With Norway implementing a new tax that goes up with the weight of the car, is it time for Ireland to follow suit?

Norway is a global leader when it comes to electric vehicles accounting for 79% of new car registrations in 2022. In January 2023, Norway implemented a new tax that scales with the weight of the car. This means the bigger the electric car, the higher the tax. With manufacturers favouring bigger SUV and crossover-style electric cars, should Ireland introduce a tax based on the weight of the EV?

Brian Caulfield is associate professor at the School of Engineering at Trinity College Dublin, and Geraldine Herbert is motoring editor at the Sunday Independent. They joined Philip Boucher-Hayes on RTÉ 1's Today with Claire Byrne to look at the issue. (This piece includes excerpts from the conversation which have been edited for length and clarity - you can hear the discussion in full above).

Caulfield believes this type of tax might be inevitable once we reach the same levels of EV sales here in Ireland, but the most important thing is how it's communicated to the public if we introduce it. "Are we doing it for environmental reasons? For safety reasons? What is the purpose for doing it?"

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"Considering that the batteries that are, say in a [Renault Zoe] next to one of the big SUV's, you get much more mileage out of the Zoe battery than you would out of an SUV and they require an awful lot more lithium and all of these kind of minerals that are in short supply. So should we be putting them into these big cars? It's debatable," said Caulfield.

Asked by Boucher-Hayes if there is proportionally more mining and more extraction of valuable minerals [for the battery] to drive a bigger EV than a smaller one and whether that has been proven, Caulfied said "yes, that's the case". "There's more lithium put into these cars for bigger batteries that have similar ranges [to] the smaller lighter cars."

"I think this is inevitably where we're going to go," agreed Herbert. "As we move more towards electric vehicles and more of them on the road and less choice in terms of petrol and diesel, people are going to see the difference between the efficiency you get from a smaller car versus a larger car. If you take something like the Tesla Model Y versus the Tesla Model 3, I think they basically both have the same battery pack, but the Model 3, which is a saloon, gets 7% more range than the Model Y. So people are going to move towards that I think, car makers are going to move towards that."

Read: Electric cars in Ireland: on the road, but some way to go

"And remember car buying is very fickle," she said. "If you go back ten years even, the best selling car in the country was the Ford Focus hatchback, number two was a [Volkswagen] Golf. So people will buy what they're presented with and it's a matter of the car makers just offering more efficient and smaller and more suitable cars."

Boucher-Hayes questioned whether it would be a good idea to send out a "cultural indicator" of what we think everybody should be driving, which Herbert countered with: "I think the problem is choice at the moment. If you're a family looking for an electric car, first of all obviously there's fewer options than if you're going petrol or diesel, and most of them are SUVs for a very good reason; car makers are trying to get you to buy their electric cars, they go for the most popular segment at the moment which is SUV's. Because we've been conditioned over the last ten years to believe that these are the safest ways to transport our family. Therefore car makers have to offer alternatives.

"I think it's way too early, when you consider we really only have 15% of new cars sold that are electric, to be now taxing electric cars and to be putting any deterrence towards buying them, because I just think it'd be counterproductive," she said. Caulfied then argued that because the cars that are being bought now will be on our roads for a decade after they're purchased, we need to consider the impact of that, especially in terms of hybrids and the emissions that are associated with them.

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On the topic of road safety and SUVs, Cauldfied said: "The outcomes of any impacts [in an accident] are much greater [with an SUV]. Say an EV is about 30% heavier than a traditional petrol or diesel car, so the outcomes of any accidents are going to be different -- but also they're big and they're intimidating and that's something that impacts upon the urban realm and how many people are likely to cycle and walk because of these vehicles being there."

Boucher-Hayes suggested that SUVs in general send an "anti-social message" that a driver believes their family is safe, but they don't really care that cyclists and pedestrians are more at risk, while Herbert pointed out that the biggest killer of young people between the ages of five and 29 is cars and argued "if you're going to look at road safety, you have to look at separating pedestrians and cyclists from cars, full stop. It doesn't matter whether they're SUVs or they're hatchbacks."

Asked whether people's behaviour changes with taxation, Caulfield said: "We saw with the diesel cars over a decade ago, it did happen, we were nudged and we moved towards diesel vehicles. I think the electric car is a bigger nudge because it's not just the price, it's also the charging and the range and all of these other things that go with it. So I do think that some sort of pricing may result in some changes but the people that are purchasing these big SUV's they're generally the people with higher incomes. So would this nudge push them? Perhaps not, it might have to be a very big nudge."

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne, motoring journalist Bob Flavin on what to know before buying an electric car

"If you look at the diesel one, it wasn't actually huge. It was VRT and it was on motor tax. People don't realise what an astounding impact it had on the car market. It came in in 2008 and if you remember before that taxation was based on engine size and it went to CO2. This automatically benefited diesel cars. But petrol cars at the time made up 70% of new car sales. It came in in July 2008 and by the end of 2011, petrol cars only made up 26%. That was a dramatic change in two and a half years. It wasn't a nudge, it was literally a huge transformation."

"I think people have reservations about EVs in a way that they wouldn't have had reservations about diesel. It feels like a much bigger change. I also think there's a huge cost factor," said Herbert. "The reason Norway has achieved the kind of sales, it isn't by accident. They very generously subsidised electric cars for the last decade, they very heavily penalised petrol and diesel, and they achieved price parity. So when you walked into a dealership, a petrol, diesel and electric car were all similarly priced."

Caulfield added that "range anxiety" has been replaced with "charging anxiety" when it comes to EVs. He said the charging network needed to be expanded into the "most appropriate parts of the country where people drive more -- and that's in rural Ireland." Right now the charging points are mostly in leafy parts of Dublin and Cork where people have higher incomes, he said.

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Asked if he would be in favour of taking away any form of support or subsidy for electric vehicles and throwing it at public transport, Caulfield said no, because Ireland "is set up in a way that we will always need cars of some shape or form." Asked if he would give the subsidy to people living in the country and take it away from people living in the city, he said "I would".

"I don't think that that's actually feasible to be honest," Herbert replied. "I think what we do need, is we need to continue to encourage electric car sales and that's the only way we would have a second hand market." Asked why wealthy people living in cities, who have a wealth of alternatives, should be given financial subsidies to go into electric vehicles, instead of the market "sorting it out," Herbert said: Because the market hasn't sorted it out, number one, and that's the reason why the government steps in and provides subsidies in the first place.

"The second thing is, if you look at where new cars are bought, they probably are bought in more affluent areas anyway, so there's nothing new about that," she said, adding that sales of hybrid cars fell when the grant was removed, which shows that they are necessary for driving sales.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