Ampera-e outside mountain cottage without electricity, where it acted as a power bank for teenagers mobile phones

Ampera-e outside mountain cottage without electricity, where it acted as a power bank for teenagers' mobile phones

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In global terms, Norway enjoys by far the highest penetration of electric vehicles in its car market. Exclusively for just-auto, Norwegian writer Jorn Madslien takes a trip to his homeland for a personal journey that sheds some light on this small European country's huge drive for electrification. 

For most people, the road winding its way up the side of the Gudbrandsdalen valley is merely a transport route; to the heart of Rondane, Norway's oldest national park. Climb the hill at pace in an electric car, however, and the road becomes a thing of beauty.

As such, it is not merely a suitable test for the Opel Ampera-e, the European version of the Chevrolet Bolt. More to the point, this road leads directly to the soul of the Norwegian EV-driver. Or should one say, EV-lover?

There are more than 100,000 electric cars on the road in this sparsely populated country of just 5.2 million people. By comparison there are merely 600,000 EVs in China and less than 500,000 in the US.

But never mind statistics. Out on the road, accelerating steadily into and out of the hairpin bends, it seems as if this is what the Ampera-e was made for.

Weighed down by a low-lying battery, which forms an integral part of the chassis, it sticks to the road. On ice, come winter, with spiky tyres, this weight and balance might well save lives.

The regenerative braking system works well too, effectively slowing the car to a crawl whenever docile wild-roaming sheep crowd the road ahead. This makes it a single-pedal driving experience, which is arguably a bit dull for a petrol-head with a love for gear sticks, but we can't have it all.

'Green shift'

Norway is truly mountainous, so attributes such as strong hill-climbing abilities go some way towards explaining why the country has become a poster-child for the electric motoring movement.

In September, 28% of new car registrations in Norway were electric (BEVs and plug-in hybrids combined), with sales having risen 33% since the start of the year. By comparison, in Europe as a whole, EVs make up less than 1% of new car sales.

With more than a quarter of Norway's new car buyers now opting for plug-in vehicles, it is tempting to think that electric motoring is also about the nation's core values.

These are reflected by the government's ambitions to transform the Norwegian economy by coming up with sustainability solutions that can be exported across the world, thus reducing the country's reliance on oil exports.

"The Norwegian economy has to diversify," Prime Minister Erna Solberg says, insisting that at its peak, the oil and gas industry's dominance became too strong.

The Norwegians call this ambitious transformation a 'green shift', which is changing not only government policy, but behaviour too.

Low impact motoring...

In the mountains, as the mud-surfaced road narrows beyond the small hamlet of Mysuseter, the silence of the Ampera-e's electric motor becomes a quality in its own right. Roaring onto this vast mountain plateau in a noisy V8 might have been a blast, but it just wouldn't have felt right.

Norway, after all, is where a slight relaxation of a ban on snowmobiles in remote areas came to dominate national politics for months, with swathes of the populace expressing their resentment at such noisy intrusion in pristine nature.

There is a turning on the left, down a rutted track towards a small forest where weathered, crooked birch trees envelop a traditional log cabin that overlooks a small lake that mirrors the clouds overhead. The view through the forest, with its weathered, crooked birch trees, reveals a small lake that is a mirror image of the clouds overhead.

It is as if the car has come home.

Up here, it is also as if the EV is a useful member of a tribe, a provider of electricity for teenagers' mobile phones, as the cabins themselves are devoid of facilities such as electric power or running water.

Had it had a voice, the car would have surely quoted Peer Gynt, the titular character in Henrik Ibsen's play, who captures the Norwegian psyche so well.

Now I am steel; for the hills I am shod;

To the mountain - call, I rally.

The last of my lowland path is trod.

Up here on the fells must be freedom and God.

Men do not grope in the valley.

Ibsen's blending of romantic folklore with realism, pragmatism and modernism is also a true reflection of Norwegian EV drivers' sentiment. Their green credentials are generally balanced by real-life concerns such as personal finance, convenience, or driving joy.

Powerful incentives

Norway's electric motoring revolution has been a long time coming. It started in 1991 with the creation of Pivco, short for personal independent vehicle company - a brave enterprise in a country without an indigenous car industry. Pivco soon became TH!NK, before spending a decade burning through cash to develop the TH!NK City EV. In 2001, it was snapped up by The Ford Motor Company, which ran electric motoring trials for a couple of years amidst much fanfare, endorsed by the Norwegian government, which had high hopes that automotive jobs for voters would follow. But by 2003, Ford had pulled out.

TH!NK was bought and sold a few times during its existence before its final bankruptcy filing in 2011 - its fourth in two decades, a period during which it produced a meagre 2,500 or so cars. TH!NK's demise not only marked the death of Norway's embryonic automotive industry. The experience also taught policy-makers that green credentials are not enough on their own to create a market for electric vehicles.

So, when the likes of Tesla and the Nissan Leaf came along less than a decade ago, they were met by politicians who not only wanted electric motoring to succeed, but were also prepared to put their money where their mouths were.

Tax breaks for EVs, such as exemption from VAT, were swiftly designed to tempt drivers to ditch petrol and diesel cars, which are heavily taxed to levels that make conventional motoring more expensive in Norway than anywhere else in the world.

There were other perks too. Free travel on toll roads, free crossings on ferries, free parking while charging in city centres, and access to bus lanes during rush hour.

And there was a real sense of being a part of the "Green Shift", not least since some 98% of Norway's electricity comes from renewable sources, mostly hydropower.

