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Electric Cars Spark Into Life, But Can We Really Swap Pump for Plug by 2040?

Did you hear about the man who ran over his neighbour with an electric car? He was convicted of assault with battery.

Expect to hear more terrible jokes like this, as the UK Government yesterday pledged to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040. The UK joins the French Government, who have the same deadline to bring an end to cars powered by the venerable suck-squeeze-bang-blow.

This pledge is nothing new: it just builds on a similar plan outlined in 2011, with the language firmed up from an ‘ambition to end the sale’ to ‘will end the sale’. The big question has to be whether this policy is realistic. Luckily for us 2017 has seen quite a few opinions on this subject.

In the furthest reaches of blue corner sits Stanford University economist Tony Seba, who thinks that all cars sold by 2025 will be self-driving electric Uber pods. On similar (but less extreme) lines sits the car manufacture Volvo, who say that all of their cars will be electric by 2019 (although this includes hybrids that run only partially on electricity). From this perspective the Government’s announcement is a little bit like John Major’s Government of the 1990s pledging to ban typewriters by 2020, i.e.  simply stating an inevitable technological shift.

In the brown corner, predictably, sits Big Oil, with Saudi Aramco and Royal Dutch Shell both suggesting that we’