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Watt car?

Time for Britain to plug in

By Gloria Esposito and Neil Wallis  

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The government’s long-awaited strategy to cut emissions from the hard-to-tackle road transport sector was finally published this July. It signposts a dramatic change in the technologies that will be used to power our cars, vans, trucks and buses.

The “Road to Zero” complements the Clean Growth Strategy and wider Industrial Strategy, published by the government last autumn. It also provides some policy measures which support the more recently published Clean Air Strategy which is directed at tackling poor air quality.

The most significant evolution in how we move people and goods around our country since the adoption of the internal combustion engine is now under way.

The government is clear that there will be no bans on internal combustion engines or other conventional technologies, but that old-fashioned technology will become redundant anyway. There was, after all, no need for a ban on the horse and cart. The new strategy says that by 2030, at least half of all new cars sold (and up to 40 per cent of new vans) will be ultra-low emission vehicles, and that by 2040 all new cars and vans sold will be “effectively zero emission.”

The new strategy is designed to incentivise uptake, boost clean vehicle production and break down other barriers. The government will review progress by 2025 and make further interventions as required.

At the heart of its plan is wide scale vehicle electrification. Measures to develop and build electric vehicles, the supply chain and charging systems are prominent in government thinking, with a commitment to ensuring that the UK has one of the best electric vehicle networks in the world.

By happy coincidence, the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill received Royal Assent shortly after the Road to Zerowas published. The new Act gives central and local government the power to co-ordinate standards and enforce the provision of a coherent and accessible electric vehicle recharging infrastructure.

So will the strategy and the measures within it stimulate the necessary change?

There are clear signs that international markets are gearing up for a big shift. Plug-in vehicle sales are rising fast in many countries and battery prices are tumbling. The range of vehicles now being offered—while limited—is also growing.

There are still big challenges. The main focus has been on passenger cars, but vans and trucks are very polluting and long-range trucks present particular difficulties in terms of electrification. The UK has, however, made good progress in “greening” its bus fleet and now has the biggest electric bus market in Europe.

“There are signs that international markets are gearing up for a big shift. Plug-in vehicle sales are rising and battery prices are tumbling”

But Britain needs to cut emissions from more buses, as well as black taxis and coaches. Diesel engines will need to be fitted out with components to reduce emissions.

Low emission fuels, too, such as biomethane and biodiesel, are the focus of considerable efforts and the government is consulting on the potential adoption of a 10 per cent ethanol mix in petrol.

Meanwhile, there is a revolution under way in how electricity is produced in the UK, and elsewhere. Supplies of intermittent renewable power are growing. They must grow much further to meet increased demand from transport and heating.

Growing numbers of electric vehicles provide a challenge as well as a potential solution to the problem of supply intermittency. Falling battery prices are generating interest in their use even in stationary vehicles, where they can feed back into the grid to help offset supply fluctuations. Vehicle-to-grid technologies and smart systems are developing fast. Through a new EV Energy Task Force, the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership is working closely with government in this area.

In 20 -30 years, the vehicles on our roads will be very different. Their shape will be determined by a complex mix of technological development, economics and government policy. Consumer information, driven by effective campaigns to encourage positive choices, will need to keep pace with those rapid developments.

Read more from “The Future of Transport”

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