No wonder, then, that the Norwegians have come to embrace electric motoring like no one else in the world. The popularity of EVs in Norway proves that consumers want electric cars, according to Christina Bu, Secretary General of the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association, which has become one of the biggest membership organisations in the land. She believes it is time carmakers start taking this seriously, by launching more electric models, and is calling for the charging infrastructure to be improved to facilitate the growing EV market.

Norway, the unlikely EV champion

In recent months, we have indeed seen a lot of EV announcements by mainstream carmakers, eager to participate in an anticipated global shift towards electric motoring. It has been a sudden shift, with many of them having been reluctant to do so until recently, not least because of much remaining uncertainty about the scale of any economic benefits.

But if it is obvious that companies whose entire business models have been based on oil-burning technology have been reluctant to embrace electrification, it is more difficult still to grasp why Norway has taken such a leading role as the world's champion of EVs.

After all, subsidising electric motoring in a country that is making billions from oil exports might be akin to what the Japanese refer to as Hara Kiri.

To date, more than $1 trillion of Norway's oil earnings have been squirreled away for a rainy-day in the world's largest sovereign wealth fund. That's a pension pot of $190,000 per citizen.

A move away from oil would naturally see the fund's earnings fall, and Norway could well become poorer as a result. Moreover, state support for EVs is unlikely to bring tangible benefits, such as jobs. After all, we are unlikely to see the emergence of a Norwegian car industry anytime soon.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are plenty of people shaking their heads at the exuberant celebration of EVs.

Classic cars

A couple of hours drive south, along the recently modernised road that links the mountain wilderness of Rondane to the cosmopolitan capital Oslo, lies the Olympic city Lillehammer, where an armada of vintage American cars is cruising slowly through quaint streets.

The AmCar culture is strong here, as is the love for powerful V8 engines. The revving of engines on the strip is a poignant reminder that the popularity of electric vehicles is far from universal, even here in Norway.

"EVs are not as clean as they're made out to be," is an oft overheard mantra, with AmCar enthusiasts passionately citing well-to-wheel analysis that highlights how EV manufacturing involves considerable resource use, pollution and emissions in its own right. "Far better," they say, "to keep cars on the road for longer."

And bizarrely, perhaps, the government facilitates such desires too. Indeed, the AmCar community and the EV community have one thing in common, though, namely a shared enthusiasm for tax breaks.

Cars aged 30 years or older have long been exempt from the kind of import duty and other taxes that make new petrol and diesel cars very expensive. Consequently, old gas guzzlers with outdated safety features remain very popular indeed, often as everyday cars.

Cheap alternative

Continuing south for another hour or so, there is another group of American car enthusiasts, gathered at Eidsvoll Verk. Here at the Nebbenes service station we find what was once the world's largest fast-charging station, where a well-off crowd of Tesla-owners take advantage of free electricity.

Sturla Andersen, an electrician from Høvik, west of Oslo, is among Tesla's greatest fans.

"I switched to an EV, a Tesla Tesla S 85, in 2013 due to environmental concerns and because it was duty free," he says. "I've now got my second EV and I'm waiting to take delivery of a third - all Teslas.

"My first Tesla cost me about 55,000 kroner [US$6,700 at current XR] all in, including depreciation, insurance, road tax and electricity. Had it been a BMW or a Mercedes [with an internal combustion engine] it would have cost me about 150,000."

In Lillestrøm, a small city just outside Oslo, Mona Skyrud, who drives an electric Kia Soul, has even found it more economical to commute by car than taking the train to Oslo airport, where she works for an airline. "I even get to charge the car at work, so I hardly ever plug it in at home," she says.

From carrot to stick

Beyond economics, the convenience of queue-jumping during rush hour by driving in bus lanes has helped drive up EV sales in the capital, where EVs made up 41% of new car sales in September.

"There are so many EVs that they themselves are creating traffic jams, in the bus lanes where they cause delays for commuters using public transport."

Driving from Bærum into Oslo during the rush hour, and the inevitable result is evident. Here, there are so many EVs that they themselves are creating traffic jams, in the bus lanes where they cause delays for commuters using public transport.

Tax takes from cars are also down, and taken together these factors have sparked a backlash against EV subsidies.

Already, limits have been introduced on EVs in bus lanes when the driver is alone in the car, and the government has made it clear that EV incentives will be scaled back further.

In October, Finance Minister Siv Jensen even announced plans to make drivers of large, heavy EVs pay more for their cars, to compensate for their additional road wear. The new charges will make the Tesla X some 700,000 kroner more expensive, according to calculations by Norwegian media.

In many ways, this is a logical development as the market for EVs continues to mature, though the government is not about to settle for market-driven growth alone. Instead, it has moved from carrot to stick, deciding to ban the sale of fossil fuel-based cars altogether from 2025.

That decision, which was taken in 2016, was welcomed by Tesla's CEO Elon Musk. "What an amazingly awesome country," he said at the time. "You guys rock!!".

Norway BEV car sales, 2016

MakeModel2016 sales
TeslaModel S2051
TeslaModel X1430
HyundaiIoniq Electric646

Source: European Alternative Fuels Observatory

Norway PHEV car sales, 2016

Model2016 sales
MitsubishiOutlander PHEV5136
VolkswagenGolf GTE4337
VolkswagenPassat GTE2552
AudiA3 e-Tron2283
BMW225xe Active Tourer1332
BMWX5 40e955
VolvoXC90 PHEV688
AudiQ7 e-Tron385

Source: European Alternative Fuels Observatory