Electric mobility has been around for a while. In fact, the fist electric vehicles (EVs) were introduced at the beginning of the 20th century, dominating the streets of US cities before being ousted by internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in 1920s. Their re-emergence in the 1990s as a solution to help overcome the impending climate crisis only reinforced their perception of technologically inferior and not appealing objects not really suitable for daily travel. It needed the likes of Elon Musk to start thinking about electric mobility seriously.
Electric mobility is far from being technologically inferior to ICE vehicles and complicated, on the contrary. The driving range of a large majority of EVs on the market exceeds 200 km with premium models reaching up to 500, in exceptional cases even 850 km of driving range. With the average daily driving distance not exceeding 50 km, EVs used for private transport are able to cover more than 90% of habitual driving distances. Second, the density of the public charging network is also continuously growing, exceeding the recommended targets by the European Union (EU) in many European countries. With more than 85% of current EV owners primarily charging at home, charging is also no longer posing a barrier to EV adoption. Third, it has been widely concluded that the total cost of ownership (TCO) of EVs is lower than that of ICEs, mainly thanks to very little fuel and maintenance costs. Even the purchase price is however continuously falling, expected to reach parity with ICEs in selected segments already as early as 2022.
The contextual conditions are also increasingly conducive to EV adoption. Considering the large environmental and societal benefits electric mobility brings (besides lower carbon footprint and significantly limited air pollution also health, safety benefits and possibility to foster local economies by limiting and diverting fossil fuel dependence towards local electricity production), policymakers worldwide have been actively supporting electric mobility. With Norway, California and China standing out, the measures range from regulation and financial incentives to soft policy tools such as information campaigns, test drives or priority driving and parking for EVs. Prompted by these developments, industry actors have been also finally entering the electric mobility era. Following the trailblazers, the new entrants of companies focusing solely on EVs such as Tesla or Polestar and electric utilities pursuing the new business opportunity electric mobility offers them, even traditional original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have started producing EV models, in many cases announcing plans to fully transition to electric mobility in the near to mid-term future.
After years of timid growth, EV market share is growing. The year 2020 experienced a record surge of EV sales. Growing more than 40% over 2019, the global sales of EVs reached almost 3 million vehicles, which lead to the global EV stock crossing the 10 million mark. Norway and other Nordic European countries are undisputed frontrunners, with Norway’s EV market share reaching 75%, Iceland’s 51% and Sweden’s 32%. These numbers helped made Europe the largest global EV market, for the first-time overtaking China. However, there still remained major differences in EV adoption among individual countries, within Europe as well as globally, translating into an overall EV adoption rate of 10% in Europe and only 4.2% globally.
What are then the remaining barriers to EV adoption? With widely overcome technological barriers and supportive contextual conditions, consumer preferences have become critical in determining EV adoption. However, in many European countries, there is a mismatch between EV adoption intentions and real purchase behavior. A 2020 study in Switzerland found that more than 50% of consumers that consider purchasing a car put EV as their first or second priority. Yet, the EV market share was in the country only 14% in 2020. How to overcome this intention-action gap and make electric mobility a reality for everyone?
First, the communication about electric mobility has to be clear, easy to understand and convenient to access. Long gone are the times when EVs were purchased only by a small group of tech savvy innovators following every development in the industry. Electric mobility is becoming a part of the mainstream with wider adopter groups entering the market. The communication thus has to cater to their needs, starting with the shift from the focus on technical components to the presentation of information that are of interest to consumers in their daily use. These messages could be also closer linked to the traditional communication about cars and ICEs to increase their familiarity and thus relatability. Moreover, the information should be easily accessible, for example by being coordinated on a joint portal from which relevant information can be obtained. Last but not least, the key actor from whom the most consumers get information about cars are to date car dealers. They are, however, oftentimes not knowledgeable about the products, providing only partial or incorrect information to consumers. While OEMs make their own efforts to improve the situation at car dealerships and increase the awareness of their salesforce about EVs, more has to be done to assure that consumers return from their visit at car salon excited and motivated to proceed with an EV purchase rather than vice versa.
Second, EVs should become even more appealing and convenient for the mainstream customer. The portfolio of EVs has to further grow, needing to be enriched by more affordable medium sized and family vehicles. While already abundant in the entry-level class and, thanks to Tesla and the like, premium, luxury sports vehicles, the large potential within mid-sized EVs still remains untapped. Such a broadening of EV portfolio has to be matched by improvements of charging services and their further evolution. Most importantly, an increasing share of future EV buyers does not dispose of a private space for charging. Solutions for semi-private charging solutions in community garages and public spaces thus have to be further developed to be more accessible and affordable. With huge progress of hardware, ranging from a plurality of innovative street parking charging solutions to smart metering in the garages of apartment buildings, the legislative and administrative process is becoming a key barrier for their implementation. Interventions to building codes obligating all new housing developments and any refurbishments to be conducive to charging infrastructure is only one of the necessary steps to be done. Overcoming the resistance of housing communities and landowners to infrastructure changes is another major one, that will hopefully weaken as the electric mobility becomes more widely adopted.
Third and maybe most importantly, policymakers, industry actors and marketers aiming to promote electric mobility should focus on the affective and symbolic values of vehicles. Cars have been part of our cultures for more than a century. John Urry goes as far as seeing the “system of automobility” as the key globalization force, shaping our views of freedom and, eventually, becoming a part of our identities. Car purchases are certainly not merely utilitarian. They reflect a broad range of emotions, values and meanings consumers, consciously or unconsciously, attach to them. For electric mobility to really take off, EVs have to become a part of our culture and be able to reflect the symbolic values their owners aim to ascribe to them.
Electric mobility is real, is here and is happening. That’s certainly true. However, to reach the last mile, we have to be conscious of the next steps needed to firmly establish EVs on the mass market. They range from adjusting the technology, including charging, to the way how we communicate about EVs to better reflect the needs and desires of mainstream consumers. Only like that can EVs become the “next normal” and fully establish themselves within our cultures and daily lives.
About the Author
Dr. Jana Plananska, Entrepreneur, Founder of Jana Plananska Mobility Solutions GmbH
Jana is an expert and independent consultant in the management of electric and smart mobility. After finishing her PhD at the University of St.Gallen in Switzerland, investigating consumer adoption of electric vehicles, Jana has launched her own company, advising clients on ways how to foster electric and smart mobility. Among others, she specialises in consumer behaviour, sustainable battery value chain, digitalisation and automation; she also has insights on sustainable urban transport, both within developed and emerging economies. Jana is very passionate about sustainable transport transitions. With her work she aims to make a contribution towards clean, affordable and accessible mobility for all. Read more about Jana’s work here. In her free time, Jana loves to explore Swiss countryside and takes pleasure in various sports, including jogging, skiing, cross-country skiing and hiking; Jana is also a member of Czech and Swiss national tennis league.