Peak Car – Different Electric Vehicles Needed

01 Sep 2011 • by Natalie Aster

We all know about peak oil but peak car has arrived in many respects. Thus although we shall enjoy two decades of rapidly rising sales of electric cars, starting with the decade of the hybrid, the ceiling of the number of cars needed overall  is going to drop. In many countries, we have already reached both peak car ownership and peak per-person car travel, though of course the emerging countries are compensating for this temporarily.  Nonetheless, too many of them have citizens living in high rise buildings among congested streets with almost no place for a car. Indeed, the University of California at Berkeley has established that rising wealth does not lead to more car use beyond $30,000 annual income even in countries with plenty of space – it peaks. Something similar is highly likely to happen in emerging economies.

In 2004, the USA, UK, Germany, France, Australia and Sweden saw the start of a decline in the number of kilometers the average person travelled in a car. In the UK, per-person car travel is down 5% since 2004 and car travel continues to drop in every city of Australia. There are a large number of reasons for this.


Japan, with the world’s oldest population, was first to see peak car in the 1990s. Populations are greying and pensioners do not drive to work. In countries such as the USA, healthcare costs in old age can be crippling, leaving minimal disposable income. One of the electric vehicle (EV) positives coming from this is continued recession-proof sales of mobility vehicles for the disabled that go in shops and down the roads and sidewalks. That growing number of elderly people are more likely to have a pure electric mobility scooter or power chair rather than a car. These vehicles are enjoying their second decade of strong increase in sales.

The IDTechEx report “Electric Vehicles 2011-2021” forecasts the growth of this market and all the other EV markets. It forecasts 1.3 million mobility vehicles for the elderly or obese and those registered as disabled, rising to 3.1 million in 2022. This is no “hockey stick”. It is a smooth projection of past growth driven by both increasing age and increasing obesity.

For younger adults, the Light Electric Vehicle (LEV) partly replaces cars nowadays but so does working from home. You can beat the traffic jams and save money with e-bikes (with throttle) and pedal-assisted bikes. The IDTechEx report “Light Electric Vehicles 2011-2021” forecasts a $5.9 billion global market for these as early as 2015 at ex-factory prices with certain up-market versions gaining share, such as pure electric scooters, where your feet are on a platform. A large market for hybrid electric motorcycles is also on the way.

Leisure lifestyles

The largest fall in car use in the USA is from people under 35 years old. 17 year olds with driving licenses have dropped from 75% to 50% or so since 1998. US citizens in their 20s no longer drive more than average – they drive less. More of them seek inner city apartments, shop on-line, telecommute and live in walkable neighbourhoods near public transport. And of course they increasingly use social media instead of meeting people. In the USA, the decline is greatest outside the city centres – it is not all about gridlock. The University of West England has been tracking a similar trend in the UK where the young are also creating peak car. Bike use is rising, encouraged by plenty of bikes to hire from the street. Public transport improves.

Car addiction is being broken as public transport improves – including the quieter, smoother electric buses and taxis analysed in the IDTechEx report, “Electric Buses and Taxis 2011-2021”. For example, as bus fleets are replaced, the favoured hybrid electric bus largely takes over with this report noting that the ten largest cities in the USA, China and Europe together need 33,000 electric buses even before any growth in fleets. Add to that the 3000 school buses in the USA and much else besides.


We are now in the age of the 100 km traffic jam, increasingly inadequate provision of parking and service stations, congestion charging and vehicles banned from city centres. To encourage use of the new subway, Beijing has capped car license issuance at 20,000 per month. In countries such as China, India and the Philippines, it is physically impossible to have a large percentage of the population driving cars.


Fuel costs and rising car taxes and insurance premiums sit awkwardly with what is often no growth in disposable income. Public transport and more affordable personal transport such as e-bikes take over. One in every two bikes sold in the Netherlands are now electric, the detail being in the IDTechEx report, “Light Electric Vehicles 2011-2021”.

Car life

Car life has trebled from 20 years ago. This, and the recession, contributed to US car sales plummeting from 11 million in 1985 to 5.5 million in 2009. People can and do keep cars much longer if times are hard and the subsequent increase in US car sales was a measure of catch up, not a return to long term growth. Because batteries for electric cars, particularly pure electric cars, are extremely expensive, they may go against the trend with people scrapping the car rather than buy a new battery after 5-10 years. If this happens, expect a backlash from environmentalists – and that includes governments these days, eager to find an excuse to abandon subsidies in order to balance their books.

Cars are inefficient

Whether conventional or electric, cars use about five times more fuel per passenger kilometer than electric bikes or, at the other extreme, large buses. This gap is widening as some bikes carry two people and buses fill up. Indeed, in the USA, the average car journey carries only 1.7 people nowadays, 0.5 people down on 1970.

Cost per person per 100 kilometers for different types of vehicle

Source IDTechEx report, “Electric Vehicles 2011-2021

Forecasts change

Although the Brookings Institution in Washington DC recognised much of this in a report, “The Road…Less Traveled” in 2008, setbacks not anticipated such as the global recession, the Japanese tsunami and the possibility of another recession have the effect of accelerating changes, including these ones. Thus IDTechEx has had to recognise that the electric car industry has effectively lost a year, compounded by late launches of the most important new hybrid and pure electric cars and inability to meet demand. However, those electric e-bikes, taxis, vehicles for the disabled and buses are all moving on apace: no setbacks there. In addition, hybrid and pure electric off-road vehicles are increasingly popular for military and leisure purposes.

With more shopping on-line, an electric delivery truck replaces the car. Indeed, almost silent electric aircraft are now available from several manufacturers and they will sometimes be a good alternative to the car as they can land almost anywhere, day and night. Electric boats are increasingly popular on the increasing number of inland waterways that ban the internal combustion engine. Some carry 150 people and some are small privately owned vehicles. Travelling in silence, many of them garner solar power.

Analyst IDTechEx therefore no longer forecasts that electric cars will be more than half the electric vehicle market over the next decade: it now appears that rather less cars but more alternative vehicles will be needed. Cars will be less than half the market value over the next decade. There will be no more than 785,000 electric cars sold in the world this year, including hybrids, but over 35 million electric vehicles of all types are being sold this year as the mix changes rapidly. For example, growing markets are tracked in the IDTechEx reports, “Electric Vehicles for Military, Police and Security 2011-2021”, “Electric Aircraft 2011-2021” and “Marine Electric Vehicles 2011-2021”. In all these cases, hybrid versions are leading to a large new market for specially designed range extenders varying from single cylinder piston engines to micro-turbines, small fuel cells and other options. The IDTechEx report, “Range Extenders for Electric Vehicles 2011-2021” sees this growing to be a market of well over $60 billion in the decade, but mostly for cars and similar sized vehicles because, yes, the electric car business is going to be huge as well.

There could even be further revisions to the forecasted mix of vehicles demanded in the world. The future is coming early. Indeed, we are in a time of rapid change in both technology and demand.

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