Why the public isn’t buying electric cars

They're more expensive, less convenient and give you far less freedom than their petrol-powered siblings.

Hugo Griffiths

Topics Politics Science & Tech World

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Outside of a house, a car is the most expensive purchase most of us will ever make. All the more reason to get sound advice when deciding which vehicle should be one’s next. Yet while we are told with monotonous regularity, by both the UK government and the media, that the future of motoring is electric, drivers are buying neither this idea nor the vehicles themselves.

The sales figures bear this out. Little more than a decade before they become the only option in new-car showrooms – with a ban on petrol and diesel cars set to come into effect in 2035 – electric vehicles (EVs) make up just under 16 per cent of the global market. In the UK, the figure stands only slightly higher, at 18 per cent. That the figure is even that high is down to fleet buyers, encouraged by a variety of government incentives, from EV grants to tax reductions. Private motorists, who represent 45 per cent of the market and get no concessions, bought just 24 per cent of the new EVs registered in the first half of 2023. The message could hardly be clearer: unless heavily discounted, few are prepared to buy EVs instead of petrol cars.

Parts of the automotive press seem to have sensed conspiracy in this. One senior figure recently asked who exactly has been ‘driving the anti-electric-car agenda’, while a respected publication claimed an ‘increasingly vehement anti-electric-car rhetoric’ had hampered consumer confidence. The truth, however, is far simpler: people aren’t buying electric cars because they’re not very good.

Don’t think me a Luddite – EVs are lovely in their own right. Smooth, brisk and easy to drive, there is a certain serenity in piloting a battery-powered vehicle. But EVs don’t exist in isolation. Instead, they are competing with a century of petrol and diesel power that has established cars as providers of comfort, freedom and convenience. And while the quiet nature of an EV arguably brings more comfort than an engine, batteries offer so much less freedom and convenience than fuel tanks as to barely be worth comparing.

My old diesel Mercedes, for instance, cost £4,000 and could go from London to Aberdeen, and most of the way back, on a single tank of fuel. A typical EV would need to recharge at least twice – just on the way up. This would add perhaps 90 minutes to the journey, assuming the public plugs were working and conveniently located. That, in my book, makes an EV demonstrably inconvenient. And cries of ‘how often do you drive to Aberdeen?’ don’t hold water, because the freedom cars bring is absolutely intrinsic to their appeal. Perhaps tomorrow I get the urge to cross the Bridge of Dee; perhaps it’s none of your business. That’s freedom for you, and EVs curtail it.

Brevity precludes me from fully covering the ethics, costs and geopolitics of battery manufacture versus oil production. And the environmental pros and cons of EVs can vary from country to country, depending on national energy mixes. It is also important to ask if the 80 per cent market share EVs now enjoy in Norway, thanks to the vast fossil-fuel exports funding an incentives bonanza, is anything other than deliciously hypocritical.

I also suggest you consult the experts on this matter: automotive journalists. A quick scan of car publications might give the impression that journalists unanimously adore EVs – that battery power is the best thing to happen to cars since heated seats – and that the only question left is which of these wonderful machines you should buy.

But beneath the glowing reviews and breathless prose that mark the launch of every new EV SUV, a different picture can be glimpsed. And it’s one that can be unveiled by asking any car journalist a simple question: do they have an EV themselves?

Don’t be put off if they start talking about how easy electric cars are to live with. Most mid-to-high-level hacks get ‘long-termers’ to assess over three to six months, usually supplied by the manufacturer. These EVs often become their second car. Instead, ask a car hack if they have spent their own money on an electric car. After years working in the industry, I can confidently state that few ever have.

There are exceptions, to be sure, but a perishingly small number of automotive journalists opt for electric power. And those who do will, more often than not, have a steady stream of test vehicles delivered to their door – helping offset all the inconveniences that EVs bring.

Automotive hacks might cite various reasons for their preference for petrol and diesel, including their appreciation of the mechanical beauty of piston power, or that the cost of electric cars is out of reach for poorly remunerated journalists. But these reasons are valid for all drivers, and pale in comparison to the curtailments of a 300-mile range and the need to be tethered to chargers. So, if the experts aren’t fans, why should other drivers drink the electric Kool-Aid?

It seems that too many in the automotive fourth estate are willing to endorse EVs professionally while shunning the cars themselves when it comes to their own cash. They’re acting like tailors in tracksuits or vegan butchers, promoting products they wouldn’t personally dream of buying.

A mixture of novelty, chunky government bungs and emphatic rhetoric have led the growth of EV sales until now. But the techies have already made the switch, retail incentives have been scrapped, and the messaging has lost efficacy. It is for obvious reasons that when left to stand on their own four wheels, EVs are falling flat.

Hugo Griffiths is an award-winning freelance motoring journalist.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics Science & Tech World


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