Stephen Foley: Americans don't want electric cars, even as a gift


US Outlook: Someone let the cat out of the bag. Karin Akerson is getting a Chevrolet Volt for Christmas.

Mrs Akerson is the wife of General Motors chief executive Dan Akerson who, in a John Selwyn Gummeresque use of his family to assuage public safety concerns, says he is so confident the Volt is safe that he will buy her one of the cars that are being returned by worried drivers.

The scare over GM's electric car – in which cars involved in accidents appear to be prone to battery fires – is hardly insurmountable of itself. Fires are a recognised risk of damaged petrol engine vehicles, too.

The real problem is that, it is becoming clear, the American public is not going to fall in love with electric vehicles. GM will miss its forecast of 10,000 Volt sales this year by about one-fifth. The Nissan Leaf has suffered sales declines three months in a row. Morgan Stanley slashed its sales forecast for the electric car maker Tesla this week, sending its shares down 9 per cent.

Persuading the American public to go electric always seemed a big ask, given the high price tag of these experimental vehicles. GM has stopped promoting the Volt as an electric car at all; its TV ads now make much of the fact that, yes, it has a gas tank, just one you don't have to fill up very often.

As Morgan Stanley's analyst Adam Jonas argued, sales of plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles have been decelerating this year, while big strides in the fuel efficiency of petrol engine cars have reduced the incentive to switch. Electric vehicle technology is "not ready for prime time", he says.

If the US is going to go electric, it is going to take the heavier hand of government.