New data suggests that only one-quarter of all car buyers – 23 per cent – say that they will be buying an electric car in the next two years. That figure will come as a disappointment to both environmental campaigners and electric vehicle (EV) advocates.
The data comes from used car sales website Sweep, which has polled 2,000 people whom it describes as “active car buyers”. The number of buyers interested in going electric rises to 36 per cent when the timeline is pushed out beyond five years.
On the face of it, such numbers may not look like a total disaster. After all, fully-electric cars have a 7.7 per cent share of the Irish new car market, so a trebling of that share, to 23 per cent, within two years would be pretty good going.
Except it’s not even that good. Of those respondents to the Sweep survey who said that they were considering an electric car purchase in the next two years, 55 per cent of them meant a hybrid vehicle. Only 22 per cent (of the 23 per cent) said that they wanted to go full-electric.
Why, at a time when we’re in the throes of a climate crisis, and when a deadline of 2030 to stop buying petrol or diesel cars has been imposed, are people still not switching on to buying electric?
According to Sweep’s survey, 63 per cent of those who replied said that the price of a new electric car was putting them off. That is perhaps understandable, but clearly also illuminates that people are still buying a new car on the basis of the up-front price, rather than the whole-life cost.
Rather more damningly, 42 per cent cited a lack of charging infrastructure. Clearly, if those driving a diesel or petrol car aren’t seeing rank after rank of charging points (preferably ones that work, and which don’t have a queue of electron-less cars waiting to hook up) then they’re not going to be confident making the switch.
So, how can we turn this situation around? According to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), while cost is the top-most of the five key things that are holding consumers back from buying electric, much of this is down to "hyperbolic discounting" – which basically means looking at the up-front purchase price, and not the overall lifetime running costs. The SEAI points to a study in America which shows that a Hyundai Kona Electric is cheaper to run than a Hyundai Tucson petrol SUV to the tune of $2,242 (€1,976) per year, over 12 years. The report admits that the figures will be different in Ireland, compared to the US, but the concept of long-term savings is pretty well baked-in to electric cars.
That’s tied in with another issue – status-quo bias, which is not a fondness for long-haired English rock bands, but a general reluctance to move beyond that which you know. Social norms tie into that – if you’re keeping up with the Joneses, you’ll probably buy what they’ve bought – as does information overload. With the constant, rolling hype over EVs, some consumers are taking refuge in the simplicity of buying that with which they are familiar. A final barrier is actually the opposite – information problems, whereby people simply haven’t taken the time, or not been able to, read up on the pros and cons of EVs.
The SEAI recognises that the information gap is possibly the most significant one to bridge. “Communicating the lower overall cost of ownership to potential owners is key,” Andrew O’Callaghan told The Irish Times. “There are also questions to be asked about how we label and communicate overall running costs to the end consumer.”
One controversial claim made by the SEAI’s report is the car dealers themselves are a barrier – that sales staff are too keen to turn a quick sale, and that the extra effort needed to convince people of the benefits of electric motoring (and the potential lack of future revenue from servicing and parts) means that dealers are still nudging people towards conventional cars.
That's not the case, according to Donagh Hickey, a Renault and Dacia main dealer from Rathmore in Co Kerry. "I don't think that can be the case," Hickey told The Irish Times. "We know from research that 90 per cent of people coming into dealerships now have done their research and made up their minds before they've come to us. On top of which, the majority of people coming to trade in are bringing in diesel models, and we are reducing our diesel engine range. So we already have a job of work to do with convincing these people of our new petrol models, and our new hybrid models. We know that some brands are keeping diesel going, so if we don't do that work, and put that time in, we'll lose them altogether."
The SEAI then, will have to find other levers to pull to get people into EVs. Some of those may be more stick than carrot. A charge for bringing an internal combustion car into, similar to that levied in London, has been mooted, but the SEAI admits that, realistically, only Dublin would be a suitable location for such a charge, given the dearth of public transport alternatives in Ireland's other major urban centres. There was also mention of the Norway model. Norway is seen as a shining light for EV sales, and rightly so, but the SEAI's Declan Meally warned that "much of that is to do with very high carbon taxes pushing buyers out of internal combustion cars, and into EVs". The implication being that Irish consumers may not take kindly to such a dramatic increase in taxation, which could be politically untenable.
Other initiatives are more of an encouragement. While virtue signalling is often seen as an insult in the worlds of social media, according to the SEAI it can be helpful with EV sales, offering buyers green numberplates, specific to EVs, seems to increase consumer preference for electric cars, according to experience with such things in other countries.
Allowing EVs to access bus lanes has also been considered, and while the SEAI recognises that, given the relative high purchase cost of EVs, that could be seen as giving higher earners a chance to cheat traffic, there is the valid counterpoint that we already allow mostly diesel-engined taxis to use bus lanes, and perhaps we’d be all a little better off letting electric cars do so.
Work will also have to be done on convincing people of the efficacy of the national charging network, not least because it is estimated that 36 per cent of Irish drivers don’t have access to off-street parking, so find it difficult or impossible to charge at home. While the ESB’s proposed rapid-charging hubs may go some way to helping in that regard, the SEAI says it wants to see more work done, especially at the local authority level, to provide on-street charging, as well as encouraging more employers to install chargers at workplaces.
Beyond that, the SEAI says that getting more consumers behind the wheel of electric cars is key to getting buyers to make the switch. Once people actually experience electric motoring for the first time, they’re far more likely to commit to a purchase.
One other barrier to getting a large number of electric cars onto Irish roads will be the actual supply of vehicles in the coming months. We’re already starting to see severe constrictions in the supply of new cars thanks to the global microchip shortage, and that is set to worsen. Other data from Sweep, looking at the time it takes a second hand car to be sold from the moment that it is first advertised, illustrates the problem. With new car deliveries being pushed back, many more buyers are turning to the second hand market, and that has seen the average number of days taken from advertisement to sale fall from 72 days (in October 2019) to just 20 days in August 2021.
The Government’s lofty aim of having 950,000 electric cars on the road by 2030 is now looking more and more unlikely. Not only are people not switching on to electric motoring in sufficient numbers yet, but those who do may not actually be able to physically buy the car that they want.