Industry calls for urgent support as electric car uptake slows

11 months, 3 weeks ago - 31 July 2023, autocar
Industry calls for urgent support as electric car uptake slows
Slowing sales is cause for industry-wide concern in wake of cost of living crisis, but what can be done?

Concerns are rising that public appetite for switching to electric vehicles is waning as the cost of living crisis combines with increasingly vehement anti-electric car rhetoric to severely dent consumer confidence. 

While electric car registrations grew 32.7% in the first six months of this year, equating to an additional 37,719 cars over the same period in 2022, much of that is due to the easing of the chip crisis and other supply issues. 

The market as a whole is up 18.4% but, in contrast, EV market share growth, once exponential and a key indicator of market health as a whole, is much more modest. 

Electric cars held 0.9% of the market in 2019, rising to 4.4% in 2020, 7.2% in 2021 and 14.4% in 2022. To date this year it sits at 16.1%, which is a very modest rise in the context of the 100% goal by 2035 and some way off the 22% level set to be mandated by the government for next year. 

What’s behind the slowdown? 
That market share plateau is driven by a slump in overall private EV registrations, which are down about 20% year on year and now account for less than half of the total number of new car registrations. 

As dramatic snapshots of the market, just 13% of Volkswagen ID 5s, 21% of Tesla Model Ys and 41% of Ford Mustang Mach-Es this year have been sold to private customers. 

Research from Auto Trader, published under the title The Road to 2030, further underlines this, suggesting there has been a 65% year-on-year fall in the number of enquiries sent to retailers about electric cars, with EV enquiries currently only accounting for 9% of the total, compared with 27% this time last year. 

Could grants boost demand for electric cars
Now, unsurprisingly, there are increasingly loud voices from across the industry for incentives to be reintroduced – or barriers removed – to get electric car sales among private buyers back on track. 

One of the most vocal of them is Fiat UK boss Damien Dally, who has put his company’s money where its mouth is by introducing a £3000 E-grant for any buyers of the 500 EV. “The worst-case scenario is that the transition is delayed by people sitting on their hands, waiting until the last possible moment to make the switch,” he says. “That means we need incentives to encourage them. 

The power of our E–grant is evident: in the past month, we’ve had more expressions of interest in the 500 than we had in the previous five months.” 

Sue Robinson, CEO of the National Franchised Dealers Association, agrees: “We would advocate for a reintroduction of the plug-in car grant (PiCG), which played a significant role in driving electric vehicle sales.

Although this price disparity is shrinking with the addition of more EV models, it still remains a significant barrier to adoption. Removing the PiCG in June 2022 was pre-emptive and has adversely impacted demand for greener, cleaner BEVs within the UK. The smooth transition in the run-up to 2030 relies on electric vehicles remaining economically viable.” 

Would cheaper charging work? 
Based on the prevailing economic conditions, influential automotive industry trade association the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders advocates a slightly different approach, albeit one Robinson also supports, with CEO Mike Hawes focusing his lobbying on the removal of 20% VAT on public charging, compared with 5% for home charging.

“There is an inherent unfairness in VAT being four times the level it is at home when you are putting the same amount of energy in your vehicle,” he says. “By reducing it, government wouldn’t just be addressing that, but also signalling again its intent to see the transition through.”

It’s a view that gets enthusiastic backing – along with a sobering reality check – from its original advocate, Quentin Wilson of FairCharge, an EV lobby group. 

“We’ve had three face-to-face meetings with the Treasury on the subject,” he says. “We’ve met ministers and more… But it’s like explaining your hobby to an Easter Island statue. It’s rare we encounter anyone in government who drives an electric vehicle, and to date they are just not interested.” 

FairCharge calculates the VAT drop would cost the Treasury £38 million a year, which is a fraction of the £2 billion it has ‘spent’ in recent years pegging fuel duty back against agreed multipliers. 

Wilson also highlights that the EV charging industry has already agreed to pass on any savings to consumers immediately, in contrast to the £1bn the fuel industry is reputed to have subsequently overcharged consumers following tax cuts. 

Hawes says a multidimensional approach is needed: “Infrastructure, planning rules, grid connections, getting local authorities to collaborate – we should be pulling every lever we can to remove barriers.”

But while everyone agrees that something needs to be done to re-energise appeal, none of them accept the mainstream media narrative that the 2030/2035 bans on sales of new combustion-engined cars should be pushed back any further.

“The industry has invested billions in new products with improved performance,” says Hawes. “They want to be selling those cars now, not in 2030 and certainly not later.” It’s a view echoed by Ian Johnston, chair of ChargeUK, the trade association representing the UK’s public electric car charging point providers. 

He says it is crucial to have a firm deadline for the change to happen: “The 2030 ban is important: it will provide assurance and confidence to industry and to investors, allowing us to roll out infrastructure quickly and effectively. 

That means helping the UK achieve its net zero goals, and that in turn means creating quality and sustainable jobs, slashing the emissions that are so damaging to the planet and taking the particulates that are so damaging to health out of the air we breathe.”

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