Latest SMMT figures show a slow start to 2018 for pure electric car sales - but is this a long term cause for concern or are consumers simply waiting for more models to hit the market?
The rise to prominence of electric vehicles (EVs) in recent years has been a major success story for the green economy, dove-tailing with the roll out of renewable technologies and rising low carbon infrastructure investment.
Since 2013, UK sales of plug-in cars - including pure electric and hybrids - have shot up from 3,500 to more than 135,000 by the end of January this year. There are also now 60 plug-in models available for consumers to choose from and around 14,900 public places to charge up, including 900 rapid charge points that can power up a typical EV in under 30 minutes.
Nissan claims one of its popular LEAF's is sold every 12 minutes in Europe, and even demand for used EVs is growing, with a recent analysis suggesting that, unlike for fossil fuel cars, some electric models may actually increase in value 12 months after purchase.
Meanwhile, the launch of the UK's first plug-in Black Cab and a host of business fleet trials have served to underline the commercial benefits - lower running costs and maintenance, improved reputational performance - associated with a shift to electric motoring.
Yet there remains a very long journey ahead for the decarbonisation of UK road transport, of course. Low emission vehicle sales still make up only 0.5 per cent of total car sales, making the government's target of ending sales of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 look like a distant goal. At the same time, the latest government figures suggest transport is now the biggest emitting sector of the economy, producing more greenhouse gases than energy generation for the first time.
Meanwhile, for the media buzz the latest figures for the first two months of this year actually show that, just as pure electric car numbers need to be growing rapidly, sales have plunged by more than a third compared to the same period in 2017. In January and February last year, almost 1,500 pure battery powered cars were sold in the UK. This year, that number has dropped below 1,000. The market appears to be heading in the wrong direction.
Part of the explanation may be found in the relative success of other forms of low emission vehicles. While sales of pure EVs fell the number of plug-in hybrid cars sold over the same period rose from 2,750 last year to almost 3,900 in January and February 2018, according to official data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). The appeal of vehicles that can offer zero emissions over shorter journeys while negating range anxiety concerns is obviously starting to resonate with motorists.
But the sales boost for plug-in hybrids will only partially alleviate concerns over the slow down in EV sales. While Brexit headwinds and a decline in consumer appetite for diesels due to growing air pollution concerns have contributed to an overall decline in car sales of late, the recent fall off in EV sales was "much sharper" than the underlying market trend, according to RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding.
He put sagging EV sales down to on-going consumer concerns over infrastructure and upfront costs.
"These figures suggest that consumers are still worried about the four R's that we see holding back the pure-electric market: retail price, range limitation, recharging availability and uncertain residual value," said Gooding. "Until more affordable models come to market with a longer range, and more is done to make recharging less of a headache, it is hard to see how the picture is really going to change."
At present, pure battery electric cars and plug-in hybrid vehicles are both eligible for plug-in grant funding, through which the government provides buyers of such vehicles with up to £4,500 off the upfront purchase cost of an EV and £2,500 off plug-in hybrids. But despite helping boost low emission vehicle sales to date, that grant is due to come to an end - at its current level of funding at least - next month.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of auto sector trade body SMMT, agreed the sales figures reflected consumer concerns around charging infrastructure availability and affordability, and called for long-term, consistent policy support for EVs.
"If zero-emission vehicles are to become mainstream in future, long-term government support with a consistent approach to incentives and tax, and greater investment in charging infrastructure will be critical," said Hawes in a statement.
The government's has laid down legislation designed to make it compulsory for charge points to be installed more widely on UK motorways and main roads, but recent surveys suggest many motorists still harbour 'range anxiety' over EVs, believing the UK lacks sufficient charging points to ensure battery cars don't risk running out of juice.
The Department for Transport (DfT) remains steadfast in its support for the technology, however. Responding to the slump in EV sales, a DfT spokesman reiterated its determination to "lead the way in innovative, low emission vehicle production" backed by a total investment of £1.5bn in such vehicles by 2021.
"We have shown that growing the economy while cutting emissions, can, and should, go hand in hand," a DfT statement said.
How then to reverse the current slowdown?
Business customers could have a key role to play. Early trials have been broadly successful at proving EVs offer significant cost savings for fleet operators. Meanwhile, concerns about range can be readily addressed through effective planning of fleet operations. Government tax breaks and the emergence of electric vans provide further optimism that corporate customers will help drive the market.
At the same time, the new wave of models with longer ranges and shorter charging periods could prove transformational. Clearly, whatever concerns consumers may currently have over EVs, it is not dampening industry appetite for the technology. Nearly all major global car manufacturers are planning to vastly increase their EV and hybrid offerings in the coming years, with several pledging to soon stop making diesels altogether. Meanwhile, car companies are also branching out into energy storage and ride sharing services. The recent Geneva Motor Show provided further evidence that the auto industry is increasingly embracing the switch to electric motoring.
In a bid to secure the future of Ford's Bridgend and Dagenham factories, the Unite union this week urged the car giant Ford to repurpose production lines for "new electric models or battery technology" instead of diesels, according to BBC reports.
As such, Matthew Trevaskis, head of electric vehicles at the Renewable Energy Association (REA), downplayed fears the recent dampening of EV sales could signal a long term problem for the sector, footing the majority of the blame at the relative lack of Nissan LEAFs available in recent months.
"The trend is clear, and that's electric car and vans sales are set to grow," Trevaskis told BusinessGreen. "This data may have been impacted by the development and launch of the new LEAF, the best-selling battery electric vehicle in the UK, whereas the old model stopped being sold in the autumn and deliveries of the new model were received around the end of January."
However, like the RAC Foundation and SMMT, he also stressed the importance of clear and consistent policy support in order to keep EV numbers growing on UK roads.
"Focus and momentum need to be kept up on the delivery of policy reforms surrounding electric vehicle charging infrastructure, which is critical if we are to build a mass market and to encourage future vehicle manufacturing," he explained.
With investment flowing into electric mobility and time against the clock to decarbonise road transport and tackle air pollution, the hope for environmentalists, unions, politicians and the auto industry alike is that the latest EV sales figures are little more than a bump in the road.
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