READING, England/PARIS -- Steve Tomlin, who runs a Renault dealership in Britain, says sales of the Zoe small electric car have shot up this year, a turnaround he partly credits to a fading of "range anxiety," the fear of running out of power mid-journey
The revamped model, which has accounted for a third of Tomlin's sales for a couple of months this year, has a range of 400 km (249 miles). By contrast the previous model, which drew much lower sales, offered 300 km when fully charged.
"Range anxiety has gone away and once you explain how easy it is to live day to day with an electric vehicle, that has a big impact on sales," said Tomlin, general manager of Martins Renault & Dacia in Reading, about 65 km west of London.
Renault told Reuters that UK sales of the Zoe had more than doubled this year, and that in France its zero-emission cars had outsold its diesel models this year through to the end of September - 19 percent versus 18 percent -- a significant milestone.
The company said it has trained 30,000 dealer staff across Europe on electric-vehicle technology.
"At the beginning, we were facing some psychological barrier linked to autonomy: 'Am I going to have a breakdown?" said Denis le Vot, Renault's head of sales. "We learned these lessons very well."
Yet there's a hard road ahead, and range and staff training are not enough. High battery costs and lack of manufacturing scale mean electric vehicles (EVs) are still more expensive than conventional vehicles - often 20 to 30 percent more.
This means Renault and other automakers rely on government subsidies to support demand, but such aid is patchy across Europe.
Battery costs are, however, expected to fall further, meaning some EVs should cost same as or less than combustion-engine models around the middle of this decade, according to industry experts.
"The first firms to achieve the ultimate goal -- an affordable, unsubsidized electric vehicle -- will gain a valuable competitive advantage," Bain & Company said in an Oct. 29 report.
Until then, carmakers need to sustain electric sales and build up production muscle, but avoid overextending their finances while they sell a lower-margin product.
Renault said its approach relied on making use of government subsidies and offering discounts on EVs, installing free charging stations for customers, along with the staff training.
In France, government subsidies, combined with a scrappage scheme and discounts from Renault, can shave up to 11,500 euros ($13,600) - more than a third - off the price of the Zoe, for example.