Anti-EV rhetoric has been on the rise once more. One British newspaper has even blamed Mr Bean actor Rowan Atkinson as the central influence against electrification, at least in the UK. That might be a bit farfetched, but there has been an obvious increase in journalism and social media negativity aimed at EVs. When you step back and look at history you realize that we could have gone electric 25 years ago, but concerted industrial forces killed the trend. Are we seeing another attempt to ruin the latest EV revolution, and will it succeed?
History Repeating Itself?
Twenty-five years ago, the EV1 from General Motors showed incredible promise. This may have started out with just 55 miles of EPA range with the original lead-acid battery, but the final NiMH version boosted this to 105 miles (and the original EPA estimates were higher). Toyota had an EV version of the RAV4 and Honda had the EV Plus. But then all three companies pulled their vehicles and wouldn’t even let existing owners keep them. This unedifying piece of history is well documented in the film Who Killed The Electric Car? from 2006.
This movie points the blame at the car and oil companies for protecting their profits, and the current situation doesn’t seem to be that different. While both EVs and internal combustion engine (ICE) cars need energy to drive, the companies supplying that energy and the infrastructure they use are different between the two. Your home power company, or the grid supplier for public charging, is not an oil company (although both Shell and BP own charging networks in the UK). EVs also entail a shift away from fuel station forecourts towards street and home chargers, changing both the business model and the car refueling method we have been familiar with for a century.
Charging infrastructure remains a problem deterring many drivers from buying EVs, and that’s a valid concern if you don’t have the possibility of accessing a home charger. The considerable cost benefit of cheap overnight electricity makes the economics of EV ownership very much factored on this. If you don’t have home charging, driving an EV is much more expensive. Since the energy crisis, public charging costs have taken the price per mile of an EV much closer to fossil fuel. However, the market of those who can get home charging is still huge – it could be over half the UK population, for example. That’s a group that is far from saturated so far.
Another weaponized story is that traditional carmakers are pulling away from EVs again, presented as proof that interest in EVs is waning. Ford is reducing production of F-150 Lightning EVs while increasing output of the Bronco SUV and Range pickup, and last year VW paused production of some of its EVs due to weak demand. Some who are clearly not very competent at mathematics have also equated a fall in the rate of growth as demand going backwards, when in fact it’s more like lower acceleration than putting the brakes on. The EV market is still expanding.
EV Sales Still Healthy
Rumors of the demise of BEV sales are greatly exaggerated. In the UK, BEVs have now reached the milestone of 1 million on the road (out of an estimated 33.58 million). The Tesla Model Y was the bestselling car in the world in 2023, shifting 1.23 million units, surpassing both the Toyota RAV and Corolla. Only some manufacturers are facing issues, and this could be due to the price of the EVs they sell. Most automakers continue to target the premium market, presumably to earn back the development cost of their drivetrain innovation more quickly than would be possible with cars that elicit lower margins.
In 2020, I was expecting EVs to approach parity with ICE this year, but that was before the effects of Covid, the war in Ukraine, the cost of energy crisis, and supply chain issues caused by the Houthi blockade of Red Sea container ship routes. Nevertheless, CATL is still expecting to halve the per-kWh price of its Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) batteries this year, and these are the chemistry of choice for cheaper EVs such as the entry-level version of the MG4.
Herein lies another tale. The fact that European and American manufacturers have concentrated on the premium market of early adopters has left them vulnerable. Chinese manufacturers like MG haven’t been so reluctant to address affordability, and there are other brands from China waiting in the wings to steal market share, such as BYD, just like Japanese carmakers did in the 1970s and 80s. While traditional European and US car companies might see EVs as a threat, the Chinese ones see them as an opportunity to get a bigger foothold in Western markets.
Hopium Rides Again
You can spot a renewed campaign against BEVs when there is a resurgence of talk about hydrogen fuel cells. Multiple articles and social posts have been circulating claiming that BMW is “saying goodbye to electric because it has solved the problem of hydrogen engines”, based seemingly on the fact that BMW launched a prototype fuel cell-powered iX5 SUV about a year ago. But that needs to be weighed against the much bigger effort it is making towards BEVs, such as the forthcoming Neue Klasse and the just-announced all-electric version of the i5 Touring station wagon.
Comparisons are frequently made with the VHS-Betamax tape format competition of the early 1980s, with EVs in the Betamax role (because they are technically better?) and FCEVs as VHS. But there were 2.4 million BEVs in the USA in November 2023, against fewer than 18,000 FCEVs. The UK’s 1 million BEVs compares to fewer than 400 FCEVs. Shell has shut all its hydrogen fuel stations globally, and on a recent check there appeared to be just four working H2 pumps in the whole UK, including the one in Aberdeen with “no live status information”. There used to be 11. That’s compared to 31,445 EV charging locations, including over 4,000 capable of 150kW or more.
Having attended the BMW iX5 Hydrogen launch myself, and many other BMW EV events, I’m confident that the company is merely hedging its bets in an entirely sensible fashion. There may be parts of the world where the rapid fueling possibility of FCEVs and gasoline-like distribution infrastructure are preferable to BEVs, so BMW wants to explore that and be ready just in case. But most of its energy is going into BEVs, which are clearly going to be the mass market winners in the developed world.
Political Pressures Won’t Beat Market Forces
The anti-EV sentiment is not about the validity of the technology at all. The cars aren’t perfect, but if you look at how far we’ve come in the last four years it’s like night and day. There are now multiple products to choose from in most segments and lots of cars offer over 300 miles of range. This is really all about politics. Those on the right politically see “anti-net zero” as another stick to bash “progressives” with, alongside xenophobic anti-immigration sentiments. Trump has promised to “drill baby drill” and will clearly roll back as many of Biden’s green initiatives as he can if he gets into power this year. The British Government has softened its stance, leading a House of Lords Committee to argue for more progress. Some UK Conservative politicians are even calling for the reopening of coal mines (after Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher infamously shut most of them in the 1980s). The British Labour Party has dropped its £28bn green pledge, fearing the projected cost would be used against it during the campaign for this year’s British election.
There are reasons to be a bit depressed if you are worried about the world environment. The EU’s climate service has claimed global warming breached +1.5C across the whole of 2023 compared to pre-industrial temperatures, for the first time ever. But there also reasons not to be worried that the electric car will be killed like it was 25 years ago. For a start, the market is much more established now, with every large mainstream carmaker participating and infrastructure suppliers realizing there is an increasing charging market to profit from. There’s also the threat from China, which has less ICE incumbency to worry about in its home market and is transitioning to EVs at a rate of knots.
But most of all, it feels like the EV market has turned a corner towards the mainstream. I started writing about EVs because it felt like the home PC market in the mid-1990s – full of enthusiasts and rapid innovation, making it exciting. But now everyone has a computer in their pocket. Likewise, the EV is entering a similar phase. It’s no longer a toy for a weird bunch of die-hard early adopters. The great cars that arrived around 2020 are coming off lease and entering the secondhand market, increasing affordability, and some manufacturers are starting to make vehicles for reasonable prices. That’s probably why the incumbents who will be displaced are now fighting back with articles and social media disinformation. They can see the threat is real.