The decade of the electric car

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In 1910, speed was the new frontier – a mile a minute. Absurd. Once the gold ran out, the bison all died and civilisation crept up to the Pacific with its Aspirins and telegraph poles, we needed a new adventure. So mankind discovered speed and never looked back.

The automobile did it all with fossil fuels and some air – mix the two, add a spark, you get a bang and your wheels turn. Classic.

A hundred years ago, it wasn’t so clear cut. In the US, there was a roughly even split between electric cars and internal combustion-engine cars on the roads during early 1910, and it was a close run thing. If it wasn’t for British prospectors striking oil in Persia right around the same time, perhaps all the cheap petrol wouldn’t have doomed the electric car.

Crude oil has been dropping since the $164-per-barrel high in 2008 and the price is now only about a third of that. This should be a great time to buy a petrol-powered car.

Yet the industry has been taking hits for two years, with sales slumps in China and the US the culprits affecting the global market, now at below 80 million cars a year after a 2017 high of 86 million cars sold – currently, electric cars account for around 5% of the annual take.

Toyota's Ultra Compact BEV two-seater
Toyota's Ultra Compact BEV two-seater

Car companies don’t necessarily want to fix what ain’t broken – building new methods and new factories for a speculative market is a risk. Traditional car companies held out until the last second to respond to newcomers such as Tesla. Government regulations in the EU have tightened taxation regarding carbon dioxide emissions, so any vehicle producing too much pollution is at risk. The fines are not insubstantial. For a model emitting just 10 grams of CO2 above the 95g/km limit, as an example, starting this year, the manufacturer faces a fine of €950 per car sold. In the US, California is similarly influencing an entire industry with stricter emissions regulations on the basis of fleet average fuel economy – the target is efficiency to the equivalent of 50 miles per gallon, or 4.7 litres of fuel per 100km.

Hoping that forecasts are right

The way to dodge potential fines is with a portfolio-wide average, so car makers can keep the old factories churning out fossil-fuelled vehicles while new factories manufacture EVs to offset the grime. Everyone’s at it, and 2020 will see electric models introduced from just about every mainstream manufacturer out there, all hoping the forecasts are right – EV market predictions range from 20 million cars sold annually by the year 2030 to some sources citing 50 million cars.

In the US, the world’s second biggest EV market after China, tax incentives for zero-emissions vehicles spur sales. This month, for instance, New Jersey added a rebate of up to $5 000 for EV buyers. Others are thinking of ways to even the playing field – several US states are increasing road registration charges for EVs by up to $200 to make up for lost petrol taxes.

Ford Mustang Mach-E
Ford Mustang Mach-E

On the charts, Tesla leads the way Stateside with the best-selling Model 3, and the Model Y anticipated this year is an even bigger deal with its crossover body style.

The Big Three from Detroit are responding. Ford has just revealed the company’s first ever EV, and upset quite a few traditionalists in the process by borrowing the famous Mustang nametag, dating back to the 1960s. For generations, the Mustang has represented American gas-guzzling grunt, but from 2020, the new battery-powered Ford Mustang Mach-E will whizz around silently as a family SUV. The Blue Oval committed $11 billion into EV development in 2018, planning to grow the range to account for a third of all sales by 2030.

Even though they were no-shows at Las Vegas' CES 2020 earlier this month, General Motors boss Mary Barra has previously talked about an all-electric future at the company targeting 20 new models over the next three years. The Fiat Chrysler group was present in Vegas with a luxury concept and an electric Fiat 500, the latter rolling out later this year before the push to electrify the rest of the range including Jeep models.

Honda E
Honda E

Representing Europe, BMW, Mercedes and Audi resume their age-old rivalries this year, each with an electric crossover of their own: the BMW iX3, Mercedes-Benz EQC and Audi e-Tron are their first steps into the mainstream EV segment. BMW is planning a dozen EVs to follow over the next four years. Audi is set to reveal more crossover EV show concepts throughout the year, previewing the result of a €12 billion investment. Mercedes, meanwhile, plans to launch 10 different EV models from 2020 through 2022, eventually offering at least one electric version in every model series.

Somewhere, like the Netherlands, with 75 000 electric vehicle charging points, EVs have it easy, but in India, with 100 times the population, the government’s ambition of EVs making up 15% of vehicle sales seems high. This month, India announced the installation of 2 636 electric charging points across key metro areas, just for scale. To stimulate sales, India has set aside $1.4 billion to incentivise buyers over the next three years.


Japan, like California, is using average fuel consumption as a measure, requiring efficiency to the value of 4.0l/100km by 2030. Unlike Western brands competing on the SUV front, Japanese domestic manufacturers are thinking small – this year, Honda is entering the EV segment for the first time with the new Honda E, a tiny hatchback priced affordably to compete with the likes of your average Corolla. 

Toyota went even smaller, developing a two-seater EV that looks like a fancy golf cart for the home market. Internationally, Toyota continues to rely on plug-in hybrids rather than outright electric vehicles, and the Japanese giant is playing it relatively safe with a goal of selling half a million EVs per year by 2025. That’s just 5% of Toyota’s current annual production.


Predictably, after the stain of the emission-cheating ‘Dieselgate’ scandal in 2015 and its aftermath, the Volkswagen Group is placing the highest bets in the EV gamble. This year, VW is launching the ID.3, a Golf-sized hatchback, before tackling the leadership of the electric market. The group (which includes Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini, Porsche, Seat, Skoda, Bugatti…) is investing €33 billion through 2024, targeting 1.5 million annual EV sales by 2025, or 15% of production.

A 100 years ago, clean cut capitalism killed the electric car. It died a peaceful, natural death. For the internal combustion engine, the end could be way more brutal – death by bureaucracy.

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