Who remembers those simpler, happier days when the consumer was king? Retail outlets used to offer goods for sale and customers would just choose the stuff they liked.
Magically, the popular things would be restocked while items that failed to shift were not reordered, keeping the selection of goods for sale relevant to consumer trends. In those few areas where a state intermediary would order items on behalf of consumers – that shiny toilet paper that featured in school lavatories come to mind – one couldn’t help but notice that they tended to get it wrong. This is how Western capitalism used to work, without often badgering or “nudging” consumers in particular, state-approved directions.
Not any more. These days the panjandrum intermediaries are usually in the driving seat, almost literally when it comes to sales of electric vehicles (EVs). Battery-powered vehicles have been flying out of showrooms thanks in large part to the fleet and company car sectors; parts of the market where the end users are not the folk who do the buying. Generous tax breaks have led to middle managers and delivery men up and down the land being presented with EVs when the time has come for them to get new wheels.
But recent sales figures show that it is a different story when it comes to private buyers. In the first half of this year just 37,000 battery-powered vehicles were sold to them, compared to 41,800 in the first half of last year. An astonishing 75 per cent of new registrations is now made up by fleets and business owners. Electric cars are in danger of becoming the school loo paper of the modern age: better than nothing if you are given them for free or with discounts, but not what you would go for if the choice was yours.
This comes as no surprise to me. Down our street, where there is no off-road parking, two eco-friendly households have had electric vehicles which have involved them having to drape a power cable across the pavement under one of those three-sided anti-trip guards. They have both recently traded them in for petrol cars. Meanwhile, a close relative of mine drives a swanky EV but it is a company car. He pines for his old petrol BMW and bemoans the amount of aggravation involved in seeking-out recharging opportunities if he finds himself far from home.
No wonder, then, that parts of the motor trade are starting to panic, given that they’re working to a state deadline of no sales of petrol or diesel vehicles from 2030. Some executives are already talking about better “incentives” – in other words, big tax breaks and subsidies. Yet as the financial commentator Merryn Somerset Webb put it on social media today: “Better cars don’t need tax incentives.”
I can’t be the only motorist who is delighted with his petrol car – bought second hand and now five years old – and immensely sceptical about being dragooned down the EV road. As things currently stand, I will either keep it running as long as possible or aim to upgrade to a newer petrol vehicle some time around 2029.
Not even price-cutting by EV manufacturers seems to be sparking the interest of private buyers. Most of us seem to have decided to wait and keep tabs on how the public charging network develops, whether the range of EVs on a single journey improves much further and a host of other practical considerations before taking the plunge. And no amount of net zero bossiness either by politicians or car salesmen is likely to change our minds any time soon.
Perhaps the only thing that will is if they start closing down the petrol stations. In our modern political culture, when the carrots aren’t working it is a reasonable bet that the sticks will not be long delayed.