The future is electric we are all told, but just when will buyers switch on to the idea?
Published 23/11/2016 | 02:30
Everyone says the future is electric. Everyone says it is only a matter of time before we see far more electric cars (EVs) on our roads. Everyone is hoping new technology will show the way and get over traditional hurdles such as range anxiety and the culture of plugging in on a regular basis.
On the face of it, the portents are good. All the leading car makers are making or promising several electric vehicles over the next few years.
They are predicting single-charge ranges of up to 500km and more. Even allowing for a real-world figures of 400km it should still be sufficient to ease most people's fears of being stranded.
In his Budget speech, Finance Minister Michael Noonan extended the VRT rebate of €5,000 on EVs for another five years. It was both a challenge and an enticement to automakers and buyers to go greener. When you add in the €5,000 grant from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) it's plain that, officially at least, we have generous incentives to buy electric.
And there is a strong infrastructure of charging points (let's not get side-tracked on the bays being occupied by fossil-fuel vehicles).
Only most of us are not bothering. Electric car sales are down this year. There is a small smattering of EVs, from Renault to BMW, of late Hyundai and soon Tesla, but really only one model is being bought in any significant quantity and that is the Nissan Leaf.
Even it, with its extended range, has endured a slight shrinkage of new buyers.
So is it the lull before the surge or are we hopelessly drifting?
Not hopelessly, I'd say, but most definitely drifting.
Economic incentives (VRT rebate, SEAI grant) are not sufficient on their own, it would appear. They merely bring prices into the realms of affordability.
Most people I've spoken to regard those as merely a first step. Which is where we get into the 'psychology' of the matter, I think.
The analogy with road tax is a good one. People will buy a diesel car they don't necessarily need for its frugality (even thought they don't put up enough mileage) because the road tax is lower.
As any salesperson will tell you, the first, almost certainly the second, question from a potential buyer is: "How much is the road tax?" It is as if we want to feel we're getting something that is annually tangible; something we can almost boast about in the pub or at the 19th hole.
Applying a similar sort of psychology to electric vehicles is now regarded as essential to get people genuinely interested.
So what could be done? There are several measures but they need to be properly set up and monitored.
Free parking everywhere and free charging remaining would catch the eye and give people a sense of getting 'something for nothing'. Being singled out for favourable treatment because you opt for electric is key here.
Use of all bus lanes would be popular too and really make EV owners think they are being rewarded for their choice of transport.
Not having to pay road tolls would go down well, especially in urban areas.
And there is a strong argument for Benefit-in-Kind to be included in some way or other to encourage a switch to EVs.
Put all those bits and pieces together, add in the €10,000 that already goes to reduce the price of an electric car (VRT, SEAI), factor in a longer range on one charge and all of a sudden you have a more promising environment for electric vehicles.
The biggest problem is getting government action on the tolls, parking fees, bus lanes, BIK etc. Mr Noonan underpinned the big once-off commitment from the state. It was a good start. But it doesn't look like it is going to transform our attitudes.
And it certainly won't give us the 'road tax' mindset to seriously consider the benefits of owning one.
We need to see tangible, every-day, at-source savings such as free parking/tolls before we are likely to respond in any meaningful way or volume.