9 minute read 9 Apr 2021
Silver electric car at charging station

How electric vehicles could lead the post-pandemic charge

Authors
John Simlett

EY Global Future of Mobility Leader

All things mobility. Innovative thinker. Entrepreneurial mindset. Strategic partner and consultant for the auto and transport industries.

Gaurav Batra

EY Global Advanced Manufacturing & Mobility Analyst Leader

Passionate about mobility disruption. Helping share the auto industry narrative in this disruptive landscape.

9 minute read 9 Apr 2021

Consumers are shunning shared and public transport, and car sales in major markets have plummeted.

Three questions to ask
  • What will happen when the pandemic threat has lessened, and we become more mobile again?
  • Will citizens refocus their priorities on sustainability, choosing which trips to take or forgo as they resume their mostly digital lifestyles?
  • Or will people simply return to their old mobility habits?

During the pandemic, the world stopped moving. Journeys shrank as leisure travel stopped, and work commutes became a thing of the past.

The findings from our new Mobility Lens Consumer Index show just how dramatic the impact has been. Our first article highlighted key changes in behavior, notably that consumers are avoiding journeys that they no longer need to take. Overall the number of journeys has dropped by 49%, with work travel showing the biggest decline at 61%.

The consequences for the mobility industry have, unsurprisingly, been profound. Presented with a world in which both the need and willingness to travel are greatly constrained, consumers aren’t utilizing shared and public transport like they used to, and car sales in major markets have taken a nosedive. New car registrations in Germany — Europe’s largest market — dropped by 35% in the first half of 2020. In Spain and the UK, the fall was even greater — 51% and 49%, respectively.

All of this has presented unprecedented challenges to an auto retail market already in the throes of an historic (and increasingly government-mandated) shift away from the internal combustion engine (ICE) to more sustainable hybrid and fully electric vehicles. But as hopes for an effective COVID-19 vaccine may have become true, the big question for the sector is: what will happen as the world once again becomes more mobile?

Will we see a revolutionary reset based on new priorities around sustainability, reduced congestion, increasingly digital lifestyles and conscious consumption of mobility? Or an incremental return to previous mobility patterns and modal choices?

We see glimpses of an alternative, digitally forward and lower-carbon future. Less travel for work, leisure and domestic purposes — and rising use of digital substitutes such as video conferencing, streamed entertainment and delivery services — means fewer journeys and lower emissions.

At the same time as avoiding non-essential travel, consumers keen to minimize their risk of infection are shifting to lower-risk modes of transport. The car has become a safe space, the de facto COVID-19-friendly choice for those journeys that are still being made, which is becoming an increasingly important driver of purchasing decisions.

Nineteen percent of car owners say they intend to buy an additional car in the next three months because of COVID-19. But perhaps even more significantly, COVID-19 is also creating a new generation of first-time-buyers — 32% of non-car owners say they will purchase one in the next 6 months. In both cases, around half of those intending to buy are millennials, a cohort that has previously been much less interested in car ownership than their parents.

A COVID-19-driven boom in ICE sales would be bad news for global warming, as well as derailing production planning in an industry where the sun is clearly setting on fossil fuel technology. Currently the electric vehicle (EV) market is poised for growth, on the back of increasingly stringent regulatory norms across all markets, investment in charging infrastructure and the ambitious electrification targets of automakers themselves. The EY Mobility Lens Forecaster suggests that EV sales are expected to exceed 17 million units in total for the US, China and EU (including the UK), growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22% until 2030.

If those projections are to become reality, consumers must be encouraged to shift to more sustainable vehicles through choice.

This long-hoped-for change might be happening now, because the post-COVID-19 consumer has substantially better intentions when it comes to making improved and greener car choices than their pre-COVID-19 selves. Around 15% of the car owners surveyed were currently driving a non-ICE vehicle, and when asked about additional or replacement vehicles, 30% of both owners and non-owners stated they would prefer to make a non-ICE purchase.

Disruptive new EV manufacturing entrants have proved that with the right buying and ownership experience EVs can win market share, at least as niche purchases. However, in the mainstream market the issues that have always dogged EV sales still loom large in consumers’ minds. Without a more customer-focused approach to costs, access to charging infrastructure and frustrations with traditional models of car buying and ownership, EV sales could remain stuck in the slow lane for a while yet.

Perth city skyline in the sideview mirror of a car
(Chapter breaker)
1

Chapter 1

The five mobility “tribes”

What insights can be gleaned from consumer behavior during the pandemic that might help EV sales?

At a global level it seems feasible to create this shift, but what granular insights can be gleaned from consumer behavior during the pandemic that might help EV sales take off and achieve their iconic moment of exponential growth?

To gain this more detailed understanding of behavior and the drivers of choice, we have identified five characteristic consumer mobility “tribes.”

