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Road transport contributes 15% of total emissions according to World in Data, so take up of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is a crucial move to help meet emissions targets.
The UK is committed to cutting its CO2 emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels, an increase on the current 68% reduction by 2030. To help meet its targets, the government has pledged to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030, and hybrids from 2035 in its 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution. So how ready are we to embrace BEVs?
The Guardian recently reported that the UK has just overtaken France as Europe's second largest electric car market in Europe, with around 31,800 BEVs sold in the UK in the first three months of the year according to independent automotive analyst Matthias Schmidt. While the market is clearly growing, it's still a small portion of the roughly half a million new passenger vehicles bought over the period.
As with any disruptive technology, mass adoption depends on the quality of the product, its affordability and ease of use. Uber's September 2020 Spark Report identifies three main barriers to EV adoption, particularly for high-kilometre commercial drivers:
While the upfront costs are higher for BEVs than for Internal Combustion Engine vehicles (ICEs) and hybrids, they are now thought to be cheaper to run and close to having a lower lifetime ownership cost. In November 2020, electrek suggested that an EV's average lifetime ownership cost in the UK is approximately £1,000 less than an ICE's although much will depend on the individual use case.
Running costs (with the notable exception of insurance which costs around 25% more) are generally cheaper for EVs. Direct Line estimates that an EV costs around £33.50 per week to run compared with £42.40 for an ICE, a difference of 21%. Refuelling costs 58% less for an EV and annual tax and maintenance costs including MOTs and servicing, are 49% lower.
That's all very well but if you can't afford an EV in the first place, the cheaper running costs won't be persuasive. Cars are expensive at the best of times but with a wide range of models and an extensive second-hand market, they are still within reach of the majority of UK households. An estimated 77% of UK households have cars and 81% of the population have access to a car. There is a growing market for second-hand hybrids, but the Spark Report suggests it will take another two to five years for a second-hand market to emerge in long range BEVs. Even then, the upfront costs of buying a BEV will be a considerable barrier to mass adoption.
While some BEVs claim to be able to do 350 miles on a full charge, many can only manage something closer to the 120-150 range. With a 30 minute 'rapid' charge, you can boost the car by 60-200 miles but that's a long way off the five minutes needed to fill up a car with petrol.
Convenient rapid charging is obviously crucial for mass adoption of BEVs. Zap-Map provides running statistics on the total number of EV charging points in the UK. At the time of writing, there were 15,064 locations with public charging points, with 23,546 devices offering 40,560 connectors. Approximately 1,000 connectors are added each month but that is not nearly enough to service the population. At the end of September 2020, Vehicle Licensing Statistics suggested there were 31.9m cars, 4.2 LGVs, 0.48m HGVs, 1.35m motorbikes, 0.14m buses and coaches, and 0.77m other vehicles licensed for use in the UK.
In November 2020, the government pledged spending of £1.3bn on charging infrastructure over the next four years. This is significant, but some way off the £16.7bn investment which the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said in September 2020 would be required to install the 1.7m chargers it estimates are needed to meet the government's targets.
Another issue with the existing charging infrastructure is that much of it, particularly on-street, is slow-charge (3-5kW), which may not generate enough power to fully charge a car overnight. While there is growth in rollout of rapid charging points (25-99kW), having to break a long journey to put more juice in a BEV is still a long-winded process compared to getting petrol. And drivers may well be put off when they learn that a disproportionate number of public charging points (over 30%) are in Greater London.
The majority of car drivers want to charge their cars at the location where they normally park. This would need chargers to be at least 7kW but preferably 11kW or more. There are subsidies for installing chargers at private properties, but most people don't have access to off-road parking. The solution has to be more on-street charging points of sufficient power, rolled out nationwide.
It's fair to say that estimates of the number of charging points needed vary, but by any measure, we are clearly some way off an adequate charging infrastructure which would allow all of us to make the move to EVs.
Governments around the world are trying to stimulate take up of EVs by offering subsidies and incentives. In the UK, there is no road tax on EVs and there are enhanced tax breaks on EVs for businesses and on company cars. ULEZ and congestion charges do not apply. Grants are available for some business purchases, and the cost of home-chargers is subsidised by £350.
The Spark Report recommends continuing to "tilt the playing field" to make BEVs the best economic choice. It recommends BEV subsidies and ICE taxes, including for parking and road use (not least to help the government make up loss of petrol tax revenue). It goes on to say that this must be done in partnership with industry, particularly by leveraging public and private sector data to help with strategic rapid implementation of innovative solutions.
This will require investment by government and industry alike. EVs still need to be more affordable and more efficient. Drivers want to know their car will take them where they need to go without a frantic search for an elusive rapid charging point and an inconvenient break to the journey, and they want access to near-home charging. This requires more efficient technology for cars and chargers, rollout of charging infrastructure, as well as economic incentives.
Even if you're persuaded by the environmental benefits and lower running costs of EVs (and the petrol heads may cling to performance and variety of ICEs for as long as they can), barriers to mass adoption need to be dismantled if the UK is to ban new ICE sales on target.
To discuss the issues raised in this article in more detail, please reach out to a member of our Technology, Media & Communications team.