Can the U.S. Put One Million Electric Vehicles on the Road by 2015?

Plug-in electric vehicles, hyped as they may be, haven't yet hit it big. That is in large part because the first two mainstream models—the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf—just started shipping. But given the newness of the industry, is it possible to reach the President's State of the Union goal of putting one million plug-ins on the road by 2015?

Absolutely, says Brian Wynne, President of the Electric Drive Transportation Association. "It's very doable given the amount of investment going in right now in manufacturing and in the entire supply chain," he explains. That includes investment in high-tech lithium-ion batteries as well as a range of new vehicle designs—over 20 new plug-ins will hit the streets in the next two years.

That kind of variety is key. It took hybrids a decade to hit the one million vehicle mark, but that was probably in large part because consumers didn't know much about the technology and because of a lack of variety. "We started with just the Honda Insight and Prius. We had no idea how those were going to sell," Wynne says. Automakers are more confident now that they have seen the success of hybrids, and consumers are more educated. That should, in theory, lead to more sales.

Not everyone is so optimistic. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that automakers will sell approximately 281,000 electric cars and light trucks between 2011 and 2015. And Michael Omotoso, director of global powertrain forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates, told Automotive News that he thinks the goal is more difficult than a moonshot because of the limited market for short-range compact vehicles and the high cost of batteries.

Even Wynne admits that there are hurdles to overcome. The federal government has to continue providing tax incentives (up to $7,500 per EV purchase), he says, and states need to offer incentives like access to HOV and carpool lanes for EVs. Consumers do still need to be educated on why they shouldn't (or should) think about "range anxiety," or the fear of a vehicle running out of electricity on the road. And utilities still need to gear up the aging electrical infrastructure to handle an influx of EVs.

Still, there's no reason not to try. "A million vehicles plugging into the grid is challenging, but let's have that be a milestone on the way to mainstream adoption," says Wynne. There's a long way to go; so far, 326 Chevy Volts and 19 Nissan Leafs have been sold, according to the Truth About Cars.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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