The US is the country most likely to lead the emergence of electric cars as a means of mass transportation, according to research by McKinsey, the global consultancy.

A new electric-vehicle index compiled by McKinsey puts the US ahead of France, Germany and other western European countries that have up to now been in the vanguard of clean-vehicle technology. China is tied with Germany in third place.

The index is based on nine variables that are likely to influence investment in electric-vehicle production and consumer acceptance of the new technology. It will be updated quarterly.

Only a few thousand electric cars are presently on the roads. They are either expensive niche models, such as the Tesla Roadster, or prototypes designed to test consumer reaction, notably BMW’s Mini-E.

But the numbers are likely to rise markedly after the end of this year with the launch of two models aimed at the mass market: Nissan’s battery-powered Leaf and General Motors’ Chevrolet Volt. The Volt also has a small petrol-driven engine to drive the generator when the battery is depleted.

Most other major carmakers are also in the throes of designing and developing electric vehicles. GM announced last week that it was investing $5m in Indiana-based Bright Automotive, which aims to put an electric delivery van on the road within the next three to four years.

Regulatory standards in the US have up to now fallen well short of Europe in promoting stricter fuel-efficiency and bringing down greenhouse-gas emissions.

But the US is the only country that has provided large-scale financial support to the electric car industry.

Congress set aside $25bn in grants and loans in 2007 to encourage advanced vehicle technology, including electric cars. In addition, President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package earmarked $2.4bn for grants to battery and other electric-vehicle component manufacturers.

Russell Hensley, a McKinsey principal based in Detroit, ascribed Washington’s new-found interest in green vehicle technology to the nascent industry’s potential for job creation. “Green jobs are a double benefit,” Mr Hensley said.

According to the McKinsey index, which covers 12 countries, the US also ranks highly in the benefits that consumers perceive from owning an electric car.

China and South Korea have the advantage of low electricity rates, bringing down driving costs. China’s ranking has been boosted by the introduction of tax subsidies for electric-car buyers and the designation of 20 cities for electric-vehicle pilot projects.

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