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EVs haven't taken off yet — here are 4 reasons why

Two white Volkswagen Golf GTE cars charging at a charging point on a street in London.

Two white Volkswagen Golf GTE cars charging at a charging point on a street in London.

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If electric cars are the future, why does that future seem to be such a long time coming?

It used to be said that electric cars would never take off until they were capable of traveling a similar distance to a petrol or diesel car. Even then, a lack of battery charging points was said to be an obstacle to their success.

But both those objections have either already been overcome or are on course to being overcome. Governments are set to ban the sale of fossil fuel vehicles within the next decade in many countries. So why aren’t there more electric vehicles (EVs) on the world’s roads?

Reasons for the slow uptake of electric vehicles vary between countries. A U.K. survey found the most common reason for not buying one was a lack of fast charging points (37 percent) followed by concerns about range (35 percent) and cost (33 percent).

Although two-thirds of Americans surveyed by Pew Research agreed electric cars are good for the environment, a similar proportion thought they were expensive, and a third were concerned about their reliability.

A U.K. survey found the most common reason for not buying one was a lack of fast charging points (37%) followed by concerns about range (35%) and cost (33%).

Here are four reasons behind the slow adoption of EVs.

1. Too expensive

Price is an obvious reason for hesitancy. Up to now, electric cars have been more expensive than petrol or diesel vehicles. Advocates argue, however, that electric cars are cheaper in the long run due to lower fuel, servicing and maintenance costs.

Data compiled by comparison website comparethemarket.com shows that the all-electric Nissan Leaf costs $28,620 in Spain, where prices of this model are lowest, compared to the similar-sized petrol Nissan Micra, which would cost buyers in Spain $17,255.

Costs can be reduced by leasing the car’s battery rather than having it included in the upfront price. Experts say leasing a battery costs between $69 and $138 a month with the advantage that it will be replaced for free at the end of its life.

Industry analysts say the falling cost of the lithium batteries that power electric cars will see car prices fall in the near future. In the meantime, subsidies have helped to drive the take-up of electric and hybrid cars.

2. Not enough chargers

Although publicly accessible battery chargers are being installed globally at a growing rate — up sevenfold in the past five years according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) — there is still a perception that there are not enough to keep electric cars on the road.

Graph that shows availability of public chargers by country

That perception is not groundless. In Europe, only France, Italy and the Netherlands have so far delivered the number of charging points required by the EU’s Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Directive, according to the IEA.

Elsewhere, much of the growth in public charging infrastructure has been in China, with the number of fast chargers increasing by 44 percent in 2020 to 310,000. By contrast, the IEA says there were 38,000 fast chargers in Europe at the end of 2020 and just 17,000 in the U.S.

3. Chip shortage

All of this assumes that you can simply go out and buy a new electric car. But across the world, a shortage of microchips is holding back deliveries of all types, including EVs. IHS Markit says production of 1.4 million cars and light vans was lost in the first quarter of 2021 alone.

It says chip makers have struggled with demand which surged when carmakers increased production after COVID-19 lockdowns. Analysts expect the shortages to persist through 2021 and into 2022, which they say will have an impact on the availability of cars of all types.

4. Battery fire risk

A study by Deloitte confirmed that the biggest consumer concerns about electric cars globally focus on driving range and the lack of charging points. But in China, 31 percent of those surveyed expressed worries about the safety of battery technology.

Battery fires in EVs have attracted a lot of media attention but, according to Ola Willstrand, project manager at RISE, the Swedish state research institute, there is no clear evidence of greater fire risk with electric cars. In fact, he says, the risk might even be lower.

Graph that shows Europe is leading the way in the adoption of electric vehicles.

Reasons to be hopeful

Despite the challenges, electric car sales are rising across the world. The IEA says that global electric car sales rose by 140 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.

China led the way with half a million new electric cars sold in the period, followed closely by Europe (450,000). Even in the U.S., EV sales doubled compared to the first quarter of 2020.

Already more than 10 million electric cars are on the world’s roads and the IEA forecasts 145 million by 2030. It says there could be even more if governments provide incentives such as more charging points and higher taxes on fossil fuels.

The World Economic Forum has convened the Global Battery Alliance, bringing together 42 global organizations including manufacturers and raw material producers. They say batteries have a key role to play in reducing the carbon footprint of the transport and power sectors.

The Alliance says that by 2040, around 290 million charging points will be needed globally to power the transition to electric vehicles of all types, requiring a total global investment of $500 billion.

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