The surprising obstacle to electric vehicles in Europe

UPDATE APRIL 2022: In recent years, policymakers have been very enthusiastic about the increase in the use of Electric Vehicles (EV), but the current state of play failed to demonstrate a significant improvement over the concerns raised in the report published by green campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E). While sales of electric vehicles in Europe reached a record high in 2021, understood to be a promising success for the future, there are still barriers that will constitute a challenge in the years to come.
The surprising obstacle to electric vehicles in Europe

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the European Transport Forum (ETF), a platform for open debate on the future of European Transport, to provide insights on hot topics dealing with mobility. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect an official position of Volvo.

Furthermore, this article was originally published in April 22, 2020 and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

In Europe, electric car sales increased by nearly 70% in 2021 to 2.3 million about half of which were plug-in hybrids, which means the transition is operating but not full in scope yet. Among the different problems that were evidenced, there is a poorly developed second-hand market for EV, some confusion over the subscriptions for charging services, and increasing concerns over the availability and degradation of batteries. Lastly, what constituted a strong obstacle among EV sceptics – the difficulty to cover long distances due to the lack of sufficient charging stations in the EU – remains, with on average five (PDF, 40006KB) fast public chargers for every 100 km in 2021.

In addition, the electric truck market almost tripled and is expected to exhibit a growth rate of over 18% during the forecast period 2020-2025. Unfortunately, public infrastructure for charging trucks is virtually non-existent. Despite that Magnus Broback, Charging Systems Director at Volvo Trucks, stays optimistic “[…] until recently there was no business case for it. But now that we’re seeing more electric trucks on the road, it makes sense that we should start investing in charging networks.”

At the European level, the EV problem is receiving increasingly more attention as Frans Timmermans, the EU's head of climate change policy, said, “The transition to electric vehicles is going much faster than anybody had ever anticipated (…) so the charging infrastructure should be there." And Commission President Ursula von der Leyen assured in her 2021 state of the union address that “change is already happening”. But further policy will be needed at both national and European levels to create the required infrastructure.

The electric cars and trucks sale rates is not only growing in the EU but also largely in the other parts of the world. Since December last year, China had the largest stock of highway legal plug-in passenger cars with 46% of the global fleet in use. Moreover, China also dominates the plug-in light commercial vehicle and electric bus deployment.

In addition, more and more electric trucks are arriving in the US on a weekly basis. However, their viability depends on a reliable supply of electricity feeding the chargers as well as other relevant incentives. Biden administration pledged to build 500,000 charging stations across the country, however, critics claim that not only the ambition should be higher, but populating States with more charging stations won’t be enough. According to experts, there are four areas which are critical to trucking electrification: the trucks, batteries, chargers and ample electric power. Global governments should maintain their parallel actions across those areas if they are aiming at addressing the global demand and challenges, as well as, boosting the electrification of the car industry.

Despite the currently already existing challenges, the world also must address consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which among many others, results in delivery shortages and can potentially lower car production by millions of units over two years according to experts. The conflict has caused logistical and supply chain problems as well as parts shortages of critical vehicle components. The problems add to an already strained supply chain due to the coronavirus pandemic.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE 22/04/2020: This should be the moment for electric vehicles (EVs). There is popular momentum across Europe and beyond to curb carbon emissions. The European Union has agreed ambitious emissions-cutting measures, with some member states and cities going further. Every major manufacturer has committed to roll out EVs, with the number of models available in Europe expected to jump in 2020 from 100 to 175 (that number will double again to 330 by 2025).

Yet there is still a major obstacle hampering EVs. It is not, to be clear, the cost of the battery: while this was an issue a decade ago, it is being addressed by both industry and by policymakers. No, the barrier to an electric revolution lies elsewhere. It is the charging infrastructure.

Three million charging points needed

According to a new report published by green campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E) on January 8, Europe needs to increase its public charging points fifteen-fold by 2030 to reach the EU’s goal of becoming “climate neutral” by 2050. The report says if the 2030 projections of 44 million EVs on European roads are to be met, then three million public charging points will be needed.

With just 185,000 public charging points currently available in the EU, that implies a sharp increase. It is also far more than the plans laid out by the European Commission, which mentions just one million public chargers by 2025 in the European Green Deal published in December.

This is an issue that automotive manufacturers have underlined too. ACEA, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association, has called for a dense EU-wide network of charging points and re-fuelling stations to be urgently deployed. In November 2019, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the country should install one million EV charging points by 2030.

Charging infrastructure plays vital role in purchase decision 

Charging points matter for buyers, especially those who are buying EVs for the first time. This is not just a new technology under the bonnet, but a whole new system that needs different supporting services. According to a research from General Motors (GM), the number one reason why consumers decide not to buy an EV is the lack of charging stations. This is equally true for the commercial vehicle sector. Charging infrastructure is vital.

For EVs to gain widespread acceptance, manufacturers, charging companies, industry groups and governments at all levels must work together to make public charging available in as many locations as possible. Private charging stations are also important: research shows nearly 80% of electric vehicle owners charge their vehicles at home, and almost 15% at work, with the rest at public stations.

Chicken or egg

T&E estimates the cost of building a pan-European recharging infrastructure at around €20 billion over the next 11 years – with between 20-30% of these chargers in disadvantaged and less densely populated areas. It calls on the EU to bring forward its revision of the EU’s Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive this year instead of 2021 to ensure a swift and harmonised roll-out of chargers across Europe – as well as a reorganisation of electricity grid power markets and digital payment systems, following last year’s pact between Eurelectric, ACEA and T&E on e-mobility.

Despite an increase in recent years, EVs currently account for only around 1% of the European car market. But change is coming: the combination of regulation and investment will transform the sector. Global automakers plan to spend around $300 billion on electrification over the next decade. The question of when that will happen is another issue, and better charging infrastructure could make it much sooner.