II was stopped for 10 minutes at a moderately quiet intersection near where I work in Cambridge. During that time I have seen six electric vehicles (EVs): three VW ID.3s, a Nissan Leaf, a white Nissan van and a Renault Zoe. Three years ago, if I had been standing in the same place, I would not have seen exactly any of those vehicles. And what brought to mind was Ernest Hemingway’s famous answer to the question: how do you go bankrupt? “Two ways,” he said. “Little by little, then suddenly.”
Something similar is happening in relation to the adoption of electric vehicles in Great Britain. The hockey stick graphic it is common in consumer technologies. We saw it in the early days of mobile phones, when text messages were ignored by adults as an inferior form of email. But when pay-per-use rates came along and teenagers were able to own phones, SMS usage suddenly skyrocketed. The arrival of the children represented a turning point, a moment when a group rapidly changes its behavior by widely adopting a previously rare practice.
Britain has yet to reach a tipping point with electric vehicles, so the first question is: when is that likely to happen? It has to be sooner than most people think, because the government has decreed that sales of new gasoline and diesel cars must cease by 2030. The second question, then, is: what will persuade, or force, people to trade in their cars?
The best place to look for answers is Norway, the only country to have passed the tipping point. Ten years ago, diesel cars accounted for 75% of new sales there. today they make up only 2.3%. Two-thirds of all new cars sold there in 2021 were electric vehicles and predictions are that proportion will reach 80% this year. Your old internal combustion engine seems destined for extinction in that particular part of the frozen north.
How did Norway do it? Partly by luck: it’s a small country (population 5.5 million) that has plentiful supplies of hydropower and, ironically, huge reserves of fossil fuels, the proceeds of which are put into a sovereign wealth fund and can be invested in anything kind of better ideas than burning them. The second factor was public opinion: people have been campaigning for electric vehicles in Norway since the 1990s, when a famous pop star and environmentalist put an electric motor in a Fiat Panda and drove it continuously through unpaid motorway tolls until the resulting publicity made electrification a public issue.
But the third factor, and the most important, was government action. Norway, like all Scandinavian democracies, is a high-tax society, and taxes on imported cars were high: 25% VAT and a hefty registration fee. Both were exempted from electric vehicles. Highway tolls were eliminated for electric vehicles in 1997, city parking became free for electric vehicles in 1999, and access to bus lanes was granted in 2005. The country installed 16,000 public charging stations ( including 3,300 fast chargers). In the end, if you were a Norwegian contemplating buying a new car, going electric became a no-brainer. And Norway is on track to become an electric-only society by 2025.
This is how you do it. All you need is lots of money, a political system that responds to public opinion, and a government that knows what it’s doing. That’s why it would be unwise to bet that the UK will meet its deadline to become an electric-only society in 2030, a failure that would have pleased Douglas Adams (of blessed memory). “I love deadlines,” he once said, “I love the hissing noise they make as they go by.” And the best thing about electric vehicles is that they don’t growl, they just hum.
what i’ve been reading
keep a cool head
Elizabeth M Renieris calls for informed skepticism towards the hype surrounding Web3 in an essay for the Center for Innovation in International Governanceand your ideas are a good example.
Dimitar Georgiev, author of Modernization of Leninismhas written an excellent essay on noema magazine about Xi Jinping’s bet that technology will allow him to avoid the fate of the totalitarians of the past.
Putin makes his move
There is a remarkable long blog post by historian Adam Tooze in his Substack on what is likely to happen in Ukraine.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism