UK 2021 auto sales still below pre-COVID levels, EV sales peak

New car registrations in the UK were steady year on year in 2021 at 1.65 million units, according to data released Jan. 6 by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

The annual volume was 28% below 2019’s pre-pandemic levels, due to a number of challenges, including the ongoing semiconductor shortage.

SMMT CEO Makes Hawes said it had been “another desperately disappointing year” for the industry as the pandemic continued to hinder recovery and manufacturers battled with tougher trading arrangements, accelerating technology shifts and the global semiconductor shortage, which was “decimating supply.”

“Despite the challenges, the undeniable bright spot is the growth in electric car uptake… The models are there, with two of every five new car models now able to be plugged in, drivers have the widest choice ever and industry is working hard to overcome COVID-related supply constraints,” Hawes said.

Plug-in vehicles reached a record high in 2021, accounting for more than one in six registrations, according to the SMMT, while pure battery electric vehicle sales rose to one in nine registrations, which was more than the combined volume registered over the 2016-2020 period.

The UK was the third-largest European market for new car registrations in 2021, the second-largest by volume for plug-in vehicles and the second-largest for BEVs, it said.

“It is only in ninth position overall, however, in Europe for BEVs by market share, underlining the progress still to be made, despite the UK having among the most ambitious targets of all major markets with the end of sale of new petrol and diesel cars scheduled for 2030,” SMMT said.

According to the data, BEV sales in 2021 totaled 190,727 units, up 76% year on year to take a 11.6% overall market share, which was up from 6.6% in 2020.

Plug-in hybrid vehicle sales also rose 71% on the year in 2021 to 114,554 units, with the market share at 7%, up from the previous 4.1%.

Sales of hybrid EV for the year also climbed 34% on the year to 147,246 units, a 8.9% share of total sales, up from 6.7% in 2020.

“Following billions of pounds of investment into new technology by manufacturers, more than 40% of models are now available as plug-ins,” SMMT said.

Meanwhile, gasoline cars continued to hold the largest market share at 46.3% or 762,103 units, although the share was down from 55.4% the previous year, while the volume also dropped 15.7% year on year, according to SMMT.

Diesel vehicles’ market share almost halved from 16% in 2020 to 8.2% in 2021, with 135,773 units sold in 2021, down 48% on the year, the data showed.

Risk to net zero ambitions

SMMT said that, while the UK government aimed to end all sales of internal combustion engine cars by 2030, this goal was also being hampered by cuts to purchase incentives and grants for home chargers, which was a risk to the motor industry’s and government’s net zero ambitions.

In March, the government updated its grant scheme for electric cars, vans and trucks, reducing grants for EVs priced under GBP35,000 from GBP3,000 ($4,060) to maximum GBP2,500.

It also removed grants for higher-priced vehicles, as these were “typically bought by drivers who can afford to switch without a subsidy from taxpayers.”

“Furthermore, the slow pace of growth in on-street public charging — where, on average, 16 cars potentially share one standard on-street charger — could put the brake on EV demand and undermine the UK’s attractiveness as a place to sell electric cars,” it said.

SMMT called for incentive extension and mandated charge point targets to accelerate consumer uptake and increase the industry’s competitiveness globally.

In November, the government did introduce new legislation to compel news homes and building, including supermarkets and workplaces, to install electric vehicle charge points from 2022, which would also apply to any building undergoing major renovations that will leave the site with over 10 parking spaces.

The new legislation is expected to result in up to 145,000 extra charge points being installed in England per year.

— Jacqueline Holman