Electric Vehicles - The four 'R's

I like electric vehicles – cars and motorcycles. I've driven and ridden quite a few over the last decade or more. And here I'm simply speaking about the driving experience, rather than extolling their environmental qualities. Smooth and quiet for mooching down the motorway. Blistering acceleration when you need it. What's not to like?

I say this because you might have formed the impression from comments I've made about the pace of new electric and plug-in hybrid registrations (and from the reaction to those comments) that I am anti-electric – an electrophobe even – because I continue to cite the four 'R's we see as particular worries in the minds of motorists when it comes to car choice.

I stand by my theory.

Let me explain, in reverse order, (the logic for which will hopefully become clear) what that theory is.

The fourth "R" is "Residual value". We all know that the value of a new car plummets the moment you proudly drive it from the forecourt. A brief perusal of the motoring press would suggest that depreciation on full and hybrid electrics is class leading, and not in a good way. As always, the real picture is mixed, but there are reasons for thinking it is so, and that is born of the fact that the very novelty of these vehicles breeds uncertainty. Battery life is uncertain. And battery replacement costs several years down the line are not all that clear either. This will change as the novelty wears off, but we aren't there yet. I don't think this is in dispute.

The third "R" is "Recharging". I have clear evidence that the architecture for recharging is imperfect, and that is the fact that Government is seeking powers from Parliament to do something about it. Even a chum of mine, an ardent evangelist – an electrophile if you will - for the e-revolution admitted, having invested in a pure battery-electric model, to being taken aback by the complexity of different charging accounts, chargers and connectors. Drive a conventionally fuelled vehicle onto a re-fuelling station and while there is a choice to be made - diesel, petrol, premium - all three are generally available at each re-fuelling bay. Home charging can be a hugely convenient option for those of us with off-street parking, but we still have to go through the faff of fitting a charge point.

Second is "Range". "Aha" I hear you cry "range anxiety is fast becoming a thing of the past, given the range of the vehicles coming to market". True. But there are some key words in that statement, "coming" as in "not really here yet" and "fast" which I would say is over-optimistic. Plus we need to come to terms with the fact that range is not only a product of driving style, it can also be affected by cold weather.

I think range anxiety will probably diminish as a result of the significantly improved range of the models now on their way to the showrooms, so long as that goes hand-in-hand with improvements to the public recharging system so that the nagging risk of getting caught out on a long journey shrivels away. Fair?

Which leaves the "R" I usually cite first, which is for "Retail". And by this I mean several things – the right range of model types being marketed at a competitive, affordable price, available to drive away. More models have been coming to market and many more are promised shortly – from budget to luxury and SUV to sports. Prices are still a challenge, and while we know that there is to be continued support through the plug-in car grant we don't, at the time of writing, know quite what form this will take henceforward.

But what of availability to drive away?

There are many reasons why we see fluctuations, month-by-month, in new car registrations – the six-monthly change to the number plate, pre-announced changes in grant availability and tax treatments, the cycle of fleet purchases and so on. We can see a lag in the time between application and award of plug-in grants and the actual registration of new vehicles. But to what extent is the take-up of plug-in technology being held back by the supply side rather than motorists' anxieties?

We know that for some models demand is outstripping the manufacturers' ability to supply. Another friend has just been told that, having made it under the wire with their purchase of a VW GTE, a model for which VW has paused taking orders, their six-month wait for delivery has slipped by a further six months.

Does this imbalance between supply and demand mean that the step-change in the market has already happened? I'd suggest that it is a good lead indicator of the way things are going, but a step-change? Let's look at some numbers.

First, the proportion of new car and van registrations accounted for by plug-in eligible vehicles was 1.6% over the last 12 months. Despite the much-publicised fall in diesel sales, there were over thirty times as many new diesels registered as there were plug-ins over this period.

Second, while we could debate for the rest of the month what trajectory the take-up of ultra-low emission vehicles would need to be on in order to achieve the Government's 2040 aspiration – perhaps that mystery will be solved when the eagerly awaited "Path to Zero" gets published - it is going to take sustained and dramatic growth from such a low base, and it seems at least questionable to me that the great leap forward is being held back solely by manufacturing capacity.

Of course, in the real world there are many factors that are likely to shape demand for electric vehicles, such as the implementation of Ultra-Low Emission and Clean Air Zones and the demonisation of our former friend the diesel.

But as of today we need to be realistic. And that, I would argue, means we still need to see substantial progress across all four "R"s, including "Retail", before we can be confident that the step-change is upon us.