Who’s done more to put off EV buyers – the pro or anti lobby?

Erin on EV – 08/05/2024

Private sales of new electric cars across Europe have ground to a halt. Overall EV sales growth continues, but it’s largely driven by fleet sales. What’s happening? Is it simply because the price is still too high and the public charging network is still too stunted? Or is there an even broader context to the challenge?

Awkward as it might be to acknowledge, is part of the problem the very people who are the biggest advocates for electric cars: the pro-EV lobby? 

If we look at what consumers want when it comes to buying something that costs a lot of money – whether that’s a holiday, laptop or designer handbag – confidence is a must. People want confidence that they’re making the right decision: confidence that the handbag won’t make them look silly or go out of fashion in a year, confidence the the holiday is going to be worth the money, confidence that the laptop will last. And so it is with cars, times ten. Consumers want to know the transition to electric is going to work for them, that the cars really are to be trusted, that the batteries will last, that public charging won’t be a nightmare.

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So where do they turn, for this confidence?

Normally, it would be friends, family or neighbours who can give an honest, agnostic view based on their experience of owning one, and not – as much as we like to believe – expert opinion from the media or marketing campaigns from brands. That doesn’t work for electric, however, because we are still well off mass adoption, at roughly 16 per cent of the market, so not enough people know someone who owns an EV. So anxious motorists are forced to turn to experts within the industry, environmental campaigners, early adopters, e-mobility advocates and the media. And all these groups have a vested interest, either for or against the technology.

Drivers bounce from EV-sceptic media news stories on the horrors of electric cars catching fire, and reviews of electric cars that lament running out of charge or feeling scared charging at 1am in a deserted carpark, to pro-EV lobbyists and early adopters who sing a merry song extolling the ease of charging at rapid chargers, the beauty of getting a coffee and catching up on emails while waiting half an hour for it to charge, and the frustration that people cannot simply “do a little more journey planning before setting out”. 

I’ve seen audience eyes glaze over many times when I’m on a panel with electric advocates and one of them tries to tell drivers that public charging is a breeze. At that point, you’ve lost them. Because we have to acknowledge it’s not; it’s actually usually stressful and sometimes a total nightmare. As soon as you are honest about the experiences of public charging, however, and give them a balanced view, you regain their trust.

It’s the same story with the environmental picture surrounding electric cars.

Zealots are never the answer to winning over the majority: logic is. Empirical honesty and reason are the tools of the experienced debater in front of a sceptical audience, not passion. Especially now, when “authenticity” is the keystone in every single marketing campaign out there. We Brits don’t trust a product that claims to be “environmentally friendly”; we’re far more likely to buy something that says on the tin: “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the alternative”. And that’s the argument in favour of electric cars’ carbon footprint.

Yes, they still emit far too much carbon in their manufacture, and most of us still have to power them with some electricity from coal-fired power stations, and you have to drive them a lot of miles before you offset their upstream emissions, and they wear through tyres quicker, and, and, and. But they are better than the internal combustion-engine, which just burns hydrocarbons and is then scrapped. Their scope-one emissions are improving all the time, and more of the energy to power them is coming from renewables every month. So it’s getting better, whereas petrol cars are a static argument with no hope of improvement. And that’s all we can say, but it’s enough.

And public charging? Yes, let’s call it what it is: a nightmare.

Even when it works seamlessly, you’ve still got 20 minutes to kill, and I don’t have 20 minutes to kill in my working day. But there are still lots of people who could have home charging points fitted and haven’t. There are people who do have half an hour to spare reading a newspaper every day while their car charges who haven’t made the switch yet, and there are people who do short weekly mileages and wouldn’t have to charge more than once a week who also haven’t switched, so let’s target them.

Balance, nuance, empathy. These are the traits of the successful debater, and we see very little of it on either side of the argument, sadly. The public, meanwhile remain stuck in the middle, looking from one interested party to the other, scratching their heads. It’s hardly the makings of a thriving business plan.

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