Lightning Crashes

  John Eichberger |  January 22, 2019

Last year was another banner year for sales of electrified vehicles. Battery electric (BEV) and plug in hybrid vehicles (PHEV) combined for more than 330,000 vehicles sold, which represents a growth of 79% over 2017. And 2018 saw more announcements from automobile manufacturers about their commitment to electrified powertrains. Clearly, momentum continues to grow for this technology. But, if EVs are gaining traction does that mean that legacy powertrains powered by internal combustion engines (ICE) are dying at an equal rate?

The law of conservation of mass states that “in a closed or isolated system, matter cannot be created or destroyed – it can change forms but is conserved.”  But the vehicle market is not a “closed or isolated system” – the total number of vehicles sold in 2018 increased modestly, which means that the vehicle industry is not controlled by this law of physics.

And then there is the hit song by Live, Lightning Crashes, which tells the story of a baby born at the same time an old woman dies and at that moment there was some sort of transition of “confusion” between the two:

Lightning crashes a new mother cries
Her placenta falls to the floor
The angel opens her eyes
The confusion sets in
Before the doctor can even close the door

Lightning crashes an old mother dies
Her intentions fall to the floor
The angel closes her eyes
The confusion that was hers
Belongs now to the baby down the hall

This is a great song, hitting number one on Billboard’s U.S. Alternative Songs Chart in February 1995. But if this story were to be extrapolated and applied to every birth and death (similar to how small bits of data are extrapolated to apply to the global markets), it would infer that for every birth there would be a death and the global population would never grow. We know that is not the case.

The laws of physics and the lyrics of Lightning Crashes cannot be applied to the vehicles market – just because there are more EVs being sold does not mean that an equal number of ICE-powered vehicles are not being sold. The size of the market is not static and to extrapolate one piece of information to reach broad conclusions would be misleading.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that the fleet of registered light duty vehicles in the U.S. will increase from about 244 million in 2018 to nearly 265 million in 2035 – an increase of 8.6%. Which means there is room for diversification of powertrains without a one for one replacement rate.  Let’s take a look at what has happened in the U.S. light vehicle market the last few years.

Since 2015, gasoline ICE and hybrid sales have declined while other powertrains have increased sales, but the magnitude of the change in sales can be misleading. Take the first chart below for example. This chart shows the unit sales change year over year since 2015 for each powertrain. From this, it would look like gasoline ICE vehicles are getting their clocks cleaned.  But keep in mind, that their seemingly significant drop in 2017 coincided with a similar drop in total LDVs sold. Also, I use the word seemingly because the sales drops in 2017 equated to 2.8% for gasoline ICE and 1.9% for total sales – which would not even register if plotted on a percent change graph.

Regardless, it is impressive that, despite what happened to total sales over this time frame, BEVs and PHEVs continued to record sales increases. This should not be dismissed, but it is critical to also consider this information in the context of the market size.

Blog-Graph-Change-Year-over-Year-in-LDV-Units-Sold-Jan-2019.png

The next chart shows the units sold by powertrain in each year. When looking at the data in this format, the information is not as shocking. The change in units sold by powertrain in the grand context of the total market size is not very impressive – changes are barely perceptible.

Blog-Graph-Total-Units-Sold-by-Powertrain-2015-2018.png

But this type of analysis also can result in misleading conclusions that the traditional powertrains are not under any pressure at all. It is only by combining the two data presentations that we can get a more complete picture of what is going on. Yes, some powertrains have increased sales and some have lost sales – but the impact of those gains and losses on the overall market are not as extreme as one might initially conclude.

I am a strong believer that sales numbers indicate trends for the future. Consistent historic growth in a segment is indicative of potential sustainability and market strength in the long term. But year over year sales evaluated without the benefit of context can lead to misperception, extravagant forecasts and assumptions that can result in poor decisions.

By looking at the broader context, we can regain a sense of balance and understanding about where the market is and where it might be heading, and this can lead to better decisions to affect the long term viability of the market.

Oh now feel it, comin' back again
Like a rollin', thunder chasing the wind
Forces pullin' from
The center of the earth again
I can feel it.

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