Will General Motors Short Out?

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Will anyone ever kill the gasoline car?

When I first posed this question to Fool readers four years ago, I had high hopes that a hybrid-electric car revolution was getting revved up. Last week, however, I stumbled across a statistic that got me to wondering whether I had jumped the gun: In China last year, Toyota Motors (NYS: TM) sold one Prius. One.

Here in the U.S., where the government has flooded the auto industry with hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies, the return on investment hasn't been quite that bleak -- but bleak enough. Last month, General Motors (NYS: GM) says it sold 302 hybrid-electric Chevy Volts. Now, that's a big improvement from the 125 Volts it moved in July. But it still brings GM's sales tally to just 3,498 units over the past nine months -- and math-proficient Fools will notice that the 302 Volts sold in August is actually below the average number of monthly sales booked since the Volt went on the market. That's a worse showing than Nissan has made with its all-electric Leaf, with 5,200-odd sales and counting.

So the two mass-market car producers that have products available for sale aren't exactly burning up the track. Yet already, rivals are queuing up to angle for their pieces of this all-too-small pie. Next year, Tesla (NAS: TSLA) brings its long-awaited Model S to market. Ford (NYS: F) will begin selling an electric Fusion, while Honda (NYS: HMC) fields an electric Fit. With GM already charging one of the heftier price tags for these vehicles, that doesn't bode well for its future sales. It also suggests that investors who flocked to A123 (NAS: AONE) last month, on news that it had signed a supply contract with GM, may have backed the wrong horse.

On the other hand, maybe more competition will be good for GM. More electric cars on the road means more incentive for companies like General Electric (NYS: GE) to build an electric infrastructure. This could motivate car-buyers to take a look. It means more companies will advertise the virtues of going all-electric, or even half-electric, as the Volt arguably is. This, too, could boost interest in the cars.

Still, as things stand now, electric-car sales in the U.S. are lagging those of the Pontiac Aztek -- once voted the "No. 1 ugliest car of all time" and, more tellingly, the "34th worst invention of all time." Here's hoping electric cars don't wind up ranked at No. 33.

Monitor General Motors' progress in the race to build an electric-car future?Add GM to your Watchlisttoday.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorRich Smithdoes not own (or short) shares of any company named above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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