Same problem, different solutions

What can these tribes tell us about consumer mobility habits during the pandemic, and their likely future behavior? One striking finding is that similar stimuli can result in divergent outcomes, as a closer look at two tribes — expedient movers (EMs) and municipal passengers (MPs) — demonstrates.

These two groups appear to have much in common — pre-COVID-19 they both had moderate to high mobility needs, live in urban areas with plenty of transport options and the majority spent more than 5 hours traveling per week.

But despite common needs and access to broadly the same transport options, they choose very different mobility solutions.

EMs’ mode of choice is the car: the majority (72%) are car owners, and 40% use their cars more than 3 times a week. Only 13% use public transportation more than 3 times a week.

MPs by contrast default to public transport, with 60% using it more than 3 times a week and only 15% using their cars with the same frequency. Less than a third (30%) currently own a car.

Electric vehicle logo on the wall of a parking space
(Chapter breaker)
2

Chapter 2

The “green gap”

The pandemic has not raised environmental sensitivity around transport as much as one might expect.

Family commitments, convenience and finances seem to play a greater role in explaining these contrasts than a desire to adopt a greener lifestyle. Positive feelings about environmental well-being are consistent but quite low across both groups, at 37% and 42%, respectively. Nor has environmental sensitivity around transport choices increased as much as one might expect due to the pandemic, up only 6% in each case. In fact, we can see that choice is practically motivated for both groups.

This seems at odds with broader prevailing social attitudes around climate change and suggests a “green gap” in mobility: the consumer appears to be unconvinced that the sustainability of their individual choices can actually make a difference.

Willing to purchase

Despite their widely differing attitudes, demographics and transport choices, both our target tribes represent significant opportunities in terms of their car buying intentions. Over 20% of existing car owners in both categories say they intend to change their car in the next 3 months, while 44% of non-car-owning EMs and 20% of MPs intend to buy a car in the next 6 months.

The stick of government regulation has made greener EVs more available, and consumers’ intention to “buy green” is rising. The challenge for the industry is to convert those good intentions into hard sales — consumers may need more in the way of carrots before they actually buy EVs in large enough numbers.

Make the right choice

Even pre-COVID-19, both government and industry had pinned their colors to the mast of a low-carbon future for transport based on a mandated transition to more sustainable mobility. But consumer behavior post-COVID-19 has the potential to severely restrict their room for maneuver: public and shared mobility options have taken a huge hit both financially and in terms of perceived safety and hygiene factors and will likely be slow to return to previous levels of usage. Meanwhile, consumers show few signs of falling out of love with the car, to which the perennial appeals of convenience, comfort and personal space can now be added the additional factor of low infection risk.

Making the transition will become even more dependent than ever on consumers making the “right” climate-friendly choice of vehicle, and there is work to do here. On the one hand, emissions-based regulation has improved the availability of non-ICE vehicles, and consumer intentions to buy them are increasingly good. On the other, sustainability and environmental impact still play second fiddle to hygiene, convenience, comfort and cost in mobility decisions.

Tackling the “green gap”

The lesson of the digital marketplace is that advocacy wins over subsidy. Digital consumers have proved to be more susceptible to the power of owner/advocates than to either the influence of professional salespeople or to conventional discounting. When a new iteration of a smartphone rolls out, it has no need for a discounted price because its users are evangelists who drive sales to their peers.

Subsidies by contrast are uneconomic in the long term and create neither social cachet for the buyer nor a virtuous circle of rising sales and falling costs for the provider. And yet incentives elsewhere in the EV market to date have largely consisted of subsidy — whether from manufacturer or government — rather than advocacy.

Our analysis suggests a greater role for advocacy in incentivizing more mainstream EV sales. Buyers looking for reassurance that they are making a practical as well as responsible purchase may be more readily swayed by the views of a friend who already owns such a car than by a manufacturer or car salesperson. They are also more likely to take on board the idea of EVs as a badge of socially responsible status if it comes to them through their own personal networks rather than the traditional channels. 

The diversity of consumer behavior revealed in our data also requires manufacturers to respond by providing an equally diverse range of customer experiences around EVs. Collaboration with utility providers to build in energy costs, for example, with infrastructure players to provide universal access to multiple charging networks, or with micromobility providers and even public transport networks to offer complete, convenient and cost-effective multi-modal mobility packages and potentially multi-mobility hubs, to meet the emerging mobility needs of the consumer.

Summary

We are at the edge of a potential tipping point in electric vehicle sales. But many consumers are hesitating at the brink — the challenge now is to devise new ways to change attitudes, new ways to buy, own, and use electric vehicles and novel incentives that will persuade as many as possible to take the plunge.

About this article

Authors
John Simlett

EY Global Future of Mobility Leader

All things mobility. Innovative thinker. Entrepreneurial mindset. Strategic partner and consultant for the auto and transport industries.

Gaurav Batra

EY Global Advanced Manufacturing & Mobility Analyst Leader

Passionate about mobility disruption. Helping share the auto industry narrative in this disruptive landscape.