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UK Auto Market Struggling But Full Electrics Still Growing

The UK saw plugin electric vehicles take 20.2% share of the auto market in August, up from 18.3% year on year. Full electrics saw a decent growth in share whilst plugin hybrids lost share, weighing on the combined plugin result. Overall auto volumes were at 68,858 units, a slight YoY improvement, though still 18.8% down from pre-2020 seasonal norms. The BMW brand took the highest share of full electric sales in the month.

August’s combined plugin result of 20.2% comprised 14.5% full electrics (BEVs), and 5.6% plugin hybrids (PHEVs). This compares to respective shares of 10.9%, and 7.4%, a year ago.

In terms of unit volumes, BEV sales grew over 35% YoY to 10,006 units. PHEVs, on the other hand, lost 23.1% volume YoY, to just 3,884 units. Similar weighting trends between the two classes of plugins are happening in other European markets.

Diesel-only vehicles lost just over 10% sales volume YoY, meanwhile petrol-only powertrains were up by around 7% in volume. Plugless hybrids, including mild hybrids, lost just over 10% volume YoY.

UK Best Selling BEV Brands

As usual, we have BEV brand share data from New Automotive based on records of the UK vehicle licensing agency (DVLA). Although the data exclude registrations of vehicles with custom license plates, the proportions should fairly represent the overall BEV brand share of new sales.

In August we see that the BMW brand’s BEVs took the top spot in share of new registrations, with 11.4%, ahead of Tesla and Volkswagen brands.

BMW’s step up into the lead came partly from a slight growth in delivery volumes compared to its average over recent months, but more-so from the under performance of its rivals, both Volkswagen, and Tesla, (and others) compared to their recent volumes.

Obviously one month in isolation doesn’t necessarily tell us much, so let’s take a step back and look at the trailing 3 month results across brands:

Compared to the result 3 months ago, Tesla still leads the recent rankings, on the strength of its large June delivery push, a long way ahead of a packed bunch of trailing brands, Hyundai, Kia and Volkswagen.

Hyundai’s 2nd spot represents a strong improvement from 5th in the March-to-May period. Here’s a summary of the significant climbers compared to the brand rankings from 3 months ago:

Others lost position compared to three months ago:

Most other brands in the top 20 zone only changed rank by one or two spots, if at all.

Finally, let’s step back again and look at the relative performance of the different auto manufacturing groups, in terms of UK BEV market share.

Compared to the result 3 months previously, Tesla has dropped two places from 1st to 3rd, allowing previous runners up, Volkswagen Group and Hyundai Motor Group to each step up one spot to 1st and 2nd, respectively. Volkswagen Group now has a decisive lead, well ahead of Hyundai Motor Group.

The 4th and 5th spots remained the same, still occupied by Stellantis and BMW Group, though with Stellantis a long way ahead. Outside the top 5, Renault–Nissan stepped up from 8th to 6th, swapping places with Mercedes Group. SAIC, owners of the MG brand, stayed put in 7th spot.

Outlook

The auto market in the UK, and across Europe, is reflective of the overall economy, and things are not looking great right now. The latest inflation data (July) puts the UK at a 10.1% annual rate, up from 2% YoY, which is the highest rate in 41 years.

Much of this is driven by energy price inflation (and supply shortages), with gas being in the range 240 to 640 sterling pence per therm over the past two months, compared to 100 to 110 pence range, YoY. Likewise electricity has been in the range of £260 to £560 / MWh over the past two months from a steady £40, YoY.

As I mentioned in my France report, across many parts of Europe, at times of crisis there is historical precedent for government to subsidise energy prices for households, to avoid poverty and social unrest. However, if energy supply is inherently limited, allowing hoseholds to consume close to their habitual volumes obviously entails that someone else has to go short, and/or pay even more elevated prices — and in the UK, these are the commercial energy users.

A well known current example is that UK pubs are seeing energy bills up at least 300% to 400% compared to normal levels (and over 500% in some cases). Because of this, 70% of UK pubs currently do not expect to be able to remain economically viable over the coming winter.

Obviously local pubs are a relatable example of small businesses, but the same energy prices are affecting all other commercial users also, and putting small and medium companies under immense financial pressure. Because “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul” isn’t really a solution, the UK government is now talking about trying to protect both households and businesses, and implement an across-the-board freeze on energy bills.

Since energy prices are however fundamentally a reflection of limited supply (rather than higher-than-normal demand), price caps and subsidies by themselves will not necessarily solve the underlying energy shortage problems.

As a result of energy inflation, inflation more generally, and other economic headwinds, forecasters are now seeing recession looming in the UK, which will inevitably dampen consumer spending and put further brakes on the new auto sales.

Even with capped electricity prices, the economic advantage of driving electric vs combustion fuel is no longer as large as it was, but if cheap overnight tariffs can still be found (UK consumers please weigh in on this below), the long term economics is still in favour of plugins. At least, the economic calculus for those who can still afford a new car.

This should therefore mean that plugins still see decent relative demand in the months ahead — i.e. share of new sales — even if the overall volume of auto sales slows down dramatically. We will have to wait and see.

UK auto industry association the SMMT have recently said “Spiralling energy costs and inflation on top of sustained supply chain challenges are piling even more pressure on the automotive industry’s post-pandemic recovery, and we urgently need the new Prime Minister to tackle these challenges and restore confidence and sustainable growth.”

What are your thoughts on the UK’s consumer economy and the outlook for the auto market in the coming months? Will plugins continue to steadily increase their share? Please jump into the comments section below to share your perspective.

 
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Max is an anthropologist, social theorist and international political economist, trying to ask questions and encourage critical thinking about social and environmental justice, sustainability and the human condition. He has lived and worked in Europe and Asia, and is currently based in Barcelona. Find Max's book on social theory, follow Max on twitter @Dr_Maximilian and at MaximilianHolland.com, or contact him via LinkedIn.

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