Electric Car Sales Jumped 63 Percent in the Third Quarter, Mostly Because of China

The total includes both all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

Chevrolet

Global sales of electric cars increased 63 percent in the third quarter of this year from the same period a year ago, and 23 percent from the second quarter of 2017, according to a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The Bloomberg research arm now expects that a million electric cars will be sold by the end of the year. Those numbers don't tell the whole story, however.

The sales total of 287,000 units includes both all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids. While combining the two categories is a common practice in studies of vehicle sales, and government policies often treat them the same, large numbers of plug-in hybrid sales can have a significant impact on overall emissions savings.

Plug-in hybrids give people the option to drive on gasoline, rather than electric power. On paper, they are more efficient than conventional hybrids or straight gasoline and diesel cars, but in the real world, it all depends on how much mileage drivers cover under electric power. Plug-in hybrids are only effective if you plug them in.

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China also accounted for more than half of global electric car sales. While China is the world's largest car market, the demand for electric cars and plug-in hybrids was likely due as much to government incentives as inherent consumer interest. China heavily incentivizes electric cars and some cities give them priority in lotteries for new-vehicle licenses.

"The Chinese government is very focused on pushing up EV sales," said Aleksandra O'Donovan, one of the authors of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance report. "One reason for that is the local pollution levels in the cities, and a second is for China to build domestic heroes to compete internationally in this market."

It's likely that electric cars haven't reached the point where sales can sustain themselves without strong government incentives. But, then again, they may never have to reach that point. 

China will introduce quotas in 2019 that require automakers to sell large numbers of electric cars and plug-in hybrids, and several European countries are considering outright bans on sales of new gasoline and diesel cars. One major outlier is the United States, where the Trump Administration and a Republican Congress have shown a decided lack of enthusiasm for electric cars.