Times columnist admits anti-EV screed was for the clicks
UK media outlet gets record engagement. At the same time, non-fleet demand is a potential headache
Giles Coren, columnist for UK newspaper The Times, attracted a lot of attention in January for an article he wrote with headline, “Why I’ve pulled the plug on my electric car”. But a fellow journalist has now revealed Coren admits he wrote the piece entirely as clickbait.
That is perhaps no great surprise to anyone who read the article. It was performative outrage.
But it comes at a time when concerns are beginning to grow about EV demand growth among private new buyers, rather than fleet customers, in the UK. Anti-EV content written on disingenuous grounds becomes a significant issue if it is actively turning buyers away.
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Coren’s piece got 7,000 comments, the most The Times has ever received on a single article, respected UK motoring journalist Quentin Willson told a launch event for his new #StopBurningStuff initiative to counter anti-EV myths in London on Tuesday. And that was the intention all along.
“He said to me, ‘Look, Quentin, the reason why we do these stories in The Times about electric cars is they get so much attention, so many comments and so many clicks.’
“And that perhaps gets us nearer to the reason why we have this backdrop of anti-EV hysteria is that it is newspapers, in a time of falling advertising, getting clicks,” Wilson continues. And, to further highlight Coren’s hypocrisy, Wilson reveals that the columnist has replaced his Jaguar I-Pace — not with walking, as he suggested in his article, or going back to horses as he suggested in a follow-up interview for a documentary on UK state broadcaster the BBC — but in fact a BMW i3 EV.
Private buyer slowdown
All good knockabout stuff. But there is a serious underlying point. EV penetration of UK new car sales continues to grow — August saw a new monthly high of 20.1pc BEV sales, according to industry body the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).
But the SMMT notes that, while the shift to BEVs in the UK was originally driven by private consumers, they have since been overtaken by fleets and business buyers. Following 2022’s removal of the plug-in car grant — leaving the UK as the only major European market with no consumer EV incentives yet the most ambitious transition timeline, the SMMT notes — sales to private buyers have fallen from more than one in three to less than one in four.
“A comprehensive package of measures would encourage households across the UK to go electric now,” says SMMT CEO Mike Hawes, reflecting that the lack of private customer incentive is an issue. And his point is echoed by Andy Palmer, former CEO of UK OEM Aston Martin and an influential commentator on the country’s auto industry.
“The government’s recent decision to simultaneously promote early adoption of electrified cars by banning new ICE sales, while also scrapping almost all of the remaining subsidies for electric cars and charging infrastructure, has been hugely controversial and myopic,” he wrote in a Tuesday op-ed in London business newspaper City AM. He contrasts the US’ Inflation Reduction Act as a “far cry from the UK’s approach of pulling the plug on consumer grants for electric vehicles and home chargers and to let the market decide the cost of electric cars”.
And he accuses the government of “shirking away from its leadership responsibility to provide the incentives and support to finance” initiatives for which it is regulating, such as phasing down ICE vehicle production through the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate.
“As we accelerate towards a greener future, let us ensure that the journey is one that everyone can afford to take — not just the wealthy,” Palmer demands. But while cost and subsidy is one thing, anti-EV propaganda can be another in terms of damaging demand.
“Fleet sales are great, but private sales are not. And there is a lack of confidence in electric cars from private buyers,” warns Willson.
The other key plank in terms of private adoption is the used car market, given that is where a majority of non-fleet buyers procure their vehicles. Coren signed off his notorious article offering his Jaguar into the used car pool.
“We need [fleet] incentives to stay to keep fleets buying the vehicles — because we are the ones that buy new vehicles whenever there is an economic crisis,” Lorna McAtear, head of fleet at the UK’s National Grid transmission system operator, told the #StopBurningStuff launch.
“Actually, the more we buy, the more we put into the second-hand market. As we fill up that second-hand market, then everybody else can buy vehicles in the same way, at the same price as they buy them now.”
One positive note about the used market is receding fears over second-hand EV batteries. In consumer confidence terms, shortened battery life is “really only a concern” if someone been drinking anti-EV “Kool-Aid”, suggests Euan McTurk, consultant battery electrochemist at Plug Life Consulting.
Indeed, to some extent, EVs have been a victim of their own success in terms of the UK used car market. “I have extended all of my cars, because my drivers wanted to keep them for longer,” says McAtear, acknowledging that “it is really quite hard to put them into the second-hand market, it is going to take time”.