But the decision still sends a confusing message from Sunak’s government, particularly for carmakers who on average take six-to-seven years to develop new vehicles, and need time to invest in new factories and train workers, as well as make the cars themselves.
For these manufacturers, certainty is key to their business. If they gear up to produce an all-electric fleet and suddenly buyers still want ICE vehicles and they haven’t produced enough, they will have stockpiles of unwanted cars which may have to be sold at a loss.
However, the good news is the switch to electric vehicles (EVs) is already well under way in the UK. Research suggests it may now be unstoppable – regardless of what the government does.
How new technologies replace old ones
Any new technology follows a cycle of adoption that is difficult for government intervention to interrupt. The exception is for fast-acting bans, which attempt to immediately remove products deemed dangerous or harmful from a market. A successful example is the UK’s ban on highly realistic imitation firearms.
The rate at which new technologies are adopted can usually be mapped on to fairly predictable trajectories. American sociologist Everett Rogers plotted it on an S-shaped curve he called the diffusion of innovations. We can see that this shape holds true for smartphones.
A look at the adoption of EVs over time reveals the UK is in a rapid ramping-up phase that will naturally deliver an almost complete switch to EVs for every new car purchase by the 2030s, regardless of legislation. Already, we have gone from EVs having a less than 0.5% market share in 2016 to over 20% in 2023. This trend mirrors that of smartphones, which went from a few million when the iPhone was released to almost complete market penetration in under a decade – and all without a ban on non-smartphones.