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Is petrol going the way of the dodo? (Image: Dot Loves Data)
Is petrol going the way of the dodo? (Image: Dot Loves Data)

BusinessNovember 14, 2022

Is the petrol car as dead as the dodo?

Is petrol going the way of the dodo? (Image: Dot Loves Data)
Is petrol going the way of the dodo? (Image: Dot Loves Data)

New research shows the breathtaking speed with which New Zealand has adopted low emission vehicles, with one expert predicting EV registrations will overtake petrol cars in less than a year. Justin Lester runs the numbers.

Do you have an EV? If not, it’s probably just a matter of time. New analysis by the data science company Dot Loves Data, where I’m government director, shows the sun is clearly setting on fossil-fuelled motor vehicles. New Zealand new sales of low emission cars are skyrocketing and will overtake petrol and diesel sales as early as the middle of 2023, a fundamental tipping point in consumer purchasing behaviour. Petrol cars may soon be at risk of becoming museum pieces and modern-day fossils, much like the fuel that powers them.

Our analysis is based on the soaring growth of low emission car purchases. In 2014 there were fewer than 100 EVs registered in New Zealand. By 2018 there were 4123. In the first nine months of 2022 the number shot up to 13,034. Hybrid car sales are even higher, with close to 5000 new hybrid vehicles registered in September 2022 alone.

Where is the growth coming from?

The 2022 growth has been driven by three factors: the introduction of the government’s clean car discount scheme, the popularity of the new Tesla models, and the continuing decline in popularity of petrol and diesel cars, which have been steadily declining since late 2017.

In one last fit of rebelliousness, 15,295 more petrol and diesel cars were purchased in March 2022, compared with the monthly average, to avoid paying the high emissions vehicle fee introduced on 1 April, dubbed a “ute tax” by opponents of the scheme. The exhaust-fuelled high did not last, with the sale of petrol and diesel cars dropping by a third since April.

Conversely, sales of low emission vehicles have increased by 31% since the scheme’s introduction.

Data scientist Ben van Noorden predicts the registration of low emission vehicles will surpass those for petrol and diesel vehicles by the middle of 2023, a fundamental tipping point in the motor vehicle industry. Any future move to abolish the clean car discount would, according to van Noorden, be a backward move and leave New Zealand to “choke on its exhaust fumes”.

Van Noorden points out that “peak exhaust” was reached in New Zealand in October 2017, when monthly sales of fossil-fuelled passenger vehicles topped out at 22,494. This has steadily declined to the extent that 10,033 fossil-fuelled vehicles were sold during September 2022.

The second factor driving the sales of EVs has been the popularity of Teslas and the lower-cost Nissan Leaf. Nissan Leafs led the burst of EV sales from 2015 in the face of little competition from other vehicle makers. Tesla took pole position in 2021 with the release of the Model 3 and subsequently Model Y into New Zealand.

New movers are the Chinese owned BYD and MG, with the Tesla Model Y, the BYD Atto 3 and the MG ZS leading sales in September 2022, with the Nissan Leaf falling away. Extraordinarily, the Tesla Model Y outsold every other vehicle in September, finishing ahead of the Ford Ranger and Toyota HiLux.

Who is buying low emission cars?

Wellington tends to be the catalyst for social change (think nuclear free or LGBTQI+ rights) and it’s no different for low emission vehicle purchases. Five of the nation’s top 10 sales areas are in the Wellington region, followed by Christchurch, Auckland, Queenstown and Dunedin.

While low-emission sales are increasing in every part of New Zealand, the lowest per capita uptake is in the rural, lower-income areas of Wairoa, Kawerau, Otorohanga, Waitomo and South Waikato. According to our data, 637 out of every 10,000 Wellingtonians now own a low emission vehicle, while in Wairoa 74 residents do, highlighting the current barriers of rurality and lower incomes. We expect this will change as used low-emission vehicles soon enter the market.

Dot Loves Data’s analysis shows low emission vehicles are becoming increasingly mainstream. The early adopters of EVs were predominantly low deprivation, progressive, green-voting, urban dwellers. Since the introduction of the clean car discount, Labour voting areas are increasingly EV-centric, while the negative association with EVs in National and ACT voting areas is much less pronounced.

The analysis suggests fossil-fuelled cars will soon go the same way as cigarettes and cheese hedgehogs. Where both were once fashionable, their decline was hastened by the social stigma attached to them. Based on the current consumer purchasing behaviour trend, it is likely similar societal pressure will marginalise petrol car ownership.

In 2023 new low emission vehicle sales will outpace that of fossil-fuelled cars. As used low emission vehicles enter the car market, the current consumer trend indicates it will only be a small number of years, rather than decades, before fossil-fuelled cars are themselves modern day fossils.

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