How many electric vehicles??

At a recent UK Government stakeholder meeting in London the issue of transport and electric cars came up. Based on information from an adviser on climate change to the government, there seems to be a working assumption that electric cars will take hold in the market with significant sales and that by 2020 we could have between 1 and 2 million such cars on the road in the UK.

Today the UK car population is some 28 million, so this would represent nearly 7% of the total fleet if we actually reach 2 million vehicles. We have just 10 years to 2020 and the statement really made me think about the feasibility of such an achievement.

A few years back when developing the WBCSD publication Facts and Trends to 2050, I did some calculations on vehicle fleets to illustrate the scale of change needed to turn over the entire global fleet. We assumed the following;

  • An “alternative (e.g. electric) vehicle” was available for large-scale manufacture in 2010.
  • Initial production would be 200,000 units per annum and production would increase by 20% per annum until the entire world’s manufacturing capacity was making this sort of vehicle.
  • The global vehicle fleet would be growing at 2% p.a.
  • Global manufacturing capacity would be increasing at 2% p.a.

This very simple calculation resulted in the adjacent chart, which shows that it is not until 2040 that the total traditional vehicle fleet start to decline, but then it falls very quickly. The point of this calculation was to illustrate that unless we start now, it will not be possible to achieve significant CO2 reductions by 2050 given the scale of the energy system we live with today and the lag before it really starts to change.

Facts and Trends Auto Chart

So getting back to the UK, what might be achievable by 2020. There are in fact two issues; the vehicles themselves and the necessary infrastructure to support an electric fleet. I will just look at the number of vehicles for this posting.

Today in the UK there really aren’t any electric cars. Although I met someone who bought a Tesla Roadster and there are a few mini-electrics in London, principally to avoid the Congestion Charge, I don’t think this really constitutes a “fleet” as such. But at least we do have a number of manufacturers showing prospective cars; the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan Leaf, the Daimler Smart and several others talking about their plans. It looks like we might have some global manufacturing capacity by 2011.

An electric car in London today

An electric car in London today

To get to around 1.8 million by the end of 2020, the UK would have to put 10,000 cars on the road in 2011 and grow that number by some 60% per annum, such that by 2020 about a quarter of all car sales (i.e. 680,000 out of 2.5 million per annum) are electric. Assuming no cars are lost along the way, the cummulative total comes to 1.815 million.

The 2011 start won’t be easy either; this is the equivalent of the total annual UK sales of the Smart car. However, cities like London are ideal places for electric cars so there may well be the demand here, particularly with policies such as the Congestion Charge.

Globally, there are about 70 million cars produced annually. The UK takes in 2.5 million of these or less than 4%. An electric car manufacturer isn’t going to direct all its sales to one market, but let’s assume that the UK is a premium market and can attract 8% of the production of these models – i.e. double its normal market share.

If we want 10,000 cars on the road in 2011, that means global production must be 125,000. Assuming a number of manufacturers start off with modest production lines (i.e. 20,000 vehicles, similar to the initial production of the Prius), we would need at least six big launches followed by immediate production in the next 18 months. By 2020, global production would need to be nearly 10 million cars per annum, which is the equivalent of about 100 major production lines.

In 1998 annual Prius production was about 17,000 vehicles. Just prior to the recession it was close to 300,000.

Somehow I think that the UK assumption is quite a bold one.