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Range anxiety

Norway is starting to have more electric cars than it can handle

When Hilde Charlotte Blomberg reached the University of Oslo last Friday, the first thing she did was to send a mass email to the Department of Informatics:

I arrived at work now and all the spaces for electric cars are taken. If you think your car is charged, I would appreciate if you could park somewhere else. I won’t get home if I can’t charge my car. I am standing downstairs and waiting and hoping that someone will come

Blomberg drives a Citroen C-Zero. Hers is one of 15,000 electric cars on the roads of Norway. That’s up from around 10,000 last year and just 6,000 in 2011. Yet the very things that made it so attractive to buy an electric car are now under pressure. Two incentives in particular have become victims of their own success: the ability to drive in bus lanes and free public charging spots.

More cars than buses

According to Budstikka (link in Norwegian), a local newspaper for the rich suburbs outside Oslo where the majority of electric cars are sold, electric vehicles now dominate the bus lanes into Oslo. During rush hour on Dec. 3, they made up 75% of the 829 vehicles that drove on the bus lane. After accounting for taxis, two-wheelers and mini-buses, all of which have the right to use the lane, buses made up only 7.5% of the traffic in the lane. According to the paper, bus lanes can handle only about 1,000 vehicles per hour because of the many entries, exits and bus stops.

Charging facilities are also over-subscribed. The total number of public charging facilities in Norway is only 5,000. Oslo, the capital, has a mere 500, says Bjørn Gjestvang, an automotive industry expert at KPMG Norway. Private businesses have their own facilities, but those too are filling up quickly. Blomberg’s department, for instance, has six charging spots but on a normal day five of those will be occupied.

The (gridlocked) road ahead

Things are only going to get worse. Car manufacturers have cottoned on to the popularity of electric cars in Norway and they’re piling in. Tesla entered the market this year and has been wildly successful. Volkswagen’s e-Up went on sale in November and it is also coming out with an electric version of the perennially popular Golf. BMW’s i3 will hit the roads next year.

Norway is due to reconsider its incentive structure for electric cars in 2017. Neither the ministry of the environment nor the ministry of transport and communications responded to requests for comment, but watchers of electric-car trends in Norway suggest that the growing number of electric cars could very well lead to some sort of rationalization of incentives. “I am afraid that within one year this problem will be so big that the government will be forced to change the rules,” says Bjart Holtsmark of Statistics Norway. 

Meanwhile, electric cars—and the anxieties that come with them—have become part of the Norwegian psyche. Second place on a list of words of the year (link in Norwegian) produced by Norway’s Language Council this year was “rekkeviddeangst” or “range anxiety”: The fear that your electric car battery will run out before you make it to a charging station.

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