The UK new car market declined -7.3% in the first month of 2020, according to figures published today by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). 149,279 vehicles left showrooms in January, as continued confusion surrounding diesel and clean air zones and ongoing weak consumer and business confidence continue to affect demand.
Continuing low consumer demand was a key driver behind the decline, with registrations by private buyers down -13.9%, while fleet registrations also fell but by a less significant -2.2%. Registrations of new diesel cars fell for the 34th month, by -36.0% to record the weakest performance since 2000 and just 19.8% share of the market, while petrol demand also declined, by -9.5%.
Alternatively fuelled cars, however, continued to grow in popularity. Hybrid electric cars (HEVs) increased by +20.6%, with 8,941 hitting British roads, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) demand more than doubled, up +111.1% to 4,788 units. Battery electric vehicle (BEV) registrations, meanwhile, continued to surge, up 203.9% to 4,054 units and a 2.7% market share. Combined, alternatively fuelled vehicle registrations reached 11.9% of the market in January – the highest on record, up from 6.8% in the same month last year.
The figures come a day after government announced its ambition to end the sale of all vehicles with an internal combustion engine, including HEVs and PHEVs, by 2035. Hybrids and plug-in hybrids are zero emission capable, bringing significant environmental benefits today and are an important stepping stone in helping motorists make the switch to a zero emission vehicle. These vehicles, alongside the latest low emission petrols and diesels, have a vital role to play in the transition to zero emission transport and an outright ban will hamper innovation and hold back progress. Fleet renewal remains the quickest way to address environmental concerns and it is important that consumers feel confident in purchasing these latest technologies if we are to address environmental concerns immediately.
For the UK market to stand any chance of meeting the extremely challenging 2035 goal, an extensive package of government support is vital. These measures must support a smooth and sustainable transition for industry and consumers, whatever their income or driving needs. Industry continues to call for government to have a long-term commitment to the Plug-in Car Grant – which is currently set to expire in March – and that it should be extended to cover all Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs), whether plug-in hybrid, full battery electric or hydrogen-fuelled. The clear evidence from other European markets of the negative consequences of removing incentives before the market is ready should be a key consideration.
Government must also commit to a massive and urgent uplift in public EV charging infrastructure, ensuring an adequate mix of the right chargers in the right places is deployed in a coordinated fashion throughout the country.
To encourage the adoption of electric vehicles, consumers must find charging as easy as, if not easier than, refuelling.