Will 2020 be the year when electric cars take off?

Most people accept the need to move to electric vehicles, but the question is when? New regulations might tip the balance

Home road cars electric Will 2020 be the year when electric cars take off?

In the move to electrification it feels as though car manufacturers and consumers are waiting to see who blinks first. Car makers have been making all the right noises about electric vehicles for years – promising the transformation of their fleets. But take up from consumers has been slow as they consider prices and charging issues.

Neither side, however, could have expected the events – and emotions – of 2019, with growing concern about climate change personified by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and hammered home by dramatic images of the bushfires sweeping Australia's east coast.

Now there's a sense that people really are looking for planet-saving alternatives – whether it's cutting back on air travel or recycling clothes. They want to play their part. And on this count, electric cars are known to be a good thing – making less pollution (and noise) at the point of use.

Pace of change

Yet if you take a tour of car dealerships in London looking for an electric car you are likely to find a few gaps in what's on offer. One promises its latest plug-in hybrid SUV is available – but only in black or red. Another warns of a 12-month waiting list. And a third doesn't have a single hybrid car to sell.

And while the number of electric car models available to buyers in Europe is expected to rise from 60 at the end of 2018 to 214 by 2021, according to environmental lobby group the European Federation for Transport and Environment, car manufacturers could find themselves playing catch-up with the shift to electric. Particularly as electric and hybrid passenger vehicles made up 9.4 per cent of car sales in the European Union during the third quarter of 2019.

Behind the change in consumer behaviour is the cold reality of a raft of regulations that are forcing the pace of transition.

Taking action

Duty rises and city-centre bans in places including Paris and Madrid have savaged sales of diesel cars since governments realised they were a bad thing for urban areas. In the third quarter of 2019 they comprised less than 30 per cent of the total number of cars sold in the EU, 14 per cent lower than in the same period the previous year. 

Meanwhile a number of countries have set a date to ban sales of cars with internal combustion engines – for example Israel by 2030 and China by 2040.

This year, EU rules will bring a real chance for further and sweeping change. They sharply tighten controls on emissions by cars and light vans with the intention of putting more green vehicles, especially electric ones, on the road.

Being phased in by 2021, the EU average emission target for all new cars sold by a manufacturer will be 95g of CO2 per kilometre. That compares with a target of 130g of CO2/km, in place since 2015.

Setting the standard

One of the potential bonuses of the EU emissions rules is that of prompting other countries to join in. India, for example, has also adopted EU pollution targets.

Car makers may struggle to meet the limits – and they face penalties estimated at tens of billions of euros if they fail.

But there are signs that they are shaping up to sell more electric cars. BMW has brought forward its electric vehicle plans. Volkswagen's chief executive Herbert Diess, who has also accelerated plans for electric cars, says VW risks obsolescence if it does not succeed with battery vehicles. Jaguar Land Rover too is speeding up its efforts to produce such vehicles.

A momentum for change is building. A push to improve battery technology, a better charging infrastructure and more certainty over new car subsidies should secure the long-awaited move to electrification and pave the way for the time when electric cars are as much a part of our everyday thinking as recycling paper is today.