What Future For Electric Cars In The UK?

Jan 18, 2017

What Future For Electric Cars In The UK?

Jaguar Land Rover’s decision to focus its work on developing a new generation of electric cars in the UK, which came shortly after the nation voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, was widely seen as a major vote of confidence in ‘post-Brexit Britain’.

But there’s much more to it than that for a motor industry which is grappling with how it is going to face up to its central role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions as part of a global push to hit targets to cut emissions of all gases blamed for causing global warming.

Under the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 (which wasn’t actually enacted for a further eight years), the world’s leading industrial nations committed themselves to binding targets for reducing emissions of a number of greenhouse gases.

Wind forward two decades, and the motor industry is keen to show us all how it is responding to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with just about every manufacturer keen to show that they’re investing heavily in so-called Alternative Fuel Vehicles, or AFVs.

The UK’s Committee on Climate Change says the UK faces “stretching” targets for cutting its own greenhouse gas emissions, and is worried that “current policies, at best, will deliver about half the required reduction in emissions”. They commit the country to reducing emission levels by 80 per cent of their level as at 1990 by the year 2050.

In a report published in October 2016, it admitted there are currently “no scenarios for how the UK can achieve net zero domestic emissions”, but added that transport has a big part to play in achieving the cuts required, as some other sectors, including agriculture, aviation and industry, are unlikely to be able to make a significant contribution to meeting the targets.

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Challenging Backdrop

It’s against this challenging setting that the automotive industry is working hard to play its part in at least bringing emissions under control to a degree where the Kyoto target can be brought within sight.

Towards the end of 2016, the UK government announced it was making £390million available to the automotive industry and its partners for the development of technologies for both autonomous driving and so-called ‘green technologies’. These were, however, just part of a raft of proposals designed to promote the country as a hub for innovation.

When it comes to developing zero-emission electric cars here in the UK, the main impetus is bound to come from the auto manufacturers themselves, and among those at the forefront of such developments is Jaguar Land Rover.

While not technically a British company these days - it’s owned by Indian steel/industrial conglomerate Tata - the company’s chief executive, Ralf Speth, told a gathering of auto industry executives in November 2016: “We want to build our EVs (electric vehicles) in the West Midlands, in the home of our design and engineering.”

Speth had earlier said that JLR was keen to build electric cars and batteries in its home market “if the conditions, including pilot testing and support from science, were right.” It’s fair to assume, therefore, that the government’s announcement that it was committing funds to car-makers’ efforts to continue their development of green technology will have been made partly in response to Mr Speth’s wishes.

Another carmaker with a huge British presence, Nissan, announced in 2016 that it would expand the workforce at its Sunderland factory on Wearside in north-east England, having gained assurances that the British government would afford it “fair treatment” and a “level playing field”. Among the models produced here are the electric LEAF, which, by mid-2016, accounted for nearly 10 per cent of all electric vehicle sales throughout Europe.

By the end of that year, it was estimated that sales of electric cars across the whole of the continent had topped 500,000.

UK EV Sales Growing Rapidly - From A Low Start

Having just announced that a record of 2.7million cars were registered in the UK during 2016, however, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders also revealed that of these, just under 34,000 were in the ‘PHEV’ (plug-in or hybrid electric vehicle) category.

Nonetheless, that did represent a 36.4 per cent increase for the first 11 months of the year, when compared with the same period in 2015.

One of the key issues facing the future of electric vehicles for personal and business use in the UK is seen as the availability of a charging infrastructure.

At just over 4,000, this was estimated by Auto Express to still be just half the number of stations dispensing petrol or diesel - although it believes that, by 2020, if petrol stations continued to close at their current rate, there would be more electric charging stations than those selling fossil fuels.

While this is likely to take some time to develop, one piece of bad news which emerged at the end of 2016, was that the unregulated development of the network of charging stations in the UK had led to some claims that drivers facing ‘rip-off’ charges to use them.

The unregulated nature of the development of charging stations is considered by authorities to be the main reason why there can be wide discrepancies between the amounts operators can charge to use privately-owned EV charging stations.

However, the report above, which quoted an article published in The Times, said government ministers were promising that “rules will be introduced early this year to make roadside pricing for electricity more ‘consistent and transparent’, so that motorists are not driven away from buying environmentally friendly cars.”

The same article also found that, at up to £7.50 to charge a car for half an hour, this sometimes worked out more expensive in terms of the fuel cost per mile, than putting diesel in a conventionally-powered vehicle.

According to Ecarclub.co.uk, however, despite all the investment being made in the technology to build electric vehicles in the UK, the country is still lagging well behind in the provision of charging points. Like any other free and unregulated market, there are undoubtedly private businesses and individuals which will see the opportunity to install an EV charging point, and charge whatever they can get away with to people who want to use it.

Auto Express also noted that the lack of a single common standard for electric charging points, and the lack of a universal adaptor to enable all EVs to use every charging station, meant some users were confined to using only the slowest form of charger available, which could be plugged into a UK-standard three-pin electric socket.

MPs in the UK have also stated their belief that the uptake of electric cars in the UK is too slow, and said in summer 2016 that they feared this would mean the government would miss its target of ensuring that nine per cent of new cars and vans on British roads were classed as ultra-low emission vehicles by 2020.

