Former Top Gear host blames ‘misinformation’ for EV sales slowdown

A former Top Gear presenter blamed “misinformation” for the decline in electric vehicle sales and called on the UK government to “manage consumer sentiment” as it aims to phase out traditional petrol and diesel cars over the next decade.

Quentin Willson, one of the original presenters of the popular BBC motoring programme in its first broadcast from 1977 to 2001, now heads the EV campaign group FairCharge.

In a speech to the British Parliament’s Transport Committee last month, the former car dealer and journalist, who now works as a lobbyist, criticised the “flood of arguments from the right and from interest groups” that were curbing consumer appetite for electric vehicles.

The panel heard testimony from several experts on whether the UK’s target of banning internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035 – originally planned for 2030 – was “realistic and achievable”.

“It is achievable, but it is hampered by myths, misinformation and disinformation,” Willson said.

“Consumers need to have confidence in electric cars, they need to want to buy them, because if they don’t, manufacturers won’t sell them and you get this self-defeating cycle where we don’t get consumer interest moving to drive the market. As a campaign group, we counted one tabloid newspaper that ran 160 non-stop articles against electric cars, and we see that in the serious newspapers too.”

Willson insisted that “the cars work technologically.”

“There are over a million pure battery and plug-in electric cars on our roads and people have happily integrated them into their lives. You see them driving up and down the motorways. London is full of them now,” he said.

“In the long term, their viability as a technology is not in question. What is in question is how we manage consumer sentiment and awareness of the pros and cons of electric cars. But I believe that this will be achievable by 2035 if we take the right measures and properly inform consumers.”

Similar to Australia’s New Vehicle Emission Standard (NVES), which will force carmakers to sell a larger proportion of cleaner, greener vehicles such as electric and hybrid vehicles from next year, the UK’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) rule requires 52 percent of all new cars to be electric by 2028, rising to 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2035.

But concerns about range, charging infrastructure, higher insurance premiums, resale value, battery life and replacement costs have led to a significant decline in electric vehicle sales.

In Australia, auto sales data for April showed a 5.1 percent year-on-year decline in electric vehicle sales, led by a massive decline at market leader Tesla.

The Labour Party has drastically reduced its forecast for electric vehicle uptake. Before the 2022 election, it predicted that electric vehicles would account for 89 percent of new car sales by 2030 – now it expects their share to be just 27 percent.

In the UK, headlines showed a sharp rise in demand for electric vehicles, reaching a market share of 16.9 per cent in April. However, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), this figure was “driven entirely by commercial buyers as private retail demand continues to fall”.

Electric vehicle sales in the UK are supported by fleet purchases, thanks to massive government subsidies that allow workers to deduct leasing costs from income tax.

“While the overall increase in demand for BEVs is positive, urgent action is needed to encourage private buyers to switch back,” the SMMT said last month.

“Less than a sixth of new BEVs purchased in April went to private customers, with sales volumes falling by 21.9 percent. As tax incentives have been shown to lead to a rapid switch to BEVs in the fleet market, similar support for private buyers would accelerate a general market shift, boost economic growth and enable a sustainable, fair transition.”

The Automobile Association is calling for a temporary halving of the 20 percent VAT on the purchase of new electric vehicles. This move would “help more than a quarter of a million drivers switch from fossil fuels to electric over the next three years.”

The SMMT also called for a change to the threshold for the road tax surcharge on “expensive cars” – similar to Australia’s Luxury Car Tax (LCT) – to “send the message to the market that zero-emission vehicles are necessities, not luxuries”.

In a speech to the UK Parliament, David Wong, Head of Technology and Innovation at the SMMT, stressed that the ZEV requirement was “essentially a supply-side measure”.

“It forces the supply of these vehicles, but on the other hand there is no compulsion for consumers to buy these vehicles,” he said.

“Moving the end of sales from 2030 to 2035 doesn’t help because on the supply side, manufacturers are required to bring a certain percentage of vehicles to market each year at an increasing rate until 2030… but on the demand side, unfortunately, the message is being sent to consumers that they have a five-year reprieve, so to speak, and can delay their purchase for another five years, until 2035. This misalignment between supply and demand doesn’t help.”

Willson said there are “numerous political levers we can use,” such as revising the expensive car surcharge, abolishing the vehicle tax for electric vehicles or introducing free parking like in Norway.

However, he stressed that it is “the misinformation that really turns people off.”

“They don’t even think about buying an electric car or even inquire about the price because they read this torrent of information from right-wing and self-serving interest groups,” he said.

“That would be a really important political lever that we need.”

He said the Department for Transport (DfT) needed to do more to debunk myths to make consumers aware that these cars are reliable. “They don’t catch fire,” he said. “The batteries don’t fail. They work. People enjoy driving them… Misinformation destabilises consumer demand, industrial policy and the industry.”

The ZEV mandate is a key pillar of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s net zero target for 2050.

The UK government has stepped up its fight against “misinformation and disinformation” in the wake of the Covid pandemic, including by passing a new online safety law in January that criminalises “fake news intended to cause significant harm” – although recognised news publishers and broadcasters are exempt from the legislation.

In February, the House of Lords of the UK Parliament accused Mr Sunak of failing to adequately combat misinformation about electric vehicles. The 126-page report by the House of Lords’ Environment and Climate Change Committee (ECCC) was critical of the government’s “mixed messages” on the switch to electric vehicles.

When Sunak announced the postponement of the ban on petrol and diesel cars to 2035 in September, he acknowledged that it would be “difficult to achieve a net zero target”.

“People are already choosing electric vehicles at such a rate that we’re registering a new vehicle every 60 seconds,” he said. “But I also think that, at least for now, you as a consumer should be making that decision, not the government forcing you to make it. Because the initial cost is still high – especially for families struggling with the cost of living.”

Immediately after Sunak’s speech, the number of people who said they would never buy an electric vehicle almost doubled to 37 percent, according to a survey by AutoTrader.

“By emphasizing the costs while failing to highlight the benefits and failing to vigorously counter misinformation, the government is not building public trust,” the ECCC report said.

“While the Government has expressed concerns to us about the level of misinformation, it has not shown the urgency to address it. With conflicting claims and alarming headlines, consumers need a place to go for comprehensive, clear and balanced information to help them make informed decisions about their vehicles. The Government must develop a communications strategy, working with industry and consumer organisations, to provide this resource.”

frank.chung@news.com.au

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