8th August 2017
Chewing the fat over the plan to ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2040
It’s unarguable that decisive moves need to be made to improve air quality for current and future generations here in the UK, against a backdrop of an estimated 40,000 premature deaths1 occurring annually as a result of illegal levels of toxic air pollution, which also has a cost in economic terms.
The government’s announcement
Private and business motorists feel squeezed at the best of times so it was inevitable that Gove announcing a petrol and diesel new car ban by 2040 has been met with a bucket-load of negativity, with three in four people polled saying they oppose the move, and just 4% considering electric power for their next car2.
After it emerged that the mooted diesel scrappage scheme has been shelved, as have plans for various larger UK cities to introduce clean air zones, many prominent voices have piped up with cynical views, including Ed Miliband3, who reckons the 2040 petrol and diesel car ban is a ‘smokescreen’ to distract attention from the government’s general failings to address the nation’s air pollution with any urgency.
Kicked into the long grass?
Greenpeace and ClientEarth’s sentiments that the UK “cannot wait nearly a quarter of a century for real action” and that the government needs “to be doing things in the coming weeks and months” are entirely embraceable and resonate with scores of people. It’s fair to say, though, that with so many older vehicles still on the UK’s roads and many households unable to afford to suddenly go electric, the government and automotive industry can’t be expected to devise solutions that will take effect overnight.
Getting the facts straight
Hysteria has inevitably led to misinterpretation and questionable conclusions, with some newspapers inaccurately stating that the move “will also take in hybrid vehicles”4 and indicating that Gove’s announcement means that hybrids will even be banned by 2040 when all cars will be fully electric5, to the blog CarWitter6 dubbing the combustion car ban ‘b***ocks’.
While said blog’s editor is correct in citing the typical range of the average electric car as around 150 miles, statistics from RoadSafetyGB7, NI’s Department for Infrastructure8 and Ecotricity9 put the average car’s daily mileage as somewhere between 7.4 and 20 miles, meaning that EVs are certainly not unviable for a huge chunk of motorists. Okay, charging isn’t as convenient as filling up at a pump, but motorists seem to be increasingly warming to the plug-in concept.
Technological strides boost the plan’s plausibility
The argument that battery charging times will continue to impede the uptake of fully electric cars is increasingly weakening as various technology players and vehicle manufacturers make significant breakthroughs in cell technology. Take Toyota10, for example, which is reported to have developed a compact and lightweight car battery that will be able to be charged in just minutes and provide double the range of today’s crop of EVs. It sounds entirely plausible that such solid-state11 car batteries will have given current Lithium-ion technology the elbow by as soon as 2020, a mere few years’ away and significantly in advance of the government’s 2040 combustion engine ban.
PHEVs and EVs becoming more affordable
The once prohibitive price tag of electric and hybrid vehicles will undoubtedly continue to reduce and become more affordable as all manner of manufacturers clamber to launch hybrids, from PHEV iterations of the Porsche Panamera, BMW i8 and Bentley Bentayga at the posh end of the market, to the Kia Niro, Hyundai IONIQ and Toyota Prius at the more affordable end. Tesla’s Model 3 is likely to be one of the most sought-after cars of all time, combining a range akin to more traditional engines with zero emissions and more attainable pricing for fleets and private motorists alike.
A turning point in motoring and social history as a whole
Automotive engineer Ralph Hosier comments on his blog that “we are rapidly approaching the point where electric powertrains will outperform combustion engines for a lower total investment” and we reckon his view that “we’ll be hitting that tipping point in about ten years” feels about right and is once again much sooner than 2040. With petrol, diesel and even plugin hybrid powertrains highly likely to be unheard of by this point in history anyway, the government’s announced ban is starting to sound quite academic.
As we’ve blogged about recently13, anyone fretting over the country’s lights going out in a sudden blackout due to increasing numbers of motorists adopting electric cars can rest assured that the National Grid, Electric Nation, Green Alliance and plenty of other organisations are on the case and will ensure the worst doesn’t happen.
The UK’s mass infrastructure upgrade
Roads and pavements continuously being dug up is something most of us are used to by now, which is just as well, seeing as how councils, electricity providers, automotive bodies, manufacturers and other entities like supermarkets will have to grapple with how to make topping up one’s EV’s battery as convenient as pulling up at a fuel pump. Will charging points be revolutionised by 2040? It’s conceivable, but the land’s JCBs will have their work cut out, as wireless car charging networks will be being rolled out at the same time, not to mention the HS3 rail upgrade that is mooted for a 2033 completion date.
What about HGVs?
Cleaning up cars is one thing, but anyone who’s driven, walked, taken public transport or cycled in a UK city or large town will have noticed that buses, vans, taxis and HGVs comprise a hefty percentage of traffic observed. It would be logical to therefore feel that the government should be focussing more heavily on these typically more polluting vehicles. In reality, although hybrid vans and taxis are now coming on stream, 2040 seems a tad too soon for viable alternatively-fuelled HGVs to have become affordable and mainstream, with compressed natural gas only just starting to make tiny inroads now.
By 2040 weren’t driverless vehicles meant to be commonplace?
Still, 23 years is a long time to say the least, so who knows what rapid strides in vehicular technology will transpire? If the government feels that 2040 is realistic for the time when electric vehicles, which are already burgeoning a quarter of a century in advance, will be the norm, what does that say about its views on driverless cars becoming commonplace? While autonomous technology is already very advanced, the government’s plans reinforce cynics’ feelings that it’ll take more than a couple of decades for the UK’s infrastructure to enable a driverless reality despite all the media frenzy.
Facing a short-term future dominated by Brexit followed by the government’s anti-combustion posturing in the medium to longer term, smaller vehicle manufacturers such as McLaren and Aston Martin right up to titans like VAG are left with very delicate investment decisions to make, 2040 feeling far away in human terms but being relevant right now when it comes to planning strategy. For all those in and related to the automotive sector and indeed for society as a whole, this is one of the most significant times in history.