The Auto Express piece also noted that part of the blame for limitations on the availability of charging points must be laid with the car manufacturers themselves. This is because they generally only supply a basic charging plug with their vehicles, designed to be compatible with a standard three-pin socket.

However, these only provide enough power to fully charge most EVs in about six to eight hours - meaning that a vehicle has to be left to charge overnight if the driver wants the reassurance of having their batteries powered up to their maximum level for most journeys.

The E-Car League

ECarClub noted that, despite being the third biggest market in Europe for EVs - behind only Norway and the Netherlands - we have some way to go to match these nations.

The roughly 80,000 EVs registered in the UK up to June 2016 was a figure boosted by the government’s Plug-in Car Grant, which provides a 25 per cent grant towards the cost of new EVs, up to a maximum of £4,500.

Globally, China is overwhelmingly the most significant single market for electric vehicles, with 184,000 sold in the country throughout 2015, compared to 71,040 sold in the US and 84,520 sold in Norway and the rest of the EU combined.

It must be said, though, that it isn’t just the level of CO2 emissions from vehicles which is concerning policy-makers. They’re also worried at the levels of other gases such as nitrogen oxide, which these pump out.

The London Standard notes that such noxious substances have contributed to the English capital regularly suffering from worse air quality than in comparable cities, such as Berlin and Paris. However, the city’s authorities know the size of the task which lies ahead, and are planning to have 100,000 EVs on London’s streets by 2020, and about 6,000 EV charging points within the next two years.

It’s clear that, given the ever-increasing level of the English capital’s congestion charge, along with proposals to extend it still further out from the centre of the city, motorists are being not-so-gently pushed towards considering buying an electric or low-emission hybrid car if they want to regularly drive into London.

So any electric vehicle charge (no pun intended) in the UK will almost certainly be centred on the capital, with drivers in other areas taking them up on the basis of how they meet their own needs, along with their willingness and ability to grab the incentives available as part of their buying package.

Women Showing The Way?

The UK is still some way off going as far as Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, which have all now pledged to stop the sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2025.

The American state of California is, however, considered ‘e-car central’. The home of Tesla has more than 200,000 EVs on its roads, or more electric cars than the Midwest, Northeast and South areas of the US combined. It was here that the Toyota Prius was first seen as a fashionable set of wheels, earning in the process some heavyweight celebrity endorsements, particularly, it seems from the female great-and-good in Hollywood.

Certainly from Toyota’s viewpoint, this was marketing gold dust - its cars were seen not only to be the choice of the latest crop of stars whom many people around the world admired, but it also showed that the technology behind them was easy to live with and fitted around the lives of people with busy family lives outside their work commitments.

Which EV Might Tempt You To Switch?

The market for electric cars has now reached the stage at which it can be fairly said that there’s a model to suit every need. So they’re no longer just for people who want to make a statement about the fact that they care about the planet - you can realistically drive anything from a compact city runaround to a luxury sports car.

Below we list some of the most popular models, including some which you might not have thought about before:

Tesla Model S: The original, and possibly best. There’s a £55,000-plus price tag, but you can more than double that if you really want to all-singing, all-dancing versions such as the P100D, which does about 380 miles to a single charge, yet will blast from rest to 62mph in an eye-watering 2.5 seconds. Of course, the petrolheads at Top Gear loved it, saying: “This could be the vehicle that shows that "cylinders may have had their day". Put it on your list of cars to buy with some of that lottery win…

Nissan Leaf: At the more practical end of the scale is this Sunderland-built model, of which more than 200,000 have found homes in the UK. It’s recently been introduced with a new battery, which the firm claims has a 155-mile range, but more realistically should be good for 100 to 110 miles between charges. It’s a good all-rounder according to What Car?, which noted: “It might be designed more for use in cities but it copes well on the motorways, too, and feels stable, secure and relaxing.”

Renault Zoe: The French arm of the Renault-Nissan alliance has its own take on the EV, which is effectively a Clio in a less chic frock. It’s even purposely designed to closely resemble the Clio on the inside, and Autocar picked up on its main selling point when it said “the car is blissfully easy to operate”, proving that Renault wants to show that anyone can step into one and drive it with little worry about changing their driving style.

Volkswagen e-Up/e-Golf: The fact that both of these popular German models come with an electric option is clearly the way VW feels it will be able to persuade most buyers to make the switch. According to Auto Express, the limited range will be the main drawback which might deter buyers who’d otherwise take their Golf to fill up with fossil fuel. The Up! Though, is more suited to this type of conversion, having been designed originally - and enjoyed considerable success - as an urban runabout. Again, the £20,575 price tag is likely to work against it, but The Week lauded it saying: “For your money, you get a well-made, well-designed and good to drive car with plenty of equipment.”

The Road Ahead

Their rapid growth of EVs still disguises the fact that sales represented just 0.1 per cent of the one billion cars on the world’s roads by the end of 2015.

However, many are optimistic about the future as more and more countries follow Norway’s suit and adopt progressive policies towards electric cars.

Manufacturers are jumping on board with developments of electric or hybrid propulsion systems to fit into their existing models, or coming up with completely new ones built around such a platform.

Given this, it will only be a matter of time before you walk into a car showroom and most, if not all, of the models in there will be EVs. So how long will it be before you take the bait?

Are you convinced of the merits of driving an electric car? If not, what will it take to win you over? Let us have your thoughts via our Facebook page.

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