For electric cars, 2013 was not a good year. Three electric-vehicle (EV) companies – Better Place, Coda and Fisker – bit the dust, Tesla fires hit the headlines and Aston Martin, renowned for its beautiful cars, ditched the aptly named Cygnet EV. Things were not looking good.


It seems unlikely that 2014 will be the year that the market really takes off, but there are elements falling into place that could stimulate appetite quicker than 2013 may have indicated.


One factor is air pollution. Beijing’s poor air quality costs $300bn a year in health damage and premature deaths, according to a new World Bank report. As well as shutting down some 300 factories this year, China’s municipal government also has its sights set on the 5m cars that contribute 6% of the pollution. Last month they started restricting half of the cars on the roads each day, and also reduced new licence plates for petrol and diesel cars from 240,000 to 150,000 this year. Entering a lottery for these plates has odds of 0.8%, so the 20,000 easily accessible EV plates will shortly hold greater appeal to Chinese drivers.


Beyond Beijing, nine other Chinese cities actually had worse smog than the capital in 2013. And across the world Bogota, Athens, Mexico City and most recently Paris have attempted to restrict the cars on their streets via number plate systems to help alleviate pollution.


In London an EU fine for repeatedly breaching air quality (hitting 10 on the 1-10 scale) is looking more and more likely. One of mayor Boris Johnson’s plans to tackle this is to put in place the electric car rental scheme Autolib, following its successful Paris trial over the past three years. Users can borrow a car for as little as £5 for 30 minutes, paid via phones or smartcards. With 10,000 journeys a day in 1,800 vehicles, Paris is now one of the world’s EV meccas, claiming more battery-powered cars on the road and more charging points than nearly any other city. Schemes like this offer another missing piece of the EV puzzle – allowing more people the chance to try an electric car for themselves.


The stubbornly outstanding factor, however, is that most people still don’t see EVs as aspirational, despite the great work of Elon Musk at Tesla, and many others, such as the electric super cars from British manufacturerLightning. Too few people see these high-end EVs, let alone see them in action, and so still associate the EV with the likes of the Renault Twizy.


So this may be where a forthcoming electric racing series – Formula Ecan help. The inaugural season launches in Beijing in September, and then moves on to 10 major cities – Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Miami, Monte Carlo, Putrajaya, Rio de Janeiro, Punta del Este, Berlin and London. Unrestricted by noise and air pollution, as other motorised events would be, the races will take place in city centre locations, ensuring high visibility. Also likely to attract attention are famous team owners like Leonardo DiCaprio and Richard Branson. Formula E are confident of their influence, predicting additional sales of 77m EVs by 2040 (pdf).


As well as increasing the kudos and aspirational feel of EVs, the series’ technology advances will flow down to the vehicles we are able to buy or rent, helping extend the range and improve performance and design. Another lasting legacy will also be Qualcomms’ super fast wireless charging points that will be left in each city after the event for people to use.


Of course the EV market still has other hurdles to overcome, and these three elements alone cannot jumpstart the market overnight. But with the threat of fines and loss of productivity from falling air quality, increasing numbers of charge points from rental and other schemes, coupled with inspiring coverage and opportunities to look under the bonnet, we could start to finally see a shift in mindsets towards EVs.


This article appeared in the Guardian Business Sustainability section on the 28th March 2014; http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/formula-e-electric-cars-racing-aspirational