Will green license plates spark an electric car revolution in Russia? It’s worth a shot

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Publish date: January 23, 2019

As Russia works to catch up with a worldwide shift toward electric cars, one influential Moscow think tank says it has hit on just the thing to drive Russia’s emissions-free future: Green license plates.

As Russia works to catch up with a worldwide shift toward electric cars, one influential Moscow think tank says it has hit on just the thing to drive Russia’s emissions-free future: Green license plates.

According to  reports in the Russian media, NTI Avtonet, a Moscow-based braintrust of vehicle innovators, car dealerships and government policymakers, the green license plates would adorn electric vehicles so their drivers can take advantage of certain perks, like special parking privileges, access to less congested traffic lanes and tax breaks.

While none of these benefits have yet been extended to Russia’s rarified company of electric drivers, NTI Avtonet says the proposed measure will force Russia’s foot-dragging lawmakers to pass stalled legislation that would grant them. At the same time, they would  stimulate demand for emissions-free vehicles among Russia more status-obsessed drivers.

Though the number of electric cars in Russia remains small, the rates at which Russians are buying them has exploded over the past few years — jumping from just 920 new electric cars registered nationwide in January 2017 to more than 2,500 only halfway through 2018. This doesn’t account for used electric cars, which are especially popular Russia’s far east – where numbers are estimated to be twice as high as these official statistics.

It’s this trend — plus 70 percent boost in electric car sales worldwide – that NTI Avtonet says Russian lawmakers should encourage.

murmansk charger 1 Bellona's e-car charger in Murmansk. Credit: Bellona

The group, whose staff roster includes several government ministers, has given its proposal to the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of the Interior for approval.

Given NTI Avtonet’s clout, it’s presumably just a matter of time before the new color appears among Russia’s rainbow of specialized license plates – each of which signals a different step on Russia’s official pyramid.

But Russia has some very serious barriers to those who would join these green-plated ranks. Charging stations – which are becoming more common in big cities like Moscow and St Petersburg – are still scarce in the rest of the country’s remaining 11 time zones.

The sticker price on most electric cars is also well out of reach for most Russians. A Lada – for decades the gas-driven workhorse of the Russian populace – goes for around $5,000, while a Tesla Model S costs more than 14 times that.

NTI Avtoset says its green-plate proposal will help overcome some of those hurdles. The more cars sporting green license plates, their logic suggests, the bigger the constituency demanding legislation that will keep step with their needs.

But not everyone is buying into the idea. Dmitry Klevtsov, one of the leaders of the Russian Car Owner’s Association threw cold water on the initiative in an interview with the RIA Novosti newswire.

“The cost of an electric car and road infrastructure, these are the two things that will stimulate” electric car purchases, he said. “Green, red — what’s the difference? Trust me, car owners already know which cars are electric, which ones use gas, and which are hybrids.”

True. But could the green plate idea really hurt?

Answering that means appreciating the mosaic of codes stenciled on Russian license plates and the particular tales they tell.

To begin with, Russian plates have a number that indicates what city you’re car is registered in, and this appears right under the Russian flag. The numbers confers an allure all their own: 77s, 197s and 777s for Moscow and 78s and 178s for St Petersburg. Then come all the rest — 51 for Murmansk; 23 for Krasnodar; 25 for Vladivostok, and 49 for those all the way out in Magadan, and so on.

The numbers are then printed against a color-coded background: White for a standard private vehicle, blue for cars driven by law enforcement officials, yellow for public transport, black for military, and red for diplomatic cars. These diplomatic numbers contain a rigid status structure as well, depending on who established diplomatic relations with Moscow first. The United Kingdom is thus 001, the Untied States 004, all the way through to Sudan at 168.

The particulars might seem trivial, but to a schooled eye, a Russian license plate offers a biographical sketch of the car it’s affixed to.

And while it’s true, as Klevtsov says, that drivers do know what kinds of cars they’re looking at, that’s not nearly as appealing as knowing, from a glance at a license plate, that your new electric car has arrived at a lofty step on Russia’s color-coded automotive ziggurat.

So if the Russian state really plans on printing new a colored license plate for electric cars, let their owners flaunt the green.