Is Norway the future of cars?

The speed with which electric vehicles have taken over Norway has stunned even car enthusiasts. [Asya Demidova/The New York Times]

Last year, Norway took an important step. Only around 8% of new cars sold in the country ran solely on conventional gasoline or diesel. Two-thirds of new cars sold were electric, and most of the rest were electric and gasoline hybrids.

For years, Norway has led the world in moving away from traditional cars, thanks to government benefits that have made electric vehicles much more affordable and offered extras like allowing electric car owners to avoid certain parking and toll.

Yet electric car enthusiasts are stunned by how quickly the internal combustion engine has become an endangered species in Norway.

“It surprised most people how quickly things have changed,” said Christina Bu, general secretary of the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association.

In 2015, electric cars accounted for about 20% of new car sales, and now they’re “the new normal,” Bu said. (His organization is like AAA for electric vehicle drivers.)

Americans might see Norwegians as environmental stalwarts willing to ditch gas-powered cars. But Bu and other transport experts told me that Norwegians started out with the same skepticism about electric vehicles as Americans.

This has changed due to government policies that have chosen the easiest wins first and an increasing number of attractive electric cars. Over time, this combination has helped more Norwegians believe that electric cars are for them. Bu wrote recently that if Norway could do it, so could the United States and other countries.

Transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and climate scientists have said moving away from combustion-engine vehicles is key to avoiding the worst effects of global warming. planet. Sales of electric cars in the United States are growing rapidly, but, at around 3% of new passenger vehicles, the percentages are much lower than in most other wealthy countries.

So what did Norway do well? Bu said the country’s policies are focusing on what’s least difficult first: getting people considering a new car to go electric.

Norwegians who bought new electric cars didn’t have to pay the country’s very high taxes on new vehicle sales. This made electric cars a no-brainer for many people, and it didn’t hurt people who already owned conventional cars or those who had bought them used.

Bu also said that Norway is not paralyzed by reasonable objections to electric vehicles – what about where to charge them? Are electric car subsidies a government benefit for the wealthy? In other words, Norway did not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Not all countries have such a well-suited tax system to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles. (Gasoline taxes are also very high in Norway.) But Bu suggested that to make it work in the United States, we could put higher taxes on new, dirtier car models and use that money to subsidize purchases of electric vehicles.

The US federal government and many states already offer tax breaks on certain electric cars. We don’t tend to tax gas consumers, in part because Americans don’t like to use higher taxes to discourage certain behaviors.

Subsidies for electric cars alone are not enough to boost EV ownership, although they have helped build momentum in Norway. As new electric cars hit the road, it’s nicer to build more places to charge them. Automakers have started devoting more of their marketing to electric vehicles and have launched more models at varying price points and features. This is just starting to happen in the United States.

These are not easy political choices in Norway or elsewhere, said Anders Hartmann of Asplan Viak, a Norwegian planning and engineering consultancy.

Letting EV drivers avoid parking fees or tolls was manageable when few of them were on the roads, Hartmann told me, but some local governments have said more recently that they were losing money than they did. used to finance public transport. The Norwegian legislature has considered cutting tax breaks for electric vehicles, but it’s difficult because they’re popular.

Bu told me that the biggest change in Norway is that most people have come to believe that electric cars are for them.

“What really surprised me was the change in mentality,” she said.

Her father was once one of those people who said they would never buy an electric car, she said. Now his parents own one too.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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