‘Petrol cars will go the way of the steam engine’ — Jay Leno

Subhead: TV star and legendary car nut is resigned to the death of internal combustion, but are Irish buyers ready?

“There’s almost no reason to have a gas car unless you’re doing long-haul duty.” Not the words of a Green Party councillor, nor even a Tesla salesperson, but those of Jay Leno. The former host of the Tonight Show, and arguably the world’s most famous car nut, said this in conversation with CNBC this week. “Steam ran everything from 1800 to about 1911” said Leno, while promoting the upcoming new series of his classic car programme Jay Leno’s Garage. “Then internal combustion took over from 1911 to right about now. And I predict that a child born today probably has as much chance of driving in a gas car as people today have been driving a car with a stick shift.”

The petrol engine to go the way of the manual gear shift?

Leno may well be right, and the fact that he has a literal garage full of rare, fast, and wonderful cars (a collection purchased thanks to his once-massive TV hosting salary) means that his words may carry more weight with exactly the sort of car enthusiast who might have to have the keys to their V8-engined sports car pried from their cold, dead, hands.

Electric cars

Leno also singled out Tesla for praise, pointing out the oft-controversial car makers’ work in improving battery performance and vehicle range, as well as the fact that his own Tesla needs hardly any maintenance.

It’s true that the tide of electric cars now seems unstoppable (and arguably, given the current climate crisis, should be) but are Irish buyers really ready? A spike in electric car sales so far this year seems to suggest that , yes, we are, but the numbers of electric cars being sold right now is still tiny, compared to the bulk of the new car market.

Factors in going electric

Price is often cited as being the biggest barrier to EV adoption, but according to recent research, the price of electric vehicles (EVs) and the price consumers are prepared to pay has finally aligned. EV prices starting to settle at a starting point of around €33,000. Irish consumers are increasingly buying cars at that price level, so the expectation is that the combination of those two factors will give a serious kick of EV sales in the next 12 months.

The expectation is that EV sales could swell to between 3,000 and 5,000 sales next year. Not a huge number overall, in the context of a 100,000+ market for new cars, but a big increase on what’s been seen up till now.

It seems that desire and demand for electric cars has been building for some time. According to the most recent bi-annual Irish motoring report by classified sales site Carzone, some 61 per cent of Irish buyers have seen their running costs increase in the past 12 months, and that this is potentially pushing them to switch to an alternative-fuel vehicle for their next purchase. Insurance, fuel, and servicing costs are the most important concerns that these motorists have, and respondents listed lower running costs (45 per cent) and taking care of the environment (40 per cent) as their main reasons for considering an electric or hybrid car. Car makers still have some educating to do, though — one in four listed fear of the unknown as their main reason for not purchasing an electric car or hybrid.

(Lack of) awareness

Of those asked, 60 per cent said that they’re aware of their nearest electric car charging point, and 40 per cent said that it’s within 2km of their front door. That leaves a worrying 40 per cent who have no idea of local charging points, and a further 60 per cent who said that they were unaware of the €5,000 grant available from the SEAI for buying an electric car.

Equally worrying, one motorist in ten said that they don’t know the difference between an electric car, and a hybrid.

Price is key

However, buried in the detail of these reports is one salient fact — that the majority of us, 30 per cent, spent between €10,000 and €20,000 on our current car (that’s both new and used purchases. No current, new electric car has a price that dips below the €26,000 barrier and that's including the hefty €10,000 price cut that comes from both the rebate of Vehicle Registration Tax, and the purchase grant from the Sustainable energy Authority. With Government increasingly making noises about rolling back on incentives, rather than ramping them up, it could be that in the short term, electric car prices may actually go up. Those assuming that improvements in battery technology and mass production of batteries will bring those prices down may be left waiting, at best. Jaguar Land Rover’s chief executive, Dr Ralf Speth, has actually predicted that unit prices for batteries are actually going to rise in the short to medium term as demand for batteries vastly out-paces production capacity.

So, Jay might well be right. One day, and one day soon, a vehicle with a petrol engine may be as rare a sight on Irish roads as a low-slung sports car. But for that to happen, prices either have to come down, or Irish consumers’ buying power has to go up. A lot.