Teslas and other electric cars take Switzerland by storm

Whenever I travel from the US to Europe, I’m struck by the very different mix of cars on the road. In Switzerland, German and French brands dominate, and many models that are mainstays in the States are rare birds or non-existent here. Pickup trucks are rarely seen, except in the vicinity of farms.

Photo courtesy of Charles Morris

Europe is going electric much faster than the US, and Switzerland is no exception. In October, plug-in vehicles accounted for 14% of the auto market. On my latest trip, I saw dozens of different EV models, including several that aren’t sold in the US, such as the VW ID.3 and the Renault Zoe (too small for us stocky cowboys).

There’s one thing that flat, humid Florida and hilly, chilly Switzerland have in common, however—Teslas are extremely popular. I saw the whole S3XY lineup frequently, including mega numbers of Model 3s. In fact, Model 3 is the best-selling EV in the country year-to-date, with 3,133 units sold (the Renault Zoe is #2, with 2,130 sales).

A highlight of every Swiss trip is a visit to my friend Speedy, a lifelong muscle car fan who bought a Tesla a few years ago, and now advocates for EVs with the zeal of the convert. He recently traded his Model S for a Model 3 (photos below), because he wanted to have the latest tech, and because his Model S felt like a huge vehicle on Europe’s narrow streets. We took a ride through the stunningly beautiful vineyards above Lake Geneva (and I almost threw up when he floored the accelerator without warning).

Photos courtesy of Charles Morris

Switzerland is not Norway (nor is it Sweden, despite what some of my geographically-challenged friends seem to think). In contrast to most other Western European nations, there are no federal incentives for EV purchases (a couple of the cantons--equivalent to US states—offer incentives, and the federal government has funded some public charging projects). The growing popularity of EVs appears to be a free market phenomenon (the country’s high average income level surely helps).

Swiss leaders have consistently resisted calls to provide subsidies or other EV-boosting measures, and one reason they cite is that they fear EVs will overload the electric grid. A few years ago, Switzerland decided by popular referendum to phase out its nuclear power plants (as did Germany), and renewable energy is controversial. The country has a lot of hydro power, but most of the suitable sites are already being exploited. The Swiss Greens are adamantly opposed to view-spoiling wind turbines. Rooftop solar is growing rapidly, but this isn’t the sunniest of countries, especially in winter. Of course, tech-savvy folks like you, dear readers, know that energy storage is the answer, and that EVs’ actual impact on the grid will be far lower than the average Josef imagines, once vehicle-to-grid technology becomes widespread.

Public charging infrastructure is pretty plentiful. There are currently about 20 Tesla Supercharger stations in the country, and non-Tesla fast chargers are quite common at highway rest stops. If the oft-cited chicken-and-egg metaphor is valid, then the anecdotal evidence of my recent 3-week trip is that there are a lot of eggs and few chickens wanting to sit on them—I drove by lots of charging stations, and almost never saw one in use. At one rest stop, there was a Supercharger station with a couple of Teslas charging, and a couple of off-brand charging stalls sitting vacant.

Unlike neighboring Germany, France and Italy, Switzerland has no domestic automakers, but the country has hundreds of small and medium-size suppliers to the automotive industry, and many of these are heavily involved in e-mobility. Charging giant ABB, cable supplier Huber+Suhner and battery-maker Leclanché are just a few of the Swiss firms that manufacture key components for EVs.

Ads for EVs are common in Europe these days, on TV, on billboards and in newspapers. Like the US, Switzerland is a car-loving country, and you’re never far from an auto dealership. Yes, I saw a few EVs for sale on lots, including the new VW ID.4 and Hyundai Ioniq 5 (and a couple of used Model S). However, these typically represent one car at the end of a line of 20 or more gas-burners. In Switzerland (and in Norway, and everywhere else), the number of EVs being sold may be respectable, and growing, but the EVs actually on the road are far outnumbered by old-fashioned jalopies burning icky gas and diesel. Things are moving in the right direction, but there’s a long, long way to go.


Written by: Charles Morris