Global sales of electric cars accelerate fast in 2020 despite pandemic

Global sales of electric cars accelerated fast in 2020, rising by 43% to more than 3m, despite overall car sales slumping by a fifth during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tesla was the brand selling the most electric cars, delivering almost 500,000, followed by Volkswagen. Sales of electric cars more than doubled in Europe, pushing the region past China as the world’s biggest market for them, according to data published on Tuesday by EV-volumes.com, a Sweden-based consultancy.

Sales of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) made up 4.2% of the global car market, up from 2.5% in 2019. The rising sales are being driven by government policies to reduce carbon emissions, but a key factor is that electric cars are simply a better technology, said Viktor Irle, sales and marketing analyst at EV-volumes.com.

Sales of electric cars did fall below 2019’s levels from March to June, at the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns, but recovered strongly after that and by December were at double the level in December 2019.

A series of governments have set dates for the end of sales of fossil fuel-powered cars in the next decade or so. “The political push is still there – [governments] everywhere speak about the green recovery,” said Irle.

“But the main reason for growth is simple – electric cars are a better technology. There is no noise, no pollution, better acceleration, and cheaper running costs. If people test-drive an electric car, they’re not going to go back to gasoline vehicles. The problem at the moment is that the price is a little bit higher, but the cost is really coming down as well.”

Irle said the surge in sales in Europe may in part be because carmakers had to meet EU emissions targets averaged across their fleets in 2020, and may have pushed sales of low-emission vehicles more than in 2019.

The relatively high purchase prices of today’s electric cars may have helped manufacturers weather the Covid-19 storm, Irle added: “The cheap car segments are always the worst hit [in recessions], because it’s not normally high-income people that buy those cars.”

Tesla’s approach of selling cars directly to customers, rather than via franchised dealers, may also have helped while others’ showrooms were closed, and carmakers including Volkswagen also took up this sales approach in 2020.

There are about 150 new BEV and PHEV models expected on the market in 2021. This indicates that 2021 will see continued growth, said Irle, who estimates sales of about 4.6m electric cars by the end of the year.

The EV-volumes.com data showed the five highest national sales were in China (1.3m ), Germany (0.4m), the US (0.3m), France and the UK (both 0.2m). However, growth in the US was only 4% in 2020, due to few new models being available.

In the UK, 2020 was a record year for electric vehicle sales, according to data from the trade body SMMT, which said the sector was looking to a green recovery from poor overall sales.

Sales of BEVs almost tripled in the UK, while those of PHEVs almost doubled, giving the vehicles a combined market share of 10.7%. Other non-plug-in hybrids took 18% of the market, but overall car sales were down 29%. In December 2020, BEVs and PHEVs outsold diesel cars by two to one in the UK, while the Tesla Model 3 was the UK’s top selling car that month.

“The accelerated take-up [of electric vehicles] in 2020 is encouraging but a true mass market depends on a wide range of models at competitive prices,” said Steve Gooding, director of pro-motoring organisation the RAC Foundation. “The industry is delivering on the first point – there are reports that more plug-ins will be launched in the UK in 2021 than those running on petrol and diesel – but there remains an affordability gap.

“Much attention also focuses on battery-powered cars as being ideal for the city, but they could be just at home in rural and remote areas where there is plenty of space for public and private recharging facilities, and a relative scarcity of forecourts selling fossil fuels, and where there is availability it comes at an inflated price.”