UK’s zero-emission car transition a ‘huge challenge’

20 May 2021

The UK government’s planned transition from internal combustion engine (ICE) cars to zero-emission ones within the next 14 years will be a ‘huge challenge.’ This is according to a new report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which examines government project’s value for money.  

Current plans outline a phase-out of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and for new models to be zero-emission from 2035. However, the PAC pointed out that ultra-low emission cars made up only 11% of new-car registrations last year.

Convincing consumers

The report states that to achieve the ambitions, consumers must be convinced of the affordability and practicality of zero-emission cars. It pointed out that in comparison with ICE equivalents, prices of these models are too high, with take-up uneven across the country.

The PAC also identified infrastructure as an area of concern. While the number of charging points is increasing, the committee said many more would be needed within a short period of time to support the desired growth in electrically-chargeable vehicles (EVs). The committee stated it is not convinced the government is on track with this crucial infrastructure.

It also pointed out that governmental departments would need to consider the practical applications of such a large societal change. This included the effect on skills and capabilities needed to support the transition, the environmental and social implications, as well as the impact on future power needs and the loss of fuel duties. The PAC stated that no published plans map out how governmental departments propose to manage these impacts, who they would work with or timetables for any action.

‘A mountain to climb’

‘The government has a mountain to climb to get to all new cars in the UK emitting zero carbon in the next 14 years: to convince consumers and make the cars appealing, to make the car industry environmentally and socially compliant, to build the necessary infrastructure to support this radical shift and possibly biggest of all, to wean itself off carbon revenues,’ said Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee. ‘Yet once again what we have got is a government throwing up a few signs around base camp - and no let-ups in demand for oversized, petrol-guzzling vehicles.’

She went on to emphasise the need to avert the incoming real-world challenges posed by this transition. Hiller added that the government would need to get the country behind it and lead the way in the race against climate change.

Levels of demand

‘I would say this has been written by people who haven’t owned or lived with an EV and who are suddenly looking at a loss of tax revenue because petrol and diesel volumes will fall dramatically whilst electricity demand will rise,’ said Anthony Machin, head of content and product at Glass’s, and EV-owner of four years.

While agreeing that a plan is needed, he said that scheduling phasing dates would allow for planning. ‘It is nine years until the cessation of pure ICE. Used ICE will remain in the market for at least another 10 years with PHEVs in the market even longer.’

'The transition to electric mobility is very much driven by a political agenda and not by technological superiority. Considering the bigger picture here, it is important to recognise that the tough and very much aligned emissions reduction targets can help attract innovation and technology around the sustainability theme to Europe,' said Autovista Group’s chief economist Dr Christof Engelskirchen.

'That is much needed in order to create momentum for economic growth and wealth for the next hundred years. Being very clear on the targets as early as possible, making them tough to reach but reachable, is a negotiation and challenge for all stakeholders. But the eventual clarity around them will facilitate the race for superiority and innovation in electric mobility,' he added.

Furthermore, the Daily Brief predicts that an incoming vacuum of new-ICE vehicles will likely create additional demand within the new-car market prior to the ban, as some consumers try to get one of the last available models. Once no new ICE vehicles can be bought, the used-car market will be next in line to see a surge in demand.

Home charging

While there are another nine years for infrastructure to develop, Machin remarks that the majority of charging will be taking place at home, which in itself is no disaster. With wall boxes chargers being offered by OEMs and charging solution suppliers coming to the fore, the automotive industry can continue to support this change.

But infrastructure planning is needed. While ultra-fast chargers get a lot of attention, Machin believes destination chargers will be more important. This includes plug-in points at cinemas, shopping centres, offices –anywhere a car is stationary for an extended period for ‘top-up charging.’ Street furniture infrastructure also has a role to play. ‘Remember not everyone has off-street parking, so street furniture will be key to this change,’ he added. ‘A charger in a lamp post outside of the front door would be a great compromise for many owners.’

Daily Brief editor Phil Curry has first-hand experience of the issues with a lack of home-charging solutions. ‘Having tested a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) in 2019, whilst living in a flat with no access to domestic charging, I was heavily reliant on the local infrastructure, including supermarkets and leisure parks,’ he commented. ‘At the time, there were very few charging locations. However, in the last 12 months, I have noticed a large increase in the number of installed points in various destinations.’

There is the prospect of smart charging and Vehicle to Grid (VTG) in the not-so-distant future. It may even be possible that home charging could be taxed differently to home-power requirement, such as the electricity used by a TV. This holds the potential to replace fuel duty while also reducing other governmental expenses, like healthcare costs created by air pollution.

‘We should remember the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – part of the World Health Organisation – announced in June 2012 that it had reclassified diesel exhaust as a ‘definite carcinogen’ – putting it in its highest category (Category 1),’ Machin added. It must be remembered that this plan hopes to save lives, not to mention the planet.

Recharging and refuelling

‘The automotive industry shares government’s ambition for an electric revolution, a transformation that has already begun. However, as the Public Accounts Committee has made clear, we need a comprehensive and holistic plan to get us there in time,’ said Mike Hawes, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) chief executive.

He also emphasised the need to convince consumers to make the switch, arguing incentive are needed to make EVs affordable for all. In March, the UK government announced it was scaling back grants and reduce price eligibility. Hawes added that recharging should also be made as refuelling, emphasising the need for a rapid rollout of infrastructure. ‘Now is the time for the Government to match its world-leading ambitions with a world-class policy package,’ he said.

Infrastructure lottery

Green campaign group Transport and Environment (T&E) asserted that the UK had a ‘postcode lottery for electric-car charging.’ The NGO launched an interactive map highlighting the disproportionate progress of infrastructure installation across the country. Pointing to a new study, T&E identified London as having an extensive network but said the east and south-west of England have only 18% of the chargers estimated to be needed by 2025.

‘The current network is adequate in most places, but we must level up access to public charging throughout the UK and end the postcode lottery,’ said Greg Archer, UK director of T&E. ‘Local authorities should be required to provide a right to charge for residents and visitors. It’s up to the government to give the funding and support needed to make this happen.’

‘The actual experience of most electric-car users is far better than perceptions of charging. But to reassure more drivers who want to shift to electric, we need sufficient infrastructure throughout the UK that is both reliable and easy to access. The government doesn’t need to pay to install chargers, but it should use regulations to ensure there are enough sites in workplaces and other car parks, and that the costs of connecting to the electricity grid are affordable,’ Archer concluded.