Glossy EVs are distracting from a growing global wealth gap

19th January 2024
erin_baker_headshot.jpg Erin Baker

Spare a new-year thought for car brands, as each one hurtles towards its carbon-neutrality target date (for most it’s between 2038 and 2050) with increasing alacrity. Take Toyota, which seems to embody the global challenge thrown up by these targets in 2024. The Japanese car giant ended 2023 being knocked off the top spot for global car sales by Chinese brand BYD, and it goes into this year scratching its head as it takes a look at the countries it sells cars in. According to Toyota, although 87 per cent of European consumers believe in the urgent need to address climate change, globally the situation is very different. The result for a worldwide brand like Toyota is that, in their words, being in “more than 50 markets means more than 50 approaches”. Ouch. How do you create a homogeneous international model range and supply chain with built-in efficiencies around that mind-boggling array of geopolitical behaviours?


The broad answer is: you don’t. The world is polarising into radically different markets, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. No longer is it merely a case of more powerful, more luxurious cars for richer nations and smaller, cheaper, inefficient cars for developing ones. Now there’s a whole new gap developing, because you have an entire powertrain – electric – which costs more than most countries’ populations can afford to spend on transport (and that’s even with the far cheaper domestic pricing of some marques, which I’ll come on to). So that means different platforms, different powertrains, different materials and energy requirements, different percentages of recycled matter, different consumer behaviours and desires on a scale we haven’t seen before.

I saw the challenge and multiple contradictions for people building their company’s business model with my own eyes in California in November, when I was judging the long list for World Car of the Year. Even the sparkly new Chinese entrants, full of electric promise, find themselves having to churn out inefficient, bog-standard 1.5-litre petrol and diesel models with hard plastic interiors, awful ride quality and shoddy brakes for developing countries.


Omoda, for example, has in market this year both the C5 and the O5. The first is an impressive electric (the petrol version launches first in the UK this year, but the EV follows promptly) SUV with futuristic design, massive touchscreen inside, decent range on one charge, a good percentage of recycled materials and cutting-edge battery technology. The O5? Erm… Launched in Mexico, this rebadged Chery Arrizo is a startling throwback to the worst examples of early ‘90s motoring, with nasty cheap grey plastics, spongy brakes, woolly steering, not much power from its 1.5-litre engine, a lot of noise, minimal digital information and an old-fashioned interior. I forgot the world still made new cars like this. But of course it does; this is what most people still drive.

All of which brings us circling back to global carbon targets for brands. No wonder the targets are all for neutrality, and not the elimination or even across-the-board reduction of carbon emissions. It requires an awful lot of offsetting and buying carbon credits to balance the books on carbon across the world when hardly any countries can afford to transition to renewable energy or strengthen their power grids to go electric, let alone grow GDP to the point where consumer budgets can handle the extra cost of an EV.


One strategy, of course, to balancing the scales of global EV sales, is radical market-sensitive pricing. In China, BYD sells the Dolphin at the equivalent of £13,000; in the UK the same car is priced at £25,000. The GWM Ora 03 sells in China for £12,000; in the UK it’s £31,000. But China’s state wealth means a widespread public-charging infrastructure and the domestic manufacture of nearly all the world’s batteries are possible: poorer countries with high birth rates but without automotive manufacturing, or a huge supply of copper or a robust electricity grid, stand no chance of converting to electric any time soon.

And so the two-prong brand approach continues of selling cars with internal combustion engines, poor quality materials and non-biodegradable plastic alongside those kitted out with state-of-the-art battery technology, lightweight materials, biodegradable vegan interiors and augmented-reality touchscreens. Never has the automotive gap between the haves and have-nots felt wider, or more insurmountable.


Addressing those creaking scales of economic and environmental justice is a job beyond the remit of the automotive industry, but surely it’s incumbent on all of us, as we climb into our EVs in the years to come, with their bamboo-sourced protein leathers, concierge services and 350-mile range, to remember that most people are driving a plastic-filled Omoda O5, and burning hydro-carbons by the litre in the process. We’ve come a long way, but most of the world is being left behind.

Maybe there’s a New Year’s Resolution in there for each of us.

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