Every which way you turn these days, you can’t help but trip over another manufacturer launching an electric car.
Even Britain’s most famous export – the Mini – has been given the full electric treatment with 124 miles of range and a (relatively) affordable £25k price tag. And now Lotus are at it with the crazy, all-electric 2,000bhp supercar, the Evija.
In fact, according to the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, consumers can now choose from some 80 models of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, battery electric and hydrogen vehicles – with many more on the way.
To an outsider, the petrol-driven car industry must look very different these days – all EVs and hybrids, and not a V8 to be seen….
While those sentiments are not exactly true, pretty much every car maker has, or will have soon, some form of electrified car in their range. But are we set up to cope with this charging demand? And what’s the real reason behind the surge in launches? Is it buyers or more simply a reaction to incoming legislation?
A recent poll by DriveTribe.com revealed that it’s not necessarily the demand. More than half of the 2,200 respondents said they wouldn’t be buying an electric car any time soon. Just five per cent said they were going to buy one in the next 12 months, and only 14 per cent were considering an EV within the next two years. That doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
While in some areas of the States – especially California – buyers are crying out to get hold of EV models, in mainland Europe our poll certainly suggests it’s a different story.
Steven Ewing, managing editor of Roadshow, CNET and CBS Interactive, told us that while EV sales are rising in the States, adoption is still slow.
He said: “A number of factors contribute to this, not the least of which is the relatively poor charging infrastructure across vast expanses of the country.
“In major cities like New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, it's easier to find public charging options. In smaller cities or rural areas, however, they're not as easy to locate. And since the distances between cities is much larger in America than in other countries, it makes shorter-range electric vehicles a tough sell for folks who commonly drive long distances.”
Charging-up at home
Charging infrastructure remains a problem across the world. However, it’s less of an issue in the States because most owners tend to charge at home – thanks to most having a drive where installing a charging point is quite simple.
US-based John Voelcker, who edited GreenCarReports.com for nine years and now analyses and writes about the global electric-car market, added: “Some 80 per cent of US charging is done at home overnight or at work. We have more single-family dwellings with dedicated parking than other countries, especially the UK.
“However, the public doesn’t really understand that, because of a lack of visibility of charging points. They're smaller, not consistently signed, if at all, and usually have to be found via apps.
“This makes potential owners think roaming is harder, and the fact there are a dozen charging networks nationally and locally makes it complicated to understand.
“Couple that with the fact car salespeople don't know any of this and are disinclined to learn because they think selling EVs is harder, and the problem is compounded.”
In the UK, the charging infrastructure is growing but is still not really fit for purpose. With few potential owners having the ability to install a home charger – especially in cities where there’s more terraced housing – the reliance on public charging is greater.
Autocar and What Car? editorial director Jim Holder said: “Given the propensity for home charging, most studies suggest we need 40-60,000 public chargers across the UK if everyone ran EVs, so today's 20,000 points for a fraction of ownership seems adequate, and the data suggests that none are remotely close to 100 per cent usage.
“I think the bigger problems are that a large proportion of these chargers don't work properly and the geographical distribution is patchwork, because of the patchwork way in which the roll-out has been done between numerous companies, using different systems. This has also led to these charging points being far too complex to access.”
But despite these difficulties the EV boom is set to continue – especially with incoming emissions legislation that could drastically penalise car manufacturers.
While there is some demand for EVs in Europe, it’s tiny compared to combustion engines, but manufacturers will soon be very keen to push sales to bring down their overall CO2 fleet emissions.
Pushed into EVs, rather than pulled
Industry analyst Jato Dynamics says European-wide CO2 targets could be seen as “an apocalypse of the car industry in Europe”.
Manufacturers must achieve an average CO2 fleet level of just 95g/km across all the cars sold, starting next year and fully in place by 2021, or face fines running into billions. The UK has said it will adopt these rules after Brexit, too.
The regulations set each car maker a specific CO2 output target, with the individual requirement varying depending on the weight and size of vehicles built and how many of them the manufacturer sells each year. Despite this caveat, it’ll still be a tough ask.
“I can see a time soon when manufacturers are forced to register electric cars themselves and take the hit to help bring down their fleet CO2 levels,” said the MD of one car firm who understandably didn’t want to be named.
“The fines could be huge and it may be far easier to pre-register electric cars that aren’t selling to get the fleet average down or stop selling high-emitting cars completely instead. It’s going to be very tough.”
Car Magazine editor-in-chief Phil McNamara agrees. He says it’s likely some car makers will be forced to hold back sales to keep themselves within the limit.
Writing online, he said: “Groups that have been slow to embrace plug-in cars – Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, Mazda, PSA Groupe – will almost certainly have to cap their own sales until their product range catches up with the regulations. The industry is furiously developing pure EVs, and plug-in and mild hybrids; it needs them on the market as soon as possible, ahead of new emissions targets coming into force.”
Jato Dynamics, meanwhile, says it’ll lead to unprofitable cars being cut completely from ranges.
Its online report added: “We will definitely see many models dropped where investment to reduce their averages is larger than the profits generated. This will include the axing of more combustion engines, large and heavy cars, or those slow-selling models.”
Holder thinks that despite the industry’s move to push more EVs on to the market, buyer reluctance to adopt change is still prevalent.
“The general feeling is that consumers are being pushed into EVs rather than pulling to get hold of them,” he told us.
“There are plenty of signs that this is changing, especially for the newest in-vogue models. The Tesla Model 3 waiting list is well known, likewise I-Pace, e-Niro and Kona Electric. The Porsche Taycan is said to have a two-year waiting list too.
“That hints that pent-up demand is there if you build the right car. And, of course, car manufacturers want to sell electrified cars from next year, when it really matters in order to meet emissions targets and avoid fines.”
Despite this, sales for some alternatively fuelled vehicles in the UK have fallen in recent months, as confusing messages from the government, including the premature removal of incentives to buy, have put buyers off.
In June, plug-in hybrid sales fell by 50.4 per cent – a drop that helped tip sales of alternatively fuelled vehicles overall in the month into negative growth for the first time since April 2017.
Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said: “The recent decline in registrations of plug-in hybrids is a serious concern, providing evidence of what happens when government incentives for emerging technologies are removed prematurely.
“To accelerate demand we need the right conditions to encourage buyer confidence, including a long-term commitment to incentives, comprehensive recharging infrastructure and supportive taxation.”
While the future of the motor industry looks a little muddy, what is clear is the pace of change will continue to accelerate. But whether the infrastructure that will help support this pace of change keeps pace itself remains to be seen.