Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2030 onwards. This is part of a “green industrial revolution” to tackle climate change and create jobs in industries such as nuclear energy, with £4 billion allocated to the plan.
There has indeed been increased global demand for electric vehicles – up by 43% in 2020. However there are questions whether this ban is an act of encouragement in accordance with consumer demand, or instead coercion to hurry the transition to electric vehicles.
The Major Shift
The shift in industry towards electric cars is making great headway.
Royal Mail recently announced that its delivery office in Bristol will be the first to have an all-electric fleet of collection and delivery vehicles. The Bristol Mayor, Marvin Rees, described the news as fantastic, stating “we want to support people and businesses in transitioning our fleet to cleaner and more efficient vehicles.
This commitment to electric vehicles (EVs) has been seen throughout the major firms: Vauxhall owner, Stellantis, has said it will invest more than £26 billion into electric vehicles between July and the end of 2021, and the Jaguar brand plans to spend around £2.5 billion a year on new technology for its cars in order to be all-electric by 2025. Moreover, Volvo has pledged to go fully electric by 2030 and will phase out all car models with internal combustion engines. “The fully electric premium segment will be the fastest growing automotive market, so its very natural to focus on that” says Bjorn Annwall, the Head of Europe for Volvo.
However even with the transitioning of these companies, some consumers are still sceptical about making the switch from petrol and diesel vehicles to electric vehicles. Lisa Brankin, Managing Director at Ford of Britain, reported that from a survey carried out, just over 10% of customers were actively considering a battery electric vehicle as their next purchase. In fact, research from the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SSMT) has found that EVs account for just over 1% of the 35 million vehicles on UK roads.
So why is there this lack of demand for electric vehicles? Motoring journalist, Mark James, summed up the three things that need to change to make EVs more appealing: “prices need to come down, batteries need to improve but also infrastructure needs to get better as well, so that drivers are not worried where their next charge is coming from.”
It therefore seems appropriate to analyse each of Mark James’ elements, to determine whether this ban is encouragement or coercion for the electric vehicle industry.
Any long-term vehicle will cost a substantial amount. Therefore, consumers will want to be sure that their gamble on purchasing electric vehicles is indeed a worthwhile financial investment, both in terms of longevity and frequent use.
Elinor Chalmers, owner of an electric Nissan Leaf, came across “a pleasant surprise” of free to use charging points for her EV, and says “in those first three years, I saved about £5000 equivalent of what I would have been paying in diesel.” These free charging points are found “at different locations such as attractions, zoos, retail parks, garden centres – all sorts of different place” says Zap Map, the EV Charging Website. Roger Munford, owner of an EV, made the most of these free charging points on a road trip from Southampton to Poland and back, costing him just £19 in electric power for his entire journey!
Although Zap Map has said some of these devices are no longer free for everyone to use, some local councils are still subsidising electric charging points. In Scotland, around 60% of public charging devices – over 1,300 – are free to use after an annual access fee of £20 to the operators, Chargeplace Scotland. Indeed some may have the view that these low costs and subsidies from local councils may only be available in the short-term as an incentive for consumers to transition to EVs, and will not be available once demand picks up. To this I respond: why not make the most of it? Whilst electric vehicles are slowly being introduced, these free incentive charging points could be profited from, and once EVs start to become popular and the free incentives decline, existing owners of an EV will then be able to make use of the infrastructure that will hopefully be in place by that time, of which there may be lower costs to use as EVs become the new norm. Thus, whilst there is indeed a gamble to be made, there are also big savings to be made – a £19 trip to Europe and back, as well as £5000 over three years.
- Battery Improvement
Car batteries have been a concern for consumers. How long will the battery power last on a single trip? How often does the car battery need to be replaced? What happens to old car batteries?
The journey distance of an internal combustion engine car can be great, and the need to stop to top up the fuel is somewhat quick – up to fifteen minutes perhaps. However, with EVs, the electric energy needed to power the vehicles is relatively greater and the waiting time for the vehicle to charge can be up to an hour! Zap Map says the majority of free charging devices are indeed ‘fast’ chargers, however typically they would only add up to 30 miles of range. There are also ‘rapid’ chargers – 422 across the UK in fact – which can add over 150 miles of range, although this still takes an hour’s wait for charging. The consumer concern towards EVs is therefore somewhat understandable as an electric ‘refuelling’ can take up to an hour, which can greatly increase the time for a single journey. In the absence of any established innovation today, perhaps the shorter range and long charging waits are merely a side effect to adopting EVs – one which must be accepted in return for EVs’ greener sustainability.
However, the batteries themselves are also a concern for consumers. Tesla were fined last month by a court in Norway after a software update issued in 2019 slowed down battery charging speeds, affecting the number of miles some of the vehicles could travel between charges. The case was brought by 30 customers and the fines were up to £11,500 for each complaint. Despite the software being designed to “protect” the batteries, the update both reduced the range and charging speeds. One customer, David Rasmussen, claimed his Tesla Model S had dropped from 247 miles to 217 miles within 5 weeks of downloading the update. Hyundai also had battery issues in their vehicles and had to replace the electric batteries in nearly 82,000 of its electric vehicles worldwide because of a fire risk. The overall cost was estimated to be around £640 million.
It is clear then that the concern surrounding the batteries themselves is legitimate as charging speeds and range are key elements when it comes to purchasing an electric vehicle. With uncertainty surrounding the industry already, those who do indeed take the leap of purchasing an EV rather than a petrol/diesel car, will not want to then be sceptical about whether in fact their vehicle will be subject to software update problems or fire risks.
It is also worthy to note that EV batteries are larger and heavier than regular cars and are made up of several hundred lithium-ion cells – all of which need dismantling after use. These contain hazardous materials and as the BBC described: they tend to explode if disassembled incorrectly. Nissan therefore, are reusing old batteries from its Leaf car models, with Volkswagen following suit. However the thought that comes to my head is whether consumers will be comfortable in an EV with a recycled battery, given the battery problems already with brand new ones.
With the electric vehicle industry being somewhat new to the world, there is inevitably a delay in the development of the relevant infrastructure. We see petrol and diesel stations dotted all over the country, but electric charging points are much less common. Zap Map claims there to be 24,000 charging points across the UK, with 918 ultra-rapid charge points too. However, bigger plans are still in motion to develop this.
Plans have now been submitted for an electric car battery plant to be opened in Coventry, labelled the ‘Gigafactory.’ Described as the “next important step” by the leader of Coventry City Council, George Duggins, this Gigafactory would create electric car batteries and keep the UK competitive in this new vehicular era. These Gigafactories have already been developed in other parts of the world – including by Tesla in the US – and the UK’s second is planned to be in Northumberland. Nissan has also joined the investment into the UK having announced a major expansion of electric vehicle production at its car plant in Sunderland. Nissan’s partner, Envision AESC, will build a Gigafactory as part of a £1 billion investment, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling it a “pivotal moment.”
The UK’s energy regulator has also approved plans to invest £300 million in low carbon projects, which will include the implementation of 1,750 charging points for EVs. Ofgem have said this aims to address the “range anxiety” as “Britain’s cables, substations and other infrastructure need a massive upgrade to support this new demand for electricity.” Furthermore, an electric vehicle charging hub, described as the most powerful in Europe, is set to open in Oxford. Pivot Power, part of EDF Renewables, has plans for 40 sites in total with the Oxford Superhub being the first to go ahead. The Superhub will have 38 fast and ultra-rapid chargers, will be open 24/7, and will meet the “growing need for EV charging in the area for the next 30 years”, states the council.
However, whilst the current number of charging points is not far short of France and Germany, and has doubled since 2018, the UK is still far off from the SSMT’s estimate of 2.7 million charging points needed by 2030 to accommodate the changing industry. “Drivers need certainty that they can recharge their vehicle conveniently and on demand” says the SMMT. Cardiff is experiencing said uncertainty as the city currently has fewer than 100 charging points yet needs around 10,000 in the next four years to cope with an increase in demand.
To conclude, the ban on petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2030 is a rash act. Understandably, the ban is to accelerate the transition from internal combustion engines to electric batteries, and there have indeed been acceleratory incentives via costs savings for consumers to make the switch: both through positive reinforcement of free charging points as well as through negative reinforcement of EVs avoiding emission charges in City Clean Air Zones – for example in London, Birmingham, and Bristol.
However, as described in this article, it is not simply just the costs that leads to consumer scepticism. Even if we suppose consumers are happy with EV prices and costs, there are still manufacturing and development issues. The lack of infrastructure means even if consumers are willing to transition to EVs already, they cannot be accommodated with charging points within the UK’s infrastructure and therefore must wait up to a decade for their EV purchase to be worthwhile. The problems in car batteries also mean these willing consumers cannot be guaranteed a reliable vehicle, nor a fire risk free vehicle. With this in mind, is there really a high demand for electric vehicles? A mere ban on the sale of new electric vehicles from 2030 does not solve either of these issues so is questionable whether it is line with consumer demand at all.
In order to solve the EV issues that hinder demand, time is needed for the said Gigafactories and charging points to be built, and innovation is needed to rectify the battery problems. There has indeed been innovation by Catl, a Chinese car battery-maker and Tesla supplier, who claim to be ready to manufacture a product capable of powering a vehicle for 1.2 million miles across a 16-year lifespan. However until this comes into common use, the same concerns of batteries and infrastructure remain. If these issues are not resolved by 2030, consumers looking for a purchase of a new vehicle will have no choice but to accept these as consequences of committing to electric vehicles. Does this at all solve consumer scepticism? Is this in accordance with demand?
It therefore appears that this UK ban has elements of coercion both for the firms to rush their production and safety procedures, and for consumers to accept imperfect electric vehicles and lack of accommodating infrastructure.