Business analyst Mark Lacter joins KPCC once a week for an in-depth look at economic issues in Southern California.
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Struggling electric car sales

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Across the country, the sale of electric cars is sluggish.

Susanne Whatley: But business analyst Mark Lacter, that's not quite the case in California...

Mark Lacter: Well, comparatively speaking, Susanne.  L.A. and San Francisco alone made up 35 percent of the electric cars sold in the entire U.S. during the first half of the year - 35 percent!  Keep in mind that statewide just 9,700 electric cars were sold in that six-month period, which translates to a little over 1 percent of all car sales in California.  So, they're not exactly lining up around the block, even in a region that's known for its early adopters.  Of course, electric cars were always going to be a tough sell -

Whatley: I've been driving one for about half a year now... and I absolutely love it.  But they ARE expensive, and I'm sure that's a factor.

Lacter: - and that's even after a federal tax credit, but they also require drivers to learn about recharging the battery - sometimes in not-very-convenient places - and, from a design standpoint, most of them don't stand out (one of the automakers that's now out of business had been selling what was a basically plain vanilla Mitsubishi sedan).  Now, the one notable exception is the Tesla - so long as you have at least $90,000 to shell out, and are willing to wait a while to get your car delivered.  In affluent sections of L.A., this is truly the hot car - just 600 or so Teslas have been sold in Southern California during the first seven months of the year.  It's also received rave reviews from all the big automotive publications.

Whatley: And perhaps most surprising of all, Tesla has been making money…

Lacter: That's right, although the stock price is ridiculously overvalued at around $20 billion (that's one-third the market value of General Motors, even though Tesla cranks out all of 21,000 vehicles a year while GM sells almost 5 million).  People seem to love this car almost in spite of it being battery powered, which gets us back to the challenges in trying to sell these things.  Elon Musk, who founded the company (he's also behind SpaceX and he co-founded PayPal), has managed to win over customers because the car itself is so much fun to drive.  The other makers of electric cars - not so much.

Whatley: So, for the folks still on the fence... might it be better to wait until driverless cars become available?

Lacter: That's going to be quite a wait, although all the automakers are working on their versions of self-driving cars.  The Mercedes people just announced plans to launch in 2020 - the same year that Nissan wants to bring out its car - and Google, which has had self-driving cars tooling around California for several years, is looking at 2017.  So, what we're seeing is real, but the question is what sort of real it'll turn out to be.  Certainly, the possibilities are nothing short of revolutionary - you're looking at, potentially, faster commute times because cars will be able to travel closer to one other (reaction times would be faster than with a human behind the wheel); in addition, fewer accidents and injuries (also a function of reaction times).  But, how well the vehicles work once they get beyond the testing phase is anyone's guess.  California does allow self-driving prototypes car for testing purposes, but that's far different than full-scale authorization.

Whatley: What if something goes wrong?

Lacter: That's one of the big concerns - liability, but the real issue is public acceptance.  Already, surveys are finding reluctance to buying a driverless car, or even having them on the road.  That's not a huge surprise considering how novel the concept still is - and all it takes are a few mishaps to affirm the skeptics.  All of which points to a lengthy transition period - not unlike the early days of the passenger plane, when most folks couldn't imagine getting into a flying machine.  Eventually, they got used to them, but it took time.

Whatley: And finally, some thoughts on Cal Worthington?

Lacter: Certainly one of the great showmen in the annals of L.A. broadcasting - Cal Worthington wasn't the first auto dealer to discover the benefits of commercials, but he lasted longer than anyone else, selling more than a million cars (that according to his count), and grossing billions of dollars.  The Worthington ads are sometimes considered the first infomercials - that might be a stretch, but three factors really made it all come together: Southern California's appetite for the automobile, the ease by which Cal could deliver his schtick (remember when he was strapped to the wing of a biplane?), and the fact that there was so much available air time to sell in L.A.. Definitely a legend in his own time.

Mark Lacter writes for Los Angeles Magazine and pens the business blog at LA