Fuel for Thought

A road map for going electric – part three

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We’ve looked previously at the various critical issues surrounding electrification of road transport and, like it or not, there’s little chance Britain will run out of steam on the electric road, or that alternative technology, such as hydrogen power, will displace electricity as the primary source of motive power on our roads. Many obstacles exist though, such as the availability of vital raw materials, EV production capacity, both globally and domestically, and key matters of electricity supply and EV charging facilities. Above all, perhaps, is the question whether this transition in transport technology is being modelled too closely on maintenance of our existing transport lifestyles, which have been fundamentally rocked by the Covid-19 crisis. It has initiated changes, like working from home and on-line shopping, which may survive at the expense of motoring. Has motoring become less important in our lives? It certainly has reacted to the Covid effect, with road fuel sales down 20 per cent in 2020, whilst high car insurance costs, low-cost and convenient Uber travel, and good (if costly) public transport mean that many young city folk no longer feel the need to learn to drive.

What about the potential for zero carbon EV city cars though, as an entry point to electric motoring at a lower cost than today’s EVs, mostly modelled on four-seater hatchback, crossover, and SUV formats? It could be years before most used EVs come within millions of motorists’ budgets, whilst a modest sub-compact EV, with a 100-mile range, and selling at around £15,000 could be a viable format, with scrappage incentives and/or subsidies to get people into EV motoring on a tight budget? Is there not a great danger, if Europe ignores such solutions, that China will fill the vacuum, at the expense of its motor industries!? Which is more important – offering £2,500 to a motorist trading in a clean Euro-6 car for a new £30,000 EV, or giving the same sum, perhaps along with a low interest loan, to help a motorist out of a dirty old air polluter and into a new sub-compact EV for £12,500, with the fuel savings helping to finance the monthly repayments?

Of course, the Covid crisis could hardly have come at a worse time, relative to the gathering pace of electrification, yet if governments want to keep people in employment, there’s now an almost insatiable demand for EV charging points, domestic and public, slow and rapid, to help expand the EV market. That would be well worth backing. Another obstacle, the world shortage of computer chips, is seriously threatening electrification. Today’s mostly up-market EVs, with their advanced communications and semi-automated driver aids, require up to 25 to 50 of these computer chips. Car manufacturers could probably make 50 per cent more EVs with a limited chip supply if they scaled back some of the technology of high specification models, and/or looked at ways to get more lower specification EVs onto the roads. Governments should be reacting helpfully in these situations, not slashing EV grants to save money, when they should be supporting an already ailing car industry.

As we’ve observed, the long road to UK electrification is a road full of obstacles, leading to a rather unclear destination, and only history will judge when we have even arrived there, and how it has been handled by our manufacturers and governments. The great danger is that Britain could reach 2030 with a mishmash of a motoring fleet, and millions of dirty diesel and petrol cars still lingering on the roads for many years, because their owners lack affordable alternatives, or viable EV charging facilities. The miserable £1.3 billion given in government grants for over 250,000 plug-in vehicles sold since 2011 compares very poorly with £300 billion taxation that has been paid by UK motorists over the same period. What about the UK government’s substantial share of around £30 billion in manufacturer penalty payments for selling high CO2 emissions cars, which surely should help support electrification? Given our new freedom from stifling EU regulation, the UK has done very little yet to develop more helpful transport policies. We can make some excuses, in view of the Covid situation, but it’s high time the UK revealed whether it is developing a clearer and viable vision of the road to electrification, or whether it’s going to largely allow market forces to dictate the evolution, which could end up with Britain in a 2030s motoring mess.

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