Electric vehicles got past their baby steps in 2011

Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts already cruise the nation’s highways, and Tesla Motors is on track to launch its all-electric Model S sedan in the coming year. Every major automaker has at least one electric car in the pipeline, and public charging stations are becoming more common.

But while 2011 was widely heralded as the year the electric car finally entered the mainstream, the young industry has hit a lot of bumps in the road.

Customers who ordered electric cars Nissan Leafs had aggravatingly long waits for deliveries because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, where the car is built. General Motors has fallen short of its goal to sell 10,000 Chevy Volts this year, and federal safety officials are investigating the fire risk of the car’s battery. Electric vehicle sales have been slowed by the lingering weakness of the economy. And many Americans still have lots of questions about electric vehicles, including concerns about range.

"While we’re still in the very early innings of vehicle electrification, the commercial progress of EVs in the marketplace has been mixed at best, and largely been unimpressive to date," wrote Morgan Stanley automotive analyst Adam Jonas in a research note downgrading Tesla’s stock earlier this month.

Jonas also reduced his forecast for global electric-vehicle market share by 2025 from 8.6 percent to 4.5 percent. He cited advances in internal combustion engine technology, lower fuel prices and the sluggish European economy as reasons why electric vehicles have been slow to take off.

But other analysts and electric vehicle advocates say the bumpy rollout was not unexpected, stressing that any new industry – particularly one as disruptive as electric vehicles – experiences growing pains.

"The market is in its infancy, and was bound to stumble along the way," said Michael Omotoso, senior analyst at LMC Automotive. "Kind of like a baby taking its first steps: He or she will stumble and fall several times before finally learning how to walk."

Nissan, which never made public its sales forecasts, says it has sold 20,000 Leafs worldwide, including about 9,300 in the United States.

GM sold only 6,152 Volts through November. It said that December sales look "solid," and that it now expects to hit its 10,000 target sometime early next year. California remains the Volt’s biggest market, although the car is now available at Chevrolet dealers in all 50 states.

Most auto industry analysts say the electric vehicle market will grow slowly over time. While some consumers are intensely curious about electric vehicles, most people have shown less interest.

Many experts say that the adoption rate of electric vehicles largely will depend on more robust education efforts among consumers.

"There’s a learning curve with new technologies," said Robert Peterson of GM. "Consumer education, product visibility and familiarity with the incumbent technology all play a role in how quickly adoption of new technologies like the electric vehicles move from early adopters to mainstream."

Dana Hull, San Jose Mercury News