Pandemic impact on EVs might not be what you expect

electric car at charging station


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Let’s face it: The Great Lockdown has damaged the international transportation markets. It’s no surprise that BloombergNEF has predicted total global auto sales will fall by 23% in 2020. 

But electric vehicles are not expected to face the same financial impact as internal combustion engine vehicles. According to one New York consulting firm, EV markets in Europe and China are doing surprisingly well, with EV sales in Europe up 25% just within the first business quarter of 2020. 

Although American EV figures are not as reassuring, experts believe that if the U.S. begins implementing similar measures as found throughout Europe and Asia, American EV markets are expected to rebound and increase over the next several years. But this requires U.S. policy to stimulate both EV supply and demand.

Why European and Chinese EV markets are doing fine 

According to Colin McKerracher, the head author of BloombergNEF’s 2020 EV Outlook, EV markets in Europe have largely have stabilized because of pre-pandemic EV policies and the development of more efficient and inexpensive technology. 

“While the internal combustion engine vehicle market is on a downward trajectory, despite COVID, EVs are on an upward trajectory,” McKerracher said. 

He added the most prominent mechanisms that have cushioned the EV markets are shifting national and sub-national policies that now focus on influencing the supply of EVs. In addition to already existing tax incentives for new EV owners, European countries have pushed for strict fuel economy standards. 

“The policies are really saying ‘we don’t care how you do it, but you really need to bring down your emissions,’” McKerracher said. “The most compelling ways for a lot of automakers to do that is by selling a lot of plug-in vehicles.”

Unsurprisingly, European automakers have generally expressed economic optimism. Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson said at a conference earlier this year that he predicts the pandemic will accelerate future demand for EVs, echoing Volvo’s commitment to sell an all-electric and hybrid fleet by 2025. And unlike American automakers, Volvo’s stock price was higher than it was at pre-pandemic levels.

Volvo plug-in
Volvo has made a commitment to sell an all-electric and hybrid fleet by 2025. (John Stefou/Creative Commons)

Likewise, as battery technology improves, EVs have become more affordable in Europe and China, making them fierce competitors with traditional vehicles. Chinese automakers have introduced updated lithium iron phosphate batteries, which are cheaper to produce because they do not require metals like cobalt or nickel, according to one analyst from Roskill, a London-based global metal trade consulting firm.  

Supply localization efforts also have helped avoid tariffs and trade costs that accumulate on EV price tags. According to McKerracher, there is no significant difference between battery production costs among geographic locations, which also means that the overall carbon footprint made as a result of EV production has actually improved.

But more importantly, localization efforts have also helped drive the economies of Europe and China. According to Marine Gorner, an energy and transport analyst at the International Energy Agency, localizing battery production and the deployment of EV infrastructure has a higher employment multiplier for every dollar invested compared to conventional vehicle manufacturing. 

“I think this particular point will be a key piece of information for governments to have in mind when they think of this shift,” Gorner said. “This shift comes with more economic growth prospects.” 

What the U.S. is doing wrong

The same narrative cannot be told in the U.S., largely because the pandemic continues hammering the Americas while Europe and Asia already have flattened the curve. 

Even so, a lack of EV implementation and recovery efforts have reduced national EV sales by 33%. According to Genevieve Cullen, the president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, this figure may only increase if federal and state governments leave automakers uncertain about what standards their fleet must meet. 

“What global governments do and what the U.S. does as part of their pandemic responses, I think it’ll have a major impact on what that means going forward,” she said.

Besides Tesla, which has a higher stock price than one year ago, American automakers are more concerned about cash flow and have cut back on EV research and development. When demand for automobiles returns to pre-pandemic levels, many American consumers will not find as many competitive EVs in the market. 

Recent federal guidelines also have stunted the development of America’s EV market. In March, the Trump administration revised fuel economy standard goals by reducing 2026’s goal of 54 mpg to 40 mpg, further disincentivizing automakers to develop EV technology. 

Cullen said that the Electric Drive Transportation Association has modeled a multi-prong recommendation plan that would reinforce manufacturing, strengthen retail incentives, and construct more EV charging infrastructure to help boost the EV market in the United States, but local governments largely have ignored these suggestions. 

public EV charging stations
Charging stations, like these installed at rest areas on I-95 by the Electric Vehicle Institute, are critical infrastructure that will help the EV market grow. (Earth And Main/Creative Commons)

“With these things together, we could essentially grow the entire EV ecosystem,” she said. “Providing both that market signal for manufacturers and that accessibility for consumers is key, but we’re not seeing that in the U.S.”

Not all that bad

Although not as many Americans are switching over to EVs as fast as in Europe and China, the future of the American EV industry remains optimistic. 

If predicted EV adoption rates are not drastically altered by federal litigation, American EV sales are expected to rise and continue rising starting in 2021, according to the BloombergNEF outlook.  

Moreover, McKerracher said replacing an EV in the United States has more of an ecological impact because current internal combustion vehicles in the American market have lower fuel economy standards than those in Europe and China. BloombergNEF forecasts that U.S. carbon dioxide emission levels are expected to decrease by more than 25% in the next two decades. 

However, the approach to these figures may decelerate if the federal government continues pushing automakers away from EV production. 

“If Trump wins the 2020 election, the U.S. will almost certainly fall behind in EV purchases,” McKerracher said. “If Democrats win, that gap will close.”

Others also believe that federal and state governments must increase EV demand by enacting innovative policies that entice consumers to purchase new EVs. Sean Mitchell, the president of Denver’s Tesla Owner Club, said state governments should enact policies like a carbon tax that make fossil-fueled vehicles less economically viable for the average American.

“I think in a free market it’s important to let products and industries survive on their own,” Mitchell said, “but, when you’re talking about a market that is directly related to pollution and emissions, there’s got to be another factor that’s considered there.”

Mitchell added that state governments should remove policies that complicate EV sales. For example, Texas prohibits customers from purchasing vehicles directly from the manufacturers. Removing this policy would increase EV demand because customers would not be forced to shop online for such a large product, Mitchell said.

“Making it easy for people to purchase electric vehicles is key,” he said. 

But experts also point out that like buying in bulk, the price of EV batteries are expected to decrease as more Americans trade in their cars for EVs, according to Marine Gorner of the IEA. 

“What’s really important is to get more vehicles on the road so that production and sale volumes are higher,” she said. “This is how we will get an EV’s cost parity — it’s up-front cost — comparable to a conventional vehicle.” 

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