• Electric vehicles have an indispensable role to play in tackling climate change.
  • There are already over 10 million electric cars on the world’s roads.
  • But concerns about cost, range and reliability are holding some people back.

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 travelling 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 UK 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%).

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.

Here are four reasons behind the slow adoption of EVs.

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 free of charge 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.

a chart showing the fall of the price of electric vehicles
EV prices have fallen in recent years as battery technology improves.
Image: Visual Capitalist

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.

a chart showing the ratio of public chargers for electric vehicles
Korea leads the way in EV chargers.
Image: IEA

And 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% 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 US.

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.

They say 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.

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% 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.

a chart showing electric vehicle adoption in different regions
Europe is leading the way in the adoption of electric vehicles.
Image: Pew Research

Reasons to be hopeful

But despite the challenges, electric car sales are rising across the world. The IEA says that global electric car sales rose by 140% 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) and even in the US, EV sales doubled compared to the first quarter of 2020.

There are already more than 10 million electric cars on the world’s roads and the IEA forecasts there will be 145 million by 2030. It says there could be even more if governments provide incentives like 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.

How is the World Economic Forum helping to scale vehicle electrification?

Emissions from mobility will increase through 2050, jeopardising our chances to combat climate change. By electrifying urban fleets, we can mitigate more than 70% of mobility CO2 urban emissions, remove 50% of city air pollution, and electrify rides to everyone - making the electrification transition more effective and equitable.

Understanding that coordination is needed to create tangible progress, this February the World Economic Forum launched a collaborative umbrella network that will help sync and synergize related global initiatives: the Zero Emissions Urban Fleets (ZEUF) network.

ZEUF is a network of stakeholders for accelerating urban fleets electrification, targeting 100% by 2030. Initiated by the World Economic Forum’s Global New Mobility Coalition in partnership with Uber, T&E, EuroCities, Free Now, LeasePlan, Door2Door, Lime, Blot, Voi, AEDIVE, Polis, The Climate Group, Race to Zero, and others, ZEUF is an open network that convenes periodically to facilitate informal know-how exchange and efforts coordination.