The problem with disruptive changes is that not many people really see them coming. The vast majority deny the possibility even if warned. The current pandemic is the most obvious example that we are still living through. Then there was the banking crisis of 2008/9. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls them “black swan events”, and the arrival of electric vehicles is fast turning into another one, albeit much more positive than the previous two examples. Unless you work in the oil industry.
When Tesla started selling the initial Roadster and then the Model S, lots of major car companies were highly skeptical that the technology would catch on, with both Daimler and Toyota divesting themselves of their stakes in the company in 2014 and 2016 respectively. The Nissan Leaf, which was the world’s bestselling EV until the Model 3 stole its laurels, is a great car but still didn’t excite the vision that this would be the kind of vehicle most people would eventually be driving.
Over the last couple of years, however, those who aren’t in denial or don’t have vested interests to protect can see a freight train on the horizon. The most recent sales car sales figures in the UK put battery-electric vehicles at 15.2% of the market in September, hitting 9.5% of units for the year to date. Despite the chip shortage, the BEV market is growing while the market for pure fossil-fuel vehicles has collapsed. BEVs are now more popular than diesels in the UK. Even hybrids had a bad September. In Europe, plug-ins now outsell diesels too.
Tesla Model 3 Now UK’s Bestselling Car
The Tesla Model 3 has even managed to become the bestselling car across all fuel types in the UK in September. It’s worth bearing in mind that September is a quarter end, and Tesla tends to have a big sales push in those periods, so these figures will be artificially higher than usual. But it’s still incredible to see this car sell 31% more than the next biggest seller – the subcompact Vauxhall Corsa, which retails for less than half the price of even the entry-level Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus. In the UK, the only car ads you now see on TV – except Toyota’s dubious “self-charging hybrid” spots – are for electric autos.
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Of course, we are living in some very uncertain times. The pandemic has thrown all normal car sales figures to the wind because dealerships have been closed for months on end over the last 18 months. The chip shortage has made it impossible for manufacturers to meet demand now their dealerships are open, further compacting the problems just when things were opening again. In the UK, we also had a fuel crisis that made some people question whether traditional cars were really more convenient than vehicles you can charge at home.
But in theory the dealership issues and chip shortage should have affected BEVs as much as any other vehicle types, and it is clear that this hasn’t been the case. Since around the middle of 2019, the trickle of electric car sales in the UK has started to accelerate. One pundit on Twitter has extrapolated the “S curve” of sales in the UK, and now reckons that in this country we will be buying more BEVs than any other type of car by mid-2023. That is barely 18 months from now.
This is very simple modelling, and there are lots of factors that could change the rate of sales. It’s probably overly optimistic. Electric cars are more expensive than fossil fuel ones for the time being, and a huge number of car sales are second hand. It will take a few years for the excellent BEVs that have arrived since mid-2019 to step down to the used market, but residual values on BEVs are very good so even then second-hand BEV prices will be relatively high.
Cheaper Electric Cars Are Coming Fast
However, even the price problem might not last much longer. The British brand MG (which is now owned by Chinese SAIC) has been chipping away at costs, starting with the MG ZS EV, then the MG5, and most recently the Long Range version of the latter – which is one of the cheapest BEVs on the market and still offers 250 miles of range (WLTP). The company has just announced a Long Range version of its ZS SUV with 273 miles (WLTP). Prices won’t be released until November but judging by the delta between the original MG5 and its Long Range version – just £1,500 ($2,000) more – the new ZS Long Range won’t be very expensive.
Charging infrastructure is likely to be the biggest bugbear for the next few years. This is still a huge selling point for Tesla, with its widespread, highly reliable and easy to use network of Superchargers. But infrastructure always sits in a “chicken and egg” relationship with whatever it supports. Nobody is willing to invest in infrastructure if there aren’t enough users to support it financially. And without the infrastructure, buyers are reluctant to take the plunge. That balance appears to have tipped over for EVs, however, as sales of electric vehicles exploded in 2020, with no signs of abating in 2021. The cars are there to make it potentially profitable to provide chargers, which are nowhere near as expensive to install as, for example, hydrogen fuel stations.
This is how markets flip. They already have in Norway, where nearly 80% of new car sales are now electric. We saw it with the arrival of smartphones in the late 2000s, which caught Nokia and Ericsson napping. We saw it with the arrival of personal computers, which picked up steam in the mid-90s and now they are ubiquitous. We saw it with the Internet, which was a novelty until the late 1990s, but has revolutionized everything from how we read news, to how we watch video, to how we communicate in general. Cars are doing the same thing. Battery-electric cars aren’t perfect for every type of use, but they can already fit most of them, and it looks like they will be the dominant vehicles by the end of the decade, if not sooner.