Viewers at an auto show

Buzz for electric cars not yet backed up by sales

Electric cars are having a moment.

At the world-renowned Frankfurt auto show, they have been the undeniable focal point of everything. As more and more countries get on board with the low-emissions vehicle movement, automakers are pivoting away from the traditional fueling model and preparing for a gas-less future.

Mercedez-Benz unveiled a compact electric vehicle under its EQ sub-brand; BMW presented a new four-door electric concept vehicle to go with its previous i3 and i8 models; Volkswagen let loose a revised version of its electric SUV crossover. All the big guns came out to play.

But for all the hype being bestowed on these vehicles, it may be a while before they truly flourish in the mainstream market. As automotive expert Mark Richardson notes in a special contribution to The Globe and Mail, "governments want us to drive electric cars, we [just] don't want to buy them."

The reality is that electric and low-emissions vehicles are still priced well above traditional gas-powered cars in most areas. Rebates are rare, and the lack of incentivization has stopped electric cars from gripping markets—certainly the North American ones—in the same way as other technological breakthroughs have in the past.

Even when prices are on par with traditional vehicles, electric ones are still catching on somewhat slowly.

"It's probably slower than some people expected when we started this journey," said BMW management board member Peter Schwarzebauer. "If everyone's convinced already, for example in California, why isn't everybody buying only electric cars? The prices there are very competitive, but it's still only a very small portion of consumers who are doing it. It takes a while for people to get used to it. Electromobility is a marathon, not a sprint, but it's still a small percentage, and very slow."