Q4 2022: Electric vehicles hit the mainstream

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Dr Iain Staffell, Professor Richard Green, Professor Tim Green and Dr Malte Jansen – Imperial College London, Dr Malte Jansen – University of Sussex, Professor Rob Gross – UK Energy Research Centre

Electric cars had their best ever year, making up 1 in 6 new cars sold in 2022.  During the fourth quarter, their share rose to a quarter of all car sales.  Just under 370,000 EVs were bought in 2022, with 270,000 pure battery and 100,000 plug-in hybrids.

UK electric vehicle sales are growing fast: 20 times more EVs are sold now than just four years ago.  This is part of a global trend, worldwide some 10% of cars sold are now electric.  Other sectors are moving even faster, with 40% of scooters and 50% of buses sold now electric.  

If sales growth continues along its current trend, the next few years will see a massive shift in the UK’s car markets, with petrol and diesel sales falling off a cliff.  The chart below plots the historical share of electric sales with a simple logistic curve projection.  

This type of curve describes technology transitions for things ranging from refrigerators to solar panels to smartphones.  Once a new technology comes along that offers something new or better, early adoption is at first agonisingly slow, as high prices or niche status mean only a few enthusiasts want to be early adopters.  Then comes exponential growth, as more models are released, prices come down, and people become more comfortable with the technology.

This S-Curve fit, as shown by Carbon Tracker, suggests that 1 in 3 cars sold should be fully electric by the end of next year, and EV sales will overtake petrol and diesel as soon as 2025.

New car sales in the UK by quarter, split between electric (battery and plug-in hybrid) and fossil (petrol, diesel and hybrid).

The share of electric vehicles in new car sales, showing historical sales data alongside two with scenarios to 2030: a simple S-curve projection based on historical sales data, and the Climate Change Committee’s pathway to meeting the 2030 ban on new combustion engine vehicle sales.

Quadrupling the share of EVs sold in just four years is going to require an enormous amount of work and support from across the whole supply chain.    Not just in battery and vehicle production, but also in charging infrastructure.  For this growth to proceed smoothly, there need to be sufficient working charging points for all the legions of new EV owners to use.

Charging infrastructure is needed in all parts of the country.  Home charging is ideal for people with driveways and garages, but everyone else is entirely reliant on on-street chargers.    Nationwide coverage is also essential for longer journeys and in rural areas.    In shopping centres and major attractions, too many people are put off by the worry of long queues to get a charging point.  Pictures of electric vehicles in long queues at shopping centres waiting to charge up could greatly discourage sales.

There is an important distinction to make between sales and total stock – i.e. the number of electric vehicles on the roads.  The average car stays on Britain’s roads for around 14 years, before being scrapped or exported to overseas markets.  If half of all new cars sold become electric, it would take over 14 years for half of the cars on the roads to become electric.

Fleet turnover models estimate how projections for new car sales will influence the overall stock of vehicles on the roads.  The current sales trajectory suggests that 20% of cars on the road will be electric in just four years, and by 2030 that will jump to 40%.  By the end of the decade, electric vehicles could save the country from importing 75 million barrels of oil a year (~£5 billion worth), and instead would consume around 30 TWh of electricity, or about 10% of Britain’s total.

Historical and projected share of vehicles on the roads in Britain

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