Figures show that only 106 electric cars were bought in 2011 third quarter through 'plugged-in car grant' scheme.
Hopes that £5,000 government grants would make 2011 "remembered as the year the electric car took off" have been dashed with the release of new figures showing uptake of the greener cars has sputtered out.
Only 106 electric cars were bought in the third quarter of 2011 through the "plugged-in car grant" scheme, launched in January. It marks a significant slump in demand on already sluggish-take-up, with 465 cars registered through the scheme in Q1 and 215 in Q2.
However, trade body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) pointed out that all electric car registrations – both inside and out of the grant scheme – have gone from 167 in 2010 to 940 in 2011.
Electric car campaigners and industry had hoped this would be the year the year the cars – billed as a clean low carbon alternative to conventional petrol and diesel models – made a breakthrough. Former transport secretary Phillip Hammond said in January: "Government action to support affordable vehicles and more local charging points means we are on the threshold of an exciting green revolution – 2011 could be remembered as the year the electric car took off."
The number of electric vehicles in the UK stands at just 1,107, a tiny chunk of the country's 28.5m cars. But the government had hoped to incentivise take-up with the launch of grants of up to £5,000, preserving the grant during last summer's cuts and putting aside £43m, or enough for 8,600 cars, until March 2012. The scheme is due to be reviewed in January.
A paucity of electric car models could be to blame for the slow uptake, with drivers currently only having a choice of five models eligible for the grant, including the well-reviewed Nissan Leaf. Upfront prices are also relatively high – the Leaf costs £25,990 even accounting for the £5,000 grant – though fuel costs are significantly lower.
Transport minister, Norman Baker, blamed a lack of choice for consumers: "It is nonsense to say the market has 'sputtered out'. The availability of qualifying cars, rather than the public appetite for them is part of the problem. I have every confidence that that will change in the next few months and we will begin to see sales of ultra-low carbon cars improve."
Other high profile models, including the extended range Vauxhall Ampera, family size Renault Fluence ZE and plug-in version of the popular Toyota Prius, are not due to on sale until next year.
Marc Rinkel, senior analyst on EMEA Powertrain Forecasting at IHS Automotive, said a lack of infrastructure and the economic climate were likely to blame: "Despite the £5,000 incentive, it's still early days for electric vehicles. Yes, the sluggish take-up has to do with the lack of charging points and a very limited product range.
"In addition, compared to the beginning of 2011, consumer confidence has been further downgraded with the increasing risk of another economic downturn. This is not helping risk-taking for new and expensive technology and it is certainly another explanation behind the slumping demand."
Green campaigners called for more charging points for electric vehicles, and said energy generation should be "decarbonised" to make the cars lower carbon. Tony Bosworth, the Friends of the Earth transport campaigner, said: "In the medium term most motorists will still buy diesel and petrol cars, so making these [conventional] vehicles run on less fuel must be the top priority. But electric cars powered by clean energy are one of the key ways to get ourselves off the fossil fuel hook – and away from pricey petrol – in the long run.
"The government must press on with building a 21st century car fleet by providing grants and investing in a UK-wide network of charging points to encourage drivers to ditch petrol for electrons."
The figures come as a new documentary, Revenge of the Electric Car, opens in the US on Friday, charting the rapid rise in popularity of electric cars in the US and the success of the Chevy Volt.