Volvo officials said the company will launch five fully electric cars between 2019 and 2021, along with a range of plug-in and so-called “mild hybrids,” which use electric motors along with standard internal combustion engines running on gasoline or diesel fuel.
While the announcement is undeniably big news for the auto industry, experts caution that Volvo's plans won't actually have much practical impact, in the short term, for the electric car revolution.
Let us count the caveats: Volvo is a minor player in the US auto market, catering largely to the luxury end of the market. And Volvo's electric commitment only applies to new passenger car models beginning in 2019; the company will still be selling its existing lines of gas-powered cars, and they'll still be making trucks, buses, and other large vehicles.
Brett Smith of the nonprofit research group the Center for Automotive Research said the vast majority of the cars will likely be mild hybrids, 28-volt hybrids. Because mild hybrids don't require any plug-in mechanism — the internal electric motor is charged up by the combustion engine — the new cars won't need any additional infrastructure like charging stations.
Those charging facilities — the electric car version of gas stations — are really the key to getting more electric vehicles on the road.
“In all likelihood, the majority of the cars they sell will be mild hybrids, which don't need a plug,” Smith said. “The Volvo announcement alone won't change things. It's a much bigger issue, and still very much in development.”
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The electric car revolution may have an even more fundamental problem, Smith said. Like every other auto maker, Volvo is trying to court a new generation of customers who might not be all that interested in owning a car at all — gasoline or electric. Urban and suburban millennials have grown used to public transportation and ride-sharing services like Uber.
“There's a trend in the industry that sees more and more younger people looking for alternatives to owning a car,” Smith said. “Part of that is a change in sentiment — the belief that there are simply better ways of getting around than the way the generation before did.”
Another impediment for younger customers is the age-old industry dilemma of cost, Smith said.
“The cost of owning a vehicle is getting so high.” Smith said. “Millennials, many of them have grown up in an environment where jobs are more scarce; they're not paying as well. Look, cars are great — they're better than they've ever been. They're safer; they're more fuel efficient. But they ain't free.”
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Volvo's pivot toward electric is ultimately just a baby step in the longer journey of widespread adoption of electric vehicles. But if Volvo's plans trigger a cascade of similar commitments from other automakers, then things could start to change quickly, Smith said.
“When you piece together every car manufacturers' plans, then that becomes something with critical mass,” he said. “Volvo's announcement is a small piece of the puzzle, but it's a piece.”
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