Summary: The importance of achieving zero carbon is accepted to be critical. One area where we can see how to achieve that is by eliminating fossil fuels from transportation. Unfortunately the reality is very different from what government and particularly manufacturers are planning. There is widespread unreality about what has to happen and the timescales and costs of achieving the necessary goals. The move to electric vehicles, and hybrids must not count, will happen far too slowly with present plans and the emphasis on large heavy SUV type electric vehicles completely misses the point. The approach to battery charging also needs to change since most people will not have access to charging points in high-density housing areas. Only by restricting the use of heavy vehicles in urban areas can we hope to move in the right direction.
Electric vehicle sales are booming in the UK. The government has announced that internal combustion vehicles (ICV’s) will no longer be sold in the UK after 2035 and possibly not after 2032. Within a few years all vehicles on our roads will be electric. Job done! Unfortunately it’s a little bit more complicated.
Let’s start with affordability. At present the cheapest ICVs cost under £10,000. The cheapest all electric vehicles cost about £25,000 even with the government grant. Prices of EV’s are high as manufacturers cater to the demand for SUVs rather than city cars. Keeping the prices high helps while demand outstrips manufacturing capacity. An electric car is dramatically simpler than ICV. You don’t need to have any of an exhaust system, petroleum delivery, internal combustion engine, radiator and cooling system, gearbox, petrol tank etc. You need a battery and you need an electric motor and brakes but not much more. The 100% premium is clearly good for the manufacturers if not for the public and certainly not if you want to go green.
Headline sales of electric vehicles are dominated by plug-in hybrids, the great majority of which are run solely on petrol or diesel. Garages report that at their first service most hybrids have their charging cable pack unopened in the boot. Pure electric vehicles only account for 2.3% of car sales. Hybrids are even less efficient than ICVs being heavier and more expensive to build and worse polluters than their purer ICV cousins. If you really care about the environment the only choice is pure electric.
The average car in the UK is over 8 years old, and new ICVs are dramatically more reliable than they were. Indeed a recent Which? report remarked that the least reliable cars in that report were more reliable than the most reliable cars 10 years earlier. We must expect current new-car purchases to last long after the 2035 deadline.
The lack of significant growth in personal income means that the average car age in the UK is likely to increase and by 2035 may well be in excess of 10 years. This means the average car in 2035 will have been manufactured in 2025 and with present growth rates that will be a very small fraction of the total car sales in the car sales in the UK. With 31.5 million cars (82.5%), 4 million vans (10.5%) and 0.5 million heavy goods vehicles (1.3%) in the UK, by 2035 we must expect the vast majority of vehicles not to be electric and the 120 million tonnes of CO2 per annum generated now to be only somewhat reduced.
Current EVs are expensive but above all big and heavy. Basic physics shows that cars driven identically in terms of speed and acceleration etc. have double the energy consumption of a vehicle half that wait, irrespective of the fuel, petrol or electric. Great strides have been made in the efficiency of ICV’s in recent years but that has now been largely lost by the move towards bigger and heavier vehicles. Many British villages, towns and cities with their origins in the Middle Ages have narrow streets made narrower by car parking. The move to SUVs is difficult to justify for the vast majority of users and causes increased congestion, increased pollution including from tyre wear and tear and reduced parking space because of their size. Again, if you really care about the environment, the only choice is smaller, lighter cars and always pure electric, not the great electric juggernauts favoured by the relatively wealthy who can afford them.
Anyone thinking about going electric will worry about battery charging. If you are relatively wealthy or live out-of-town then you are much more likely to have a garage or at least a driveway to park your car and charge it. A great number of British houses however are terraced or multi-storey flats. Reserved parking for your car is out of the question. If you can’t park near a charger you’re done for. Despite the hype about high-speed charging, most vehicles need to be charged for a time comparable with the time they are driven between charges. Five minutes filling up your ICV now makes an EV much less appealing. Fast charging points are expensive, and the risk of running out of power away from home is a serious disincentive if you drive a good distance at all regularly.
One interesting approach which does not appear to have been taken seriously by manufacturers is designing an electric vehicle to have easily replaceable batteries. Garages could offer pre-charged batteries which could be slotted in in just a few minutes with the right design of car. The batteries are heavy, up to half a ton, and the cost to the motorist would be a combination of the electric charge plus a daily rental rate for the battery. Batteries should last at least 10 years and cost several thousand pounds each, depending on their size. Cars with rapid-replacement batteries could use smaller ones if that was all that was needed and that was all that was available. Such an arrangement would allow a car to have an effective recharge time of only a few minutes. This would also provide a role for garages otherwise facing redundancy as the 2035-2050 window approaches. The nearest to this ideal was Renault who offered their Zoe vehicle with a battery rental, but that approach has been removed at the end of 2019. The Zoe did not have a rapid exchange battery design but the principle was there.
Going green properly will only really get going once manufacturers reduce the price of their vehicles, and concentrate on smaller lighter vehicles. They must become dramatically easier to recharge, probably by having rapid replacement batteries supported by garages. In the meantime we have to appreciate that progress is currently very slow and not all of it moving in the right direction. Hybrids need to be discouraged now as do large and heavy vehicles of all sorts. Only then can we honestly hope to reduce our energy demands for personal transport.