Britons drove 22,003 battery electric vehicles (BEVs) off forecourts last month, 88.2% more than in March 2020, according to new data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).
Plug-in vehicles have been a rare success story during the pandemic, with sales rising even as the auto market shut down. Sales of battery electric vehicles were up 185.9% across 2020, with more than 108,205 purchased.
Sales were particularly strong in April 2020, with BEVs outpacing all fuel types except petrol, and in December 2020, when they outstripped 2019’s sales by a staggering 343.7%.
The appetite for low-emission vehicles wasn’t confined to the UK. Global sales of electric cars accelerated 43% to three million, even as overall car sales fell by a fifth. BEVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles now hold a 4.2% of the global car market, up from 2.5% in 2019.
Market watchers have attributed the surge in interest in EVs to government commitments to phase out fossil fuel vehicles—the UK will ban new sales in 2030—and to tumbling costs of the vehicles, driven by technology improvements.
Although EVs are cheaper to run than cars with internal combustion engines (ICEs), their ticket price remains higher. But this too may have insulated EV sales from the economic upheaval of the pandemic. Sales of expensive vehicles are always more resilient in recessions than economy vehicles.
Motorists are also being swayed by a larger selection of plug-in vehicles. There were 116 models on the market in the UK last year, up from 72 in 2019.
However plug-in vehicles still have a long way to go before the UK bans the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles at the end of the decade. BEV sales tripled between March 2019 and March 2021, but the vehicles still only hold a 7.7% share of the UK car market, 13.9% when combined with hybrids.
SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes has warned that the EV revolution in the UK is being driven by fleets, while individual buyers are being left in the dust. He called for policy change to encourage the adoption of low-carbon vehicles by "ordinary drivers."
“We need incentives that tempt consumers, infrastructure that is robust and charging points that provide reassurance, so that zero-emission mobility will be possible for everyone, regardless of income or location,” he said.
Consumer uptake of EVs has been deterred by ever-shifting incentives--what Hawes called a "game of snakes and ladders"-- and the withdrawal of subsidies. In late March, the government's plug-in car grant for private buyers was cut from £3,000 to £2,500 and the price of eligible vehicles was capped at £35,000.
Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband has called for interest-free loans to help families afford electric vehicles.
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