The Tesla Model 3 has become the most popular battery electric car on British roads after a surge in sales as the race to dominate the car industry’s new era heats up.
The number of Model 3s on British roads overtook Nissan’s Leaf models during the first four months of 2021, according to calculations by Matthias Schmidt, an independent electric car analyst. There are now 39,900 Model 3s in the UK, compared with 38,900 Leafs, many of which are built at Nissan’s factory in Sunderland.
The Model 3 population remained slightly behind the Mitsubishi Outlander, the most popular plug-in hybrid, in April but the Tesla is expected to become the most popular car that can recharge from a plug within months.
Electric car sales are surging across the rich world as traditional carmakers face up to tightening carbon dioxide emission rules and the prospect of bans. New cars solely reliant on petrol and diesel engines will be banned in the UK from 2030, and hybrids that combine engine and battery will be stopped after 2035.
Sales of battery electric cars have continued to surge, albeit from a low base. By May 2021, 232,000 electric cars had been sold in the UK, a tenfold increase over five years, according to New Automotive, a thinktank. Battery electric cars accounted for 8.4% of total sales in May, according to figures published on Friday by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the UK car lobby group.
Traditional carmakers have offered a slew of new electric models, although Schmidt said the Tesla Model 3 would probably be the most popular UK model for a “relatively long period” because of its narrow product range. However, the Model Y crossover SUV could quickly become Tesla’s most popular UK version after 2022.
Globally, the US carmaker was the largest seller of electric cars in 2020 but two European carmakers – Germany’s Volkswagen and Stellantis, a product of the merger between Peugeot and Fiat Chrysler – sold more electric cars than Tesla in western Europe during the first three months of 2020, according to Schmidt’s research.
“Volkswagen Group is bringing an array of new products to market but the volumes are diluted across a relatively large number of models, from the ID.3, ID.4, ID.5 and the Audi Q4,” Schmidt said.
Ben Nelmes, the head of policy at New AutoMotive, said the Model 3 has been “a revolutionary car” because of its effect on other carmakers, forcing them to accelerate the introduction of their own electric models.
“The speed at which the Tesla Model 3 has gone from zero to market leader has shown other carmakers the opportunities in electric vehicles,” Nelmes said. “As a result, they are tearing up their strategies. Manufacturers are launching more electric models and driving the growth of the market.”
More than 100 plug-in car models, including battery electric and hybrid, are available to UK buyers, and the SMMT found that 35 more were scheduled for launch to market this year.
As the cost of making electric cars falls, other carmakers are hoping to create truly mass-market cars that are cheaper than the Model 3, which at a minimum of £40,990 is still out of the reach of many. Volkswagen is rapidly ramping up production of its small ID.3 family car, while BMW hopes that the electric Mini, built in Oxford, will repeat the success of its petrol version.
Despite the barrage of new electric models, the scale of the challenge of electrifying the UK’s fleet of 35m cars – and actually reducing CO2 emissions meaningfully – remains enormous. The number of Teslas on UK roads is only a tiny fraction of combustion engine models. In 2020 there were almost 1.6m Ford Fiestas in use in the UK, and 1.2m Ford Focuses, according to the SMMT.
An electric car model will have to garner as many as 500,000 UK sales to make the top 10. The market for secondhand electric cars is growing quickly as the first generation of models is passed on but it will take years for electrics to trickle through to people who will not or cannot afford a new car.
Carmakers also face a significant challenge in ramping up production of electric cars. Nissan on Friday revealed that it has had to delay the release of its Ariya electric SUV because of the global shortage of computer chips. Cars already use as many as 100 chips to control functions ranging from air conditioning to entertainment touchscreens, while electric cars are even more reliant on chips to control their batteries. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, this week said on Twitter that prices were “increasing due to major supply chain price pressure industry-wide”.
The industry is also concerned that efforts to electrify the fleet in the UK and elsewhere will also falter without more public investment in charging points across the country.
Mike Hawes, the SMMT’s chief executive, said that demand for electric cars was helping the market for new vehicles to recover from the latest lockdown but he and others in the industry have persistently warned that access to charging is a key issue.
“Electric cars need to be an option for everyone. Government can help through consistent, long-term fiscal incentives and creating the right conditions to enable much-needed investment in charging infrastructure, especially on-street public charging in residential areas,” Hawes said. “We need to make charging as easy as refuelling.”