Battery-powered vehicles are becoming increasingly popular
Credit: Lorna Milligan for The Telegraph
Petrol cars accounted for fewer than 50pc of total sales last month, with electric car giant Tesla becoming the best-selling brand in the UK.
New electric cars made up just over a quarter of the total sold in December, while petrol cars’ market share dipped to 46pc, data from transport researchers New AutoMotive shows.
Electric cars have grown from less than 3pc of new sales two years ago to 26pc last month amid falling prices and regulations encouraging cleaner transport.
In December Tesla’s cars made up 9pc of the market, making it the most popular manufacturer in the UK for the first time since April 2020. VW was on 8pc and Audi 7pc.
It was Tesla’s best-ever month for UK sales, with the company making up 36pc of all new electric car purchases.
Last month also saw the market share of electric vehicles reach its second-highest level ever, at 26pc, just under the 33pc seen in April 2020, when car purchases fell to their lowest level since 1946 and Tesla’s Model 3 became the most popular new car in the UK.
The Texas-based electric car company sold almost 9,300 cars in December, more than two-thirds up on the year before.
Separately, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders industry group released data suggesting more electric vehicles were registered in 2021 than over the previous five years combined, in an otherwise slow year in which new car sales grew by just 1pc.
Overall battery electric vehicles made up just under 12pc of the market last year, the SMMT said.
Petrol and diesel were close to equal popularity five years ago, the New AutoMotive data shows, with petrol making up 49pc of the total and diesel 47pc in December 2016.
Despite EV gains, petrol and diesel cars still dominate
Diesel overtook petrol as the most popular fuel type for new cars in July 2010 but seven years later it had fallen to make up less than a third of the market amid concerns about its environmental impacts and the growing popularity of hybrids.
Promoted as emitting lower levels of carbon dioxide than petrol, diesel cars were subject to tax perks in the EU despite emitting higher levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant linked to health risks including asthma.
In 2015 the German carmaker Volkswagen was also found to have cheated diesel emissions tests, prompting a recall of millions of cars and the resignation of chief executive Martin Winterkorn.
As part of Net Zero plans to cut emissions the Government has announced a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, with new hybrids banned five years later.
Once the preserve of the wealthiest drivers, electric cars have fallen in price as carmakers invest in new models and battery technology becomes cheaper and more efficient.
But there are concerns about access to charging infrastructure, with some estimates suggesting the UK needs to double its rate of public charger installation to keep up with demand.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, said: "A record-breaking year for the cleanest, greenest vehicles is testament to the investment made by the industry over the past decade and the inherent attractiveness of the technology."
Ben Nelmes, head of policy and research at New AutoMotive, said: “The government must use every tool in the box to get electric cars into the hands of high mileage drivers to maximise emissions reductions."
Mercedes' all-electric sports car, Vision EQXX
Electric car makers risk going too far in race for range
Electric car manufacturers are racing to develop models with ever-bigger ranges to meet demands of buyers wanting a similar reach to a petrol car, writes Howard Mustoe.
Earlier this week, Mercedes-Benz unveiled its Vision EQXX electric car prototype, boasting a range of 620 miles on a single charge – about three times the average range of most rechargeable vehicles.
It follows in the footsteps of Chinese carmaker GAC Group’s Axion LX Plus SUV, which it claims will be able to travel 626 miles and US startup Lucid’s 500-mile Air.
Mercedes has yet to say what the car will cost or when it will be available for sale. The German carmaker is, however, convinced that a long range is a big factor in winning over new customers.
“Outstanding range will make electric cars suitable for every journey and will speed adoption,” Mercedes said as it unveiled the model.
While more consumers take to all-electric vehicles in the push to zero emissions, carmakers are aware that while they might have won the custom of early adopters, concerns still lie in batteries running dry – particularly from those in rural areas or with jobs requiring lots of travel.
As well as meeting national targets, such as the UK’s banning all diesel and petrol sales – including hybrids – by 2035, car makers have their own aims to hit in going carbon neutral.
They want to show that electrics can beat combustion models on every metric. A frugal diesel SUV with a 62 litre tank can run 700 miles.
But questions remain over how necessary, efficient and reliable it is for electric cars to travel at such long ranges.
Electric avenue Petrol stations vs electric car charging stations in UK
How far is too far?
Mercedes is using a new manufacturing method developed by China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology for its fresh model to keep weight at 495kg – comparable to conventional models such as Tesla’s Model 3 with roughly half the range.
But upping range rather than cutting weight makes for a less efficient vehicle, and prioritises a feature few drivers will need in reality, argues Jim Holder, editorial director of Haymarket Automotive.
While the weight of batteries is dropping each year per mile of charge carried, longer ranges still mean carrying more of them. Whereas extra petrol or diesel carried declines as it is burned off, there is no such bonus for batteries, which are just as heavy empty as full.
“I think everyone thinks they want that kind of range. But in reality, I’m not sure they actually need that,” says Holder. “The average journey is less than 30 miles. No-one can drive 600 miles without needing to stop for a cup of coffee and a break.”
He estimates most people will not need more than 300 miles of capacity – half of Mercedes’ reach. What will probably ease the transition for most buyers in going electric is more chargers, argues Holder – a view held by the motor manufacturing industry at large.
Still charging up
Charging times are already dropping quickly meaning that, with a greater number of faster chargers in place, buyers are less likely to focus on huge capacity if they are confident of finding some juice in a fix.
Tesla’s Model 3, the Californian carmaker’s cheapest option, can charge from 20pc to 80pc in about 20 minutes by using some of the fastest public chargers, for instance. This allows up to 339 miles of driving, according to charging company Pod Point.
That constitutes more than six hours driving at an average speed of 50 miles per hour, depending on the terrain. Air conditioning usage, hills and braking all lower the range, as it would for a petrol or diesel model.
Despite the need, access to power is dropping per car. In 2020 there were 16 electric or hybrid vehicles for every public charging point in Britain, up from 11 the previous year. While many owners have a driveway to plug-in at home, those in terraced homes or in cities must rely on public chargers or lamp post conversions, and they do not want to queue.
This ratio is in peril of rising. Figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders trade body show another leap in electric vehicle buying.
According to estimates by transport research company New AutoMotive, December figures are likely to show more than one in four new cars purchased in the UK are pure electric.
While the industry is keen for more chargers to be rolled out in pace with the rate of new car sales, little say in where they are placed has led manufacturers to offer huge range options to showcase the technology’s potential.
“It’s a halo model that says, if you really need this my friends, we can do it,” adds Holder.
‘Electric car range anxiety’
In reality, cars that can run for 600 miles on a single charge are probably preserved for the top end of the market, says Prof David Bailey, a car industry expert at Birmingham University who has been driving electric vehicles for seven years.
“In the luxury market, yes, I can see that people are willing to pay huge amounts of money for a top-end car but for most people, there’s no need for that sort of expense.”
“Range anxiety” may be something of an overhang from the early days of electric cars, he says, when a cold day could have a serious impact on a model with a maximum durability of 70 miles.
“To begin with, it was a genuine issue. But actually cars have improved greatly, charging infrastructure has got better, I’ve not really been worried about range for quite a while now,” he said.
For the last adopters, the concern will not be range or charging, but upfront cost with electric cars often at least £10,000 more than a comparable petrol or diesel model.
While the cheaper cost of charging compared to a full tank of petrol will win many converts, plenty more people will not be able to justify the much higher monthly payment, a problem exacerbated by the Government’s recent decision to slash electric car grants as well as a squeeze on car prices as manufacturing slowed during the pandemic.
As the electric vehicle competition heats up, carmakers seem intent on winning the race for range. But as demand grows, they may be best focused on keeping pricing down and efficiency up.