Electric revolution gathers pace with UK car policy announcement

Stuart NathanFeatures editor

If there were any doubt that the end of the conventional fossil fuel-powered vehicle was in sight, last night's announcement should end the uncertainty, but there is still much we don't know

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that Volvo's announcement that it would cease launching solely petrol and diesel-powered cars by 2019 could mark "the end of the beginning" of the demise of the type of motor vehicle that has dominated roads more than a century. Shortly after that, France’s environment secretary announced that his country would seek to stop the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, along with a package of measures to encourage households and businesses to generate their own electricity. Last night, the UK government added to the chorus, indicating that it too would ban new petrol and diesel car and van sales by 2040, setting us on a 23 year countdown to the era of the electric vehicle.

Details of the new policy are a little thin on the ground at this early stage. Unlike in France, there seems to be no suggestion that owners of existing internal combustion engine vehicles will be incentivised to take them off the road; the word “new” in the announcement seems to indicate solely that vehicles coming off the production line and registered in 2040 will have to be electric, although scrappage incentives for diesel vehicles are said to be under discussion. The Queen’s Speech at the opening of parliament set out a goal; of making all new vehicles close to zero-emission at the tailpipe by 2050. The ban appears to also apply to hybrid vehicles, indicating that the 2040 fleet will be pure-electric.

The ban isn't part of the government's efforts to reduce carbon emissions; rather, it is part of a delayed announcement to improve air quality. The High Court ordered the government in May to publish details of a plan to reduce NO2 pollution, but the publication was delayed by the General election last month. However, we now know that the government plans to shift much of the responsibility for cutting NO2 levels to local authorities, and will make £255m available to help them do this, with possible measures including removal of speed bumps, changing road layouts and rephasing traffic lights to smooth out traffic flows. Undoubtedly, reducing the number of fuel-burning vehicles will help, though there has been no specific announcement on the larger vehicles, such as lorries and buses, which are responsible for most emissions from diesel.

As Volvo's announcement and BMW's announcement this week that it will make electric Minis in the UK both demonstrate, the automotive sector is already well on the way the transition into an all electric future, and it's entirely possible that new internal combustion engine models would be extinct by 2040 without any government intervention. Certainly, the price of electric vehicles is falling and they may be on a par with conventional vehicles within the next five years. The automotive sector is the rather more nimble of the large manufacturing industries, generally taking about three years to take a new vehicle from a blank computer screen to the showrooms, so even companies unable or unwilling to match Volvo’s commitment will be able to bring several new lines of conventional vehicles to market within the 23-year changeover period.

But switching the UK's car fleet to pure electric isn't just about the automotive sector. Perhaps the most obvious challenge to the timescale is implications for the electricity sector; at the moment, it mostly doesn't have to worry about transport, but obviously this will change and we will need charging infrastructure, extra generating capacity (possibly extra nuclear stations or a renewed look at carbon capture and storage to allow new gas-fired stations to be built) and probably a more robust transmission grid to handle the demands of many more households wanting to charge their cars overnight. This might have been a good opportunity for the government to announce its intention to shift towards a hydrogen-based transportation system, with incentives for fuel cell development and manufacture and the establishment of a refuelling infrastructure, as we set out in our recent feature; but if this is the plan, there is no sign of it as yet.

We can, perhaps, look at industry secretary Greg Clark’s announcement of funding for new battery development in this new context; the justification given by Mr Clarke was for storage from renewable generation, but it's the same type of battery as those that power electric cars and involvement of the automotive sector in the research and development efforts will surely be welcome. “These are exciting times for the UK battery industry with the government providing supportive legislation and investment that will see an increase in the take up of electric vehicles,” commented Stephen Irish, founder of UK battery technology company Hyperdrive. “However, while there is a lot of focus on the car industry, batteries have a major role to play in other sectors including construction equipment, street sweepers, airport machinery and industrial machines."

Looking at the air quality aspect, Alasdair Lewis, professor of atmospheric chemistry, at the University of York’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science, pointed out that eliminating fossil fuel vehicles won’t spell the end of harmful substances in the air. “Electric vehicles have no direct tailpipe emissions but they are still a source of fine particulate matter from brake and tyre wear and through agitating road dust,” he said.  “There still remain many other urban sources of pollution not only from transport, but also heating, construction, domestic emissions, and external sources of pollution that drift into cities from outside, you are most notably from the agricultural sector.  Some other urban sources of pollution are even on an upwards trend, most notably from wood burning stoves.”

On the whole, today's announcement indicates unequivocally that the UK is much further along the path to being an electric vehicle nation, but on the detail of what this will mean for the engineering sector we are still left with more questions than answers. We hope that we will get much more clarification in the coming weeks and months, and expect the situation would be much more clear by the time of the Budget in the autumn.