EV sales are booming just about everywhere—except in the U.S.

August 9, 2021, 1:29 PM UTC

Convincing Americans to trade in their beloved gas-guzzling SUVs for an energy-efficient electric vehicle is a tough sell in a country where range anxiety is a serious obstacle. 

It’s perhaps little surprise then that U.S. President Joe Biden reached for the China card last week, arguing his plan to accelerate the electrification of new cars would prevent the further loss of ground to strategic global competitors. 

That’s because faster adopters like Norway, with its quaint fishing villages and picturesque fjords, don’t quite evoke the same political urgency in Washington—despite what comedian Will Ferrell has to say about it.

Yet data shows Europe is far ahead of the pack when it comes to transitioning to cleaner cars such as battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), collectively called xEVs.

“Last year, nearly three-quarters of all cars sold in Norway and more than half of those sold in Iceland were electric,” wrote Pew Research Center.

According to the latest figures from the European auto industry, the share of BEVs in the first half increased to 7.6% of the new car market from 4.3% in the year-earlier period, while PHEVs added a further 8.3%, up from just 3.5% in the 2020 period.

EV adoption is becoming a key metric for measuring progress in the fight against global warming. On Monday, United Nations scientists warned evidence pointed to the “unequivocal” influence of anthropomorphic climate change, according to authors of the IPCC’s sixth global assessment

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

Thanks to these Scandinavian consumers embracing the technology, the fastest growth in sales of xEVs has been Europe with a compound annual growth rate of 60% from 2016 to 2020, compared with 36% in China and just 17% in the United States. 

That’s why General Motors half-jokingly took aim at Norwegians in a Super Bowl spot with comedian and Hollywood star Ferrell (whose wife happens to be from neighboring Sweden).

Generous subsidies, punitive legislation, and shorter commutes have all combined to turbocharge EV sales in Europe. Take-up rates are expected only to increase as the EU and United Kingdom plan to phase out combustion engine cars by 2035.

As a result, roughly 3.2 million of the total 10.2 million xEVs built and sold to date can be found in Europe, nearly twice as many as those driving on U.S. roads. 

At 4.5 million, the number for China is almost as much as the two combined. Its overall car market is far larger, however. Demand is furthermore skewed toward cheap, low-tech EV models like the Wuling brand’s best-selling Hongguang Mini, which retails as low as 28,800 RMB, or less than $4,500. 

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

Last week the Biden administration broke from predecessor Donald Trump to propose more stringent fuel efficiency targets for new cars to tackle climate change. As part of the plan, he put forward a target supported by combustion engine automakers GM, Ford, and Stellantis that would see every other new car sold in the United States an xEV by 2030. 

“Right now, China is leading the race. It’s one of the largest and fastest-growing electric vehicle markets,” Biden told the press last week. “The rest of the world is moving ahead; we’ve just got to step up.” 

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