If you’re used to road tripping in America, where two-thirds of all new vehicles sold are hulking, gasoline-powered SUVs or pickups, the streets of Norway are like a vehicular Bizarro World. Not because they’re dominated by Nordic brands, the Volvos and Saabs of past and present. Or because they’re lined with tiny Smarts and VW Up!s, squeezed into parking spaces smaller than some American humans. They’re strange because Norway has the world’s highest purchase rates of electric vehicles.
In the land of the Norwegians, battery-powered rides are so ubiquitous, it is as if you’ve traveled 10 or 20 years into our transportation future. Jaguar I-Paces, Audi E-tron SUVs, VW E-Golfs, Hyundai Konas, and other vehicles rarely spotted in the States stream down highways and side streets en masse, like Ford F-150s and Toyota RAV4s do here.
The Land of the Midnight Sun, though, isn’t content to just have its citizens zip about in emission-free silence. It hopes visitors will do the same—and partake in the country’s burgeoning category of EV tourism.
Before you buy your ticket, a bit of background. For decades, based on its offshore wells in the North Sea and elsewhere, Norway has been one of the world’s largest exporter of oil and natural gas. The resulting revenues constitute a spectacular 20 percent of the nation’s GDP. The national government oversees and controls nearly all of the processes and profits from an industry that contributes heavily to carbon emissions. And in what looks like penance, Norway has, since the 1990s, worked to use this windfall for the common good.
One major element of that effort is promoting emissions-free electric vehicles. Norway has pushed consumers and local governments toward battery power using a variety of policies. It offers strong tax incentives for the purchase or lease of EVs, and it subsidizes the construction of private and public charging infrastructure. EV drivers are exempt from many urban parking and highway lane restrictions, and they get discounted fares on toll roads, car ferries, and parking. And because Norway gets nearly all its electricity from hydropower plants, there’s nowhere better on the planet to enjoy guilt-free driving.
Because of all this, over one-third of all EVs sold in Europe end up going to customers in Norway. This is the reason that the Tesla Model 3 is currently the best-selling car in the country. Not just the best-selling luxury car or electric; the best-selling car, period. (America’s top three are full-size pickups; the top EV, the Model 3, ranks number 37.) Norway isn’t just Tesla’s biggest market on a per capita basis. It’s also the company's fourth biggest market by sales—though it’s home to only 5.5 million people. This spring, plug-in electric vehicles outsold gas and diesel cars for the first time in Norway. Don’t expect the balance to reverse: EV registrations grew by more than 10 percent, year over year, in May 2019.
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So deep is the penetration of electric vehicles, charging infrastructure, and governmental commitment, that much of the country can now readily be traversed on battery power. Privately run, nationwide charging networks are adding stations every 30 miles or less along the country’s main roads. They now cover routes to popular seaside summer home destinations (Norway has the world’s second-longest coastline) as well as ski resorts (mountains, cold.)
Norway’s forward-thinking approach to transportation has become not just a point of pride for the country but a bona fide means of attracting tourism. The Norwegian government even maintains a website dedicated to encouraging EV aficionados to visit. That’s not crazy: Ecotourism and sustainable travel of this type have grown significantly in recent years. So just like you might go to Botswana for an ethical safari, or to British Columbia for the legal weed and immense preserves of old growth redwoods, you can head to Norway to immerse yourself in a unique landscape and culture, and simultaneously experience what the world can be like when people work together to solve big problems.
Sure, it’s a small and relatively homogenous place, with a long history of collectivist thinking and a bunch of oil money. But Norway shows that it is possible to make considered adaptations that advance major initiatives. And what’s better than travel for seeing something new and changing one’s perspective? (We recommend going during the Norwegian summer—batteries, like humans, don’t thrive in the Nordic winter.)
If you take the plug-in plunge, you can start by renting an electric car from a standard car rental agency like Hertz and Avis, or use peer-to-peer car-sharing apps like Nabobil, Sixt, and Turo to try out the latest offerings from a wider range of companies, including Nissan, Renault, Hyundai, BMW, Audi, Jaguar, and Tesla. In addition to the aforementioned roadside charging stations (just download an app and enter your credit card info), charging is available at many hotels and inns throughout the country and even at some AirBnBs. Should you want to go further afield—either off road or off land—battery-powered boats, cruise ships, bikes, and funiculars are also available for travel in certain areas.
Of course, given that it is a relatively recent technology, and one that is rolling out rather unevenly, electrification has caused some local controversies in the famously egalitarian Norwegian culture. EVs’ exemption from ferry fares hurts boat operators, critics say. The tax incentives have fostered a gray market in buying and then reselling vehicles elsewhere in Europe. And the cars’ right to drive in bus lanes may slow down public transit. As a response, some of this legislation has been reconsidered or adjusted by local municipalities, where incentives like free parking or the ability to drive in HOV lanes have been debated or even eliminated.
Fortunately for the Norwegian EV tourist, electric vehicles are becoming so pervasive as to be commonplace. You won’t stand out. Which is a good thing in a country that adheres to the greater-social-good mantra The tallest blade of grass gets cut. Drive your EV all around the country, and watch the green grass grow around and along with you.