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Why the government needs to drive the UK’s electric vehicle dream

Public enthusiasm for EVs is on the rise, but range anxiety and charging infrastructure remain barriers to mass adoption. 

By Rohan Banerjee

In February, the government said it intended to bring forward a ban on the sale of new petrol or diesel cars from 2040 to 2035, pending a consultation. Now, with Boris Johnson announcing his 10-Point Climate Plan to kick-start a “green industrial revolution”, the timetable for achieving mass adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) has been accelerated further, with the ban moved to 2030. The new rules will allow some hybrid models to remain on sale until 2035.

While the fresh urgency injected into the UK’s EV transition has drawn praise from environmentalists, Mike Hawes, the chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), which represents the UK car industry, has warned that it will take more than “an arbitrary date” to turn aspiration into reality.

Car makers are fully aligned to decarbonisation goals, he said in a statement. In fact, they are “leading the charge” with billions of pounds invested in “new models, fuelling growing consumer interest”.

Hawes pointed out, however, that they “can’t do it alone”. He said it would require a “Herculean” effort from government, “including a truly world-beating package of incentives to encourage uptake of battery-electric and essential hybrid stepping stone vehicles – and the mandating of massive investment in charging infrastructure”. In February, Hawes had described the UK’s EV public charging network as “woefully inadequate”.

SMMT figures from October show that EVs’ overall market share (including hybrids) in the UK has risen from 4.4 per cent in August 2019 to 12.1 per cent. According to the Department for Transport, there are 19,487 public EV charging points in the UK, each with a number of individual ports – with numbers of public charging devices growing by 18 per cent in the year to date. In contrast, the UK has more than 8,000 petrol stations.

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Half of Norway’s car market is electric
Market share of totally electric vehicles in Europe (2019-20)
European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association

Charging an EV takes significantly longer than filling up a car’s petrol tank – from 30 minutes to an overnight charge, depending on the type of battery or charger being used.

There is also significant regional disparity in the concentration of these devices. In London, where the majority of UK EVs are registered, there are 63 charging points per 100,000 people. In Yorkshire and the Humber, meanwhile, there are just 18 per 100,000. Across the whole UK, there are 29 charging points per 100,000 people.

While some EV users will have home-charging units, many won’t. Professor Liana Cipcigan, director of Cardiff University’s Electric Vehicle Centre of Excellence, explains, “Not everyone has access to personal or off-street parking, and so they are reliant on their local authorities putting infrastructure in place”, and a charging point being free when they need it.

Car cost index
Average monthly cost of owning a petrol, diesel or electric car in 18 European countries

Nevertheless, public enthusiasm for climate-conscious technologies on the whole, appears to be growing. In April, a survey carried out by Venson Automotive Solutions found nearly half (45 per cent) of UK drivers appreciated the environmental benefits of reduced car usage during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly one in five (19 per cent) respondents said that their next car will be electric, and over a quarter (26 per cent) said that they will consider switching to an EV within five years.

When Venson conducted a similar survey a year earlier, nearly a third (31 per cent) said they would consider buying an EV, but not for ten to 15 years. The pandemic, Cipcigan tells Spotlight, has had “positive impacts on consumer perception towards sustainable transport”, while people are relishing “improving air quality”.

Read more: Covid-19 has underscored the urgency of the climate crisis

While the public may be more open to driving an EV than before, reassurances about vehicle performance and, crucially, price, are still needed. Range anxiety – a term for drivers’ fears about an EV having enough charge to reach its intended destination – remains a major barrier to mass adoption.

According to a study by Nimble Fins, the average range for the EVs available in the UK is 193 miles. Couple this with the regional disparity in charging infrastructure and it would appear there is still some way to go before cross-country drives in EVs become more commonplace.

While some luxury EVs do have higher ranges, such as the Tesla Model S Long Range (323 miles) or the Porsche Taycan 4S Plus (265 miles), many of these models retail at over £60,000, meaning they are probably not a realistic option for the average car buyer.

London has the highest concentration of EV charging points
Electric vehicle charging devices per 100,000 people, 2020
Department for Transport/Zap-Map

At the cheaper end of the EV spectrum, the Renault Zoe (200 miles) and Peugeot e-208 (210 miles) retail at around £30,000 each, still significantly higher than a similar petrol-powered car.

As of March 2020, a government grant for 35 per cent of the purchase price of a brand new EV – up to a maximum value of £3,000 – has been available to buyers. Until March 2019, that grant was worth up to a maximum of £4,500.

The discount is applied to the EV price by the car dealer, meaning that the person buying the car doesn’t have to do anything to secure it, and many EVs are advertised with the discount having already been factored in.

A government subsidy of up to £350 is also available on the installation cost of a home charging unit, which, depending on the model, retail at between £100 and £1,000. In 2019, the government announced plans for all new-build houses to be fitted with EV charging points, but this does nothing for existing office buildings, apartment blocks and residential areas with no private parking.

Read more: What would it take for drivers to go electric?

The UK’s EV dream depends ultimately on the government. Bringing the ban on new petrol cars forward is an important step towards mass adoption, but that is all it can afford to be. Bold ideas need to be backed up with bold policies, investment, and incentives for both car manufacturers and buyers

Though Cipcigan considers the public mood towards EVs “promising”, she says mass adoption can only be achieved if the government makes it a “priority”, and if infrastructure is more “uniformly distributed”.

This article originally appeared in a Spotlight report on energy and climate change. Click here for the full edition . 

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