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Number of battery-electric cars on UK roads overtake plug-in hybrids

12 October 2021

The UK’s transition to zero-emission driving has reached a major milestone with the total number of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) on the roads overtaking the number of plug-in hybrid (PHEV) models for the first time, analysis of SMMT data conducted by the RAC has found.

(Credit: RAC)
(Credit: RAC)

Following the highest ever single month of new BEV registrations in September – an extra 32,721 were sold, despite overall car sales figures being down significantly on recent years – the RAC estimates there are now 332,299 on the roads, compared to 327,183 plug-in hybrids. BEVs now represent 50.4% of all plug-in cars on the UK’s roads since 2010, up from 46.3% at the same time last year.

Although BEVs still only represent just 1% of the total car parc in the UK, the rate of growth in the last few years is unprecedented. From 2018 to 2019, the numbers of new BEVs more than doubled to 37,850 and then nearly trebled to 108,205 a year later. By the end of this year, the total number of BEVs will likely hit a new record of at least 175,000 – a number that would likely be significantly higher had it not been for the international shortage of semiconductors affecting manufacturers’ ability to roll more vehicles off production lines.

In sharp contrast, average monthly sales of new diesel cars have fallen from 48,481 in 2019 to 21,814 in 2020 and just 13,067 so far this year. Petrol sales have also declined significantly, from an average of 123,534 a month in 2019 to 75,265 in 2020 and 69,066 so far in 2021.

Despite the impact of the pandemic on both fleets’ and private drivers’ plans for buying new vehicles, and on manufacturers’ production plans – thanks to a shortage of semiconductors, the figures clearly show the strong demand there is for new BEVs in the UK. But what perhaps is even more striking is that demand for PHEVs – which combine an electric motor and either a petrol or diesel tank – doesn’t appear to be quite as strong – which suggests drivers looking to move away from petrol and diesel models may be leapfrogging PHEVs in favour of BEVs.

New RAC research also shows the extent to which the fuel delivery crisis has impacted drivers’ desire to switch to go electric. Nearly three in 10 (28%) of 2,419 drivers surveyed said that their interest in getting an electric car the next time they change their vehicle had increased as a result of recent events, with 43% of this group saying they expect to make the switch within the next three years.

RAC director of EVs Sarah Winward-Kotecha said: “Against a backdrop of generally poor new car sales, September was a milestone month when it came to battery-electric models. Nearly as many were sold in one month as were sold throughout the whole of 2019, and the figures suggest they are now a more common sight on the UK’s roads than plug-in hybrids.

“These figures show there’s clear momentum when it comes to electric car adoption in the UK, but had it not been for the chip shortage which is hampering new car production, the numbers may well have been even higher. What’s also interesting is that demand for BEVs appears to [be] out-stripping PHEVs, with the latter often cited as a good ‘stepping stone’ between a petrol and diesel model and a full zero-emission battery model. Only time will tell whether it’s the case that drivers and fleets looking to upgrade their cars are choosing to leapfrog PHEVs and instead opt straight for BEVs.

“Sales of electric cars have also eclipsed diesel sales by a huge margin with three battery-electric cars sold for every one new diesel car that went onto the road. This now looks like the end of the road for diesel as nearly 67,000 fewer diesel cars were registered this September than was the case in September 2019, representing an astonishing 86% drop in just two years.

“Fortunately, when it comes to EVs there are a variety of ways drivers can now make the switch in a more affordable way, not least through EV leasing schemes and by taking advantage of smart electricity tariffs that offer cheap overnight charging, both of which are offered by the RAC.”

Whilst this news marks a significant step towards zero-emissions transportation in the UK, there is more to be done to build on recent successes. The infrastructure to support the rise in the number of pure electric vehicles needs to maintain pace if the UK is to continue revolutionising the mobility industry. 

With proper investment, David Hall, VP Power Systems UK & Ireland, Schneider Electric, believes the future for the industry is bright and is confident that it can use this moment as a turning point towards a low-carbon future.

“The news that sales of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have surpassed plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) for the first time is a major milestone for the UK’s e-mobility revolution – but the journey is not over yet.

“To support this growth in adoption, we need readily available infrastructure to support EVs and to ensure the electric revolution is renewable, plentiful, and affordable. Looking towards increasing the capacity and volume of charging sites will be key to this. Commitments to grow the installed base much further – particularly around on-route charging along the main arterial roads or at service stations – will further strengthen the conditions needed to make EVs the default purchase option during the next ten years. 

“The transition to an all-electric future will require sizeable investments in R&D, the acceleration of vehicle charging infrastructure and potential legislation for the installation of charge points in new homes. Public-private partnerships have a huge role to play in helping the UK transition to the net zero future. With this milestone, I am hopeful that the industry can push the pedal on a low-carbon, electric future."

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