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Tesla won’t slow despite Edmunds claim that loss of tax credit will “kill the U.S. EV market”

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Edmunds has released a new study that claims the loss of federal tax credits for EV buyers is “likely to kill the U.S. EV market.” It goes on to say, “Without these credits, this market is likely to crash.” Edmunds bases its analysis on what happened when the state of Georgia repealed its EV incentive program in the middle of 2015. Not only did Georgia eliminate its EV incentive, it also imposed new fees on EV drivers designed to offset the loss of revenue the state experienced because cars with electric motors use less gasoline.

Up until then, Georgia gave every qualifying EV buyer a $5,000 credit — the largest in the nation. That was on top of the $7,500 federal tax credit and made buying an EV in Georgia a very attractive proposition. The biggest beneficiary was the Nissan LEAF. In June, 2015 — the last month the incentive was available — 1,008 of them were sold or leased. In July, after the rebate was no longer available, 66 cars were delivered.

Cars eligible for the state incentive accounted for up to 17% of the new car market in Georgia. Following the legislature’s decision to eliminate the credit, they have fallen to about 2% of sales. Note that is still higher than the percentage of EV sales in the US as a whole.

Should Tesla be concerned? Not really says the Motley Fool. Data compiled by IHS Markit and included in the Edmunds analysis shows a drop in sales of the Model S shortly after Georgia repealed its rebate but sales quickly recovered and have since gone on to set new records for the company in the Peachtree State.

The federal tax credit was originally a pump priming exercise intended to help EV manufacturers get started. The assumption Congress made when it first enacted the credit was that once a company had sold 200,000 cars with plugs, economies of scale would begin to kick in, making it possible to build and sell electrified cars profitably without government assistance.

Tesla is getting close to that figure and will surely pass it once the Model 3 gets into production this summer. After that, the federal tax credit for Tesla vehicles will begin to phase out. In addition, many people worry the Trump administration will kill the federal EV tax credit entirely. According to Edmunds, that means Tesla could suffer a dramatic decline in sales — at least in the US. Here’s why that won’t happen according to the Motley Fool.

Not so fast

First, any comparison between a 2015 Nissan LEAF and a 2018 Tesla Model 3 is a lopsided contest. The LEAF is a fine car but it suffers from a serious lack of range. Nor does it have any of the industry leading technology Tesla offers its customers. It relies on the CHAdeMO charging standard, which is rapidly losing ground to the CCS standard and the Tesla Supercharger network.

Red Tesla Model 3 at the vehicle unveiling event on March 31, 2016 from the company’s Hawthorne, CA Design Center.

Second, the base price of the Model 3 is $35,000, which happens to be very near the average selling price of a new passenger vehicle in the US market today. With or without incentives, the Model 3 will be highly competitive. With nearly 400,000 reservations worldwide, demand for the Model 3 is clearly not dependent on government financial incentives.

The real issue here is that electric car sales have not advanced as quickly as electric car advocates predicted. Range anxiety, lack of charging infrastructure, and fear of the unknown have kept many people from buying an electric car, whether from Tesla or any other manufacturer. The “tipping point” when electric cars become the first choice of mainstream car buyers is tantalizingly close but still not here yet.

Reasonable people may disagree about the best way to promote electric cars. Paying people to buy them may not be as beneficial to society as subsidizing the infrastructure needed to charge them. The interstate highway system was a hugely expensive undertaking but it unleashed an unprecedented surge in US economic output. Today it is still the backbone of commerce in America. Putting the money used to fund the federal EV tax credit to work building the nation’s charging infrastructure could be a more efficient use of resources.

By any analysis, the Tesla phenomenon is not dependent on government incentives. It is based on building compelling electric automobiles that outperform the competition. Elon Musk deliberately chose to start at the top of the market to attract those who influence public opinion. That strategy is working and will continue to work even if the federal tax credit is eliminated entirely.

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