A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

Has Covid-19 affected electric car sales in Ireland?

If anything, pandemic recovery seems to be accelerating EV sales

Is range anxiety still a concern for most people? Photograph: iStock

Is range anxiety still a concern for most people? Photograph: iStock

 

Covid-19 has, of course, affected everything in our lives, from work to personal relationships. But has it affected our car purchases? Not just the fact that such purchases were harder to make – that much is obvious, although the move to online sales has helped to cushion that a little – but has the pandemic meant that we’ve changed our attitudes to electric cars?

With all that time to sit and think, there had been some suggestions in the air that many people would have taken in the news of the encroaching climate crisis and turned their thoughts to buying electric. However, recent research doesn’t necessarily back that up. According to second-hand car sales website Carzone, which regularly polls Irish drivers to find out what they’re thinking, 55 per cent of people are planning to buy either a hybrid car, or a fully electric one, as their next purchase.

While that is a majority, it still leaves a significant 45 per cent who plan to stick with petrol or diesel power. So while electric car sales are still one of the few bright spots in the Irish car market in 2021 – EV sales have increased by 100 per cent so far this year, compared with a 7.7 per cent decline in diesel sales, and a 6.71 per cent fall in petrol sales – the BBC has reported that electric car buyers in Northern Ireland are trading their EVs back in for conventional cars, thanks to a parlous public charging network. So, are Irish buyers going to maintain their keenness for battery power as we emerge from our lockdowns?

Restrictions

“SEAI [the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland ] has seen very different responses at different times during the global health crisis. Following the initial lockdown towards the end of March 2020, a massive decline in vehicle sales as whole was noted for approximately three months afterwards,” Shane Prendergast, electric vehicles program manager at SEAI said.

“Upon loosening of restrictions and reopening of dealerships there was a large surge in activity in the EV marketplace up until the more stern restrictions were reimposed. During this time dealerships had created ‘click and collect’ and ‘click and deliver’ sales services. The effect of this has been seen in the first four months of 2021 – a massive increase in electric vehicles sales across the country. The figures are unexpected and staggering. Ireland is fast approaching hitting the number of EV sales in 2021 that were achieved in the whole of 2020.”

According to Renault Ireland, Irish buyers are if anything even more keen to buy a battery car than they were. “Our own sales of EVs almost doubled from 2019 to 2020, pushing us to number one in the market in 2020,” said Paddy Magee, country operations manager for Renault Ireland.

“We might have initially expected Covid to cause people to reassess their travel needs, especially with weekly mileages reducing thanks to hybrid working, and perhaps consider downsizing family fleets. That may yet happen if these changes become permanent but right now, it appears that the thought process driving EV purchases has not changed much. Customers appear to be buying cars in the expectation that normal behaviours will resume post-pandemic and if one of the latest EVs fits normal usage, where an older one might not have done, customers are happy to buy. The only thing that may have slowed the transition may be difficulty in arranging test drives.”

There’s also often an accusation levelled at dealers that they’re less keen to sell EVs, because such cars often come with longer order times (which gives a customer more time to change their minds) and slimmer profit margins (electric tech is expensive stuff, and yet the cars must be sold at a competitive price).

Such suggestions have been refuted, though, by Audi Ireland. Richard Molloy, Audi Ireland’s head of marketing and product, said: “Our dealer network has fully embraced our EV range. The sales of the e-Tron have doubled in the last 12 months. The upcoming launch of the our new EV flagship, the e-Tron GT, has been a success for all our dealers based on customer orders. We are very much looking forward to the launch of the new Q4 e-Tron during the summer. This is an extremely important car for us; we are confident it will attract new customers to the Audi brand.”

“The adaption of EVs and hybrids by the Irish market has been encouraging and is in the second tier of ‘fast followers’ within Europe. Behind Norway, Netherlands and some of the Nordic markets, but for us well ahead of the rest,” said David Thomas, managing director of Volvo Car Ireland.

Disposable income

The signs are that, if anything, the Covid-19 crisis, and the subsequent return to some kind of normal, could, and indeed should, accelerate electric car sales. It has been widely circulated that a lot of people now have higher levels of disposal incomes. “Given weddings and holidays were off the cards and the dwindling supply of houses on the market, the next natural option is to purchase a vehicle. Combining the return to nature vibe with the higher levels of disposable income has led people to seriously consider purchasing an EV which can be seen to follow through to sales conversions,” said Prendergast.

“A lot of people will in some shape or form retain the option of working from home and also be reluctant to jump straight back on to public transport due to sanitisation concerns. This will reduce the requirement for longer journeys which may allay consumers’ perceived barrier of range anxiety. I personally believe range anxiety is not for the majority of people a legitimate concern with the ranges achievable to one charge of the models on the market presently.

“It is possible that we are also underestimating the effect of the rumoured ban on selling new petrol or diesel vehicles from 2030 onwards. Coupling that with manufacturers’ promises and intentions to discontinue production of internal combustion vehicles – particularly diesel passenger vehicles – may be making consumers question the financial sense of investing in a new petrol or diesel vehicle. The residual value of these assets are being brought into question. This concern will only increase as we move towards the end of the decade.”