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  • Lord Copper

Why aren't they selling?

Electric vehicles are the future, right? Keep the planet green, reduce fume-related breathing difficulties, what’s not to like? Well, something, it seems. Anecdotal evidence suggests that stocks of EVs are building up, and the manufacturers are cutting back production. They are also cutting prices. There is currently an advertisement running on commercial radio where one major manufacturer is lauding its smallest pure electric car. The strap line of the ad is that they were going to offer a £500 ‘contribution’ (read: discount) on the purchase price, but they are feeling so good about themselves and so generous to their customers and so keen to save the planet that they have now decided that that ‘contribution’ will be £3000. Call me cynical, but that sounds very much more like they are having difficulty selling them than that they are such lovely people.

So why should that be? Why, despite all the feel-good advertising and the green hype, are buyers seemingly not willing to put their hands in their pockets? The first - and possibly most significant - reason is probably cost. Electric cars are substantially more expensive than ones with a traditional internal combustion engine. Tesla - the poster child of the EV revolution - sells what is in effect a mid-sized saloon car, rather in the mould of the Ford Mondeo of former times. Yes, it has the super-acceleration generated by an electric motor, but in the end a mid-size, mid-range saloon is what it is. But the price jacks it up into a different place in the market. And it’s the same with the European manufacturers - the pure electric version is always more expensive than the petrol one. Of course, you could argue that there is a significant saving in fuel cost, but that is kind of jam tomorrow, not today; not enough, I would guess, to influence the capital purchase decision.

There is one manufacturing base that appears to be getting to grips with the cost issue. Chinese carmakers are steadily building up their sales of vehicles at the lower end of the market, with a raft of brand names largely unknown until now in the West. (As an aside, for one brought up in the 1960s, it pains me to see the MG badge on an unremarkable - but fairly cheap - mini-SUV, instead of a wind-in-your-hair, more noise than real performance MGB, like the one my mother used to have.) But the West needs to have a care here; it looks as though there is an increasing likelihood that ceding the bottom end of the market to the Chinese will push (particularly) European manufacturers into an ever-decreasing niche sector.

It’s not only price, though. Although charging times are coming down well, the spectre of range anxiety still haunts potential customers, particularly in the UK, where the roll-out of charging facilities proceeds at a less than impressive pace. But then, since the likelihood of the UK generating network producing sufficient electricity and the transmission facilities being able to distribute it if it were produced seems to me to be no more than uttered on a wing and a prayer by politicians, that caution in purchase is wise.

It’s a complicated subject, but the transition doesn’t appear to be going well. And then, there is the over-riding question. Are we effectively just swapping an oil-driven world for a metal-driven one; and when will the penny drop that the mining of the myriad metals used in the electrification of the world and the manufacture of the batteries - and then their disposal when they are spent - may in the end be no less polluting than the oil base they replace? It’s a question I can’t answer; I don’t believe the politicians who shout about it have the faintest clue as to the answer, so let’s hope and pray that the scientific and engineering communities remain objective and rigorous in their research and pursuit of today’s holy grail.


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