Analysis: is the UK Ready for an Electrified Vehicle Future?

By 2040, the government’s proposed ‘Road To Zero’ emissions plan will require each new car sold in the UK to have an electric driving range of at least 50 miles. Cars on sale will be a mix of pure-electric vehicles, and fossil fuel (or other fuel) hybrids, augmented by a plug- in battery and electric drive motor, as Britain’s motoring moves towards having no tailpipe emissions. The plan hasn’t met wholesale approval. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said it could not support plans that “do not appreciate how industry, the consumer or the market operate and which are based neither on fact nor substance”.

Can the industry cope?

The motor industry’s issue is that single-market legislation makes cars more complex and expensive. If, say, the rest of the EU has a similar idea but asks the electric range to be only 30 miles, or 62 miles (100km), or to happen at a slightly later date, and if US or Chinese rules differ again, it adds layers of complexity and bureaucracy to the task of engineering the world’s most complicated consumer product. Car makers will cope, but it might affect the number and type of cars on sale in the UK.

If the UK government made plans alongside other countries and, yes, while consulting industry associations to establish a clear regional standard, even if a global one is unrealistic, it would mean cars can be both more efficient and cheaper. But the UK is a big car market, so if car makers want to sell cars here – and they will – they’ll get there.

The road that charges your electric car

Britain has a growing and ageing population that is travelling more, not less, and using cars and trains to do it. Car journeys are by far the dominant way we travel. Currently, they stand at a record 253.7 billion vehicle miles per year, 12.3% more than 20 years ago.

As the population grows and ages, and if buses continue to become less available, particularly in rural areas, and autonomous technology helps keep the elderly driving longer, there are reasons to think that car journeys will only increase, not decrease. For the purposes of this analysis, though, we’ll assume they’ll stay the same.

What about charging?

If ‘Road To Zero’ is anything, it’s clear in its implication: the intention is that most of these vehicle miles will be travelled using electric power. There’ll be two ways of giving a car a 50-mile electric range: by on-board charging (using a drive engine, range- extending generator, or fuel cell); or by plugging in your vehicle to a power supply. No hybrid car today with an electric-only range of less than a few miles can be plugged in, but if you’re fitting a battery big enough to do 50 miles, you might as well put a socket on it.

So the short of it is that every single car sold after 2040 will have a socket – or external charging of some kind – with the hope that you’ll use it most of the time. If it’s an EV, you’ll have to use it all the time. Today, there are about 16,500 publicly available vehicle charge points, accounting for around only 20% of all vehicle charging, because 70% of electric vehicle charges happen at home and 10% on business premises.

Assuming there are around 130,000 chargers today, then, that’s an increase of 23,846% for Britain to become fully electrically viable.

A charger built today, though, would likely not have a service life of 30 years, nor will commercial companies start building redundant chargers: it’s estimated that 200,000 EVs and PHEVs will be on the road this year, but that’s only a fraction of the vehicle parc. So there’ll surely need to be an exponential build-up to an immense installation programme in the 2030’s, with hundreds of thousands of chargers being installed every week before the electric switchover, and new substations and high-current supplies to parking areas. Can it be done? There are private companies whose fortunes will be made on it.

Either way, that’s why establishing a big enough charge network is critical, because the alternative for half of the population is that they’d be faced with either waiting to charge, or making essential journeys on fossil fuel power. It’s a set-up that penalises the least wealthy drivers. Not only could car choice be reduced and costs increased, but those who can’t charge at home could also have to pay fuel duty plus a per-mile road charge if they can’t find public charging. While the goal of zero tailpipe emissions remains admirable, then, the path towards it is arguably the rockiest in vehicle history.

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