car boom could hit in as soon as 10 years, depending on the market and automakers’ dedication to promises of electrification.
GM CEO Marry Barra has previously said the company will produce at least 20 new electric vehicles by 2023, and other automakers seem to be following a similar path.
Cole Valley Chevrolet in Newton Falls doesn’t keep electric vehicles on the lot, according to Chuck Paden, the general manager. He said the dealership in the past has sold the now-discontinued electric Chevy Volt, which at the time was subsidized with a $7,500 government tax credit, making it more affordable for average buyers. The Bolt, which replaced the Volt as the electric model, is available to order.
“Currently we don’t carry them on the lot because they’re just not available right now,” Paden said. “At this point, it’s not a big market here locally.”
Paden said customers tend to shop for mid-sized SUVs such as the Trax or Equinox, which comfortably fit four or five people with some storage space to share. The Bolt, like the Volt before it, is a smaller car.
Paden also said that the local terrain plays a factor, as people drive longer distances.
“I think when you get into some of the larger cities where people are basically doing short commutes daily, they make more sense,” he said.
A drawback to electric vehicles is the limited range — an obstacle Caldwell said automakers are working to overcome with more public charging stations and shorter charging times. She said technology is improving, but until electric cars go further, the Midwest may have a problem adopting the vehicles.
Paden remained optimistic that as electric vehicle technology improves, the local market will grow.
At the end of October, the city of Warren’s first EV charging station on public property opened on the second level of the Franklin Street parking garage downtown. The station, which includes two chargers, has so far been used 20 to 30 times, according to Brite Energy Innovators CEO and President Rick Stockburger.
Stockburger said that usage is “pretty good” for a station that hasn’t been advertised much. The station appears on the ChargePoint cellphone app, which shows the locations of nearby EV charging stations using GPS.
“For the area it’s excelling,” Stockburger said. He said each of those 20 to 30 charges represents several hours at the station. “It’s not like a gas station where you pull up and in six minutes you’re ready to go.”
Stockburger said the time it takes to charge on the EV stations is good for economic development downtown, as people often walk to businesses while waiting for their car to finish charging.
Though Stockburger did not mention any concrete plans for more public charging stations downtown, he said Brite Energy Innovators is monitoring the current station and gauging the need for more. He said electrification is not going to happen overnight, but it is coming.
“We didn’t adopt combustion engines overnight. It’s not like all of the sudden new EVs will be affordable to every single person,” Stockburger said. “But we believe the Mahoning Valley has an opportunity to be at the forefront of that…I think the electric future is coming and Brite and the Mahoning Valley is the most prepared to be leading the way.”
Caldwell said the push toward electrification is spurred in part by increasingly stringent global environmental regulations.
Automakers “have to make vehicles that pollute less or use different propulsion systems or are more environmentally friendly,” Caldwell said.
That seems to mean electrification isn’t going to go away — and that a battery production facility is a safe move for a company like GM.
“I think there’s definitely longevity in any battery facility. There’s going to be a lot of bumps to get to the end game, but it does seem like that’s the way the market is headed,” Caldwell said. “This is something they will continue to pursue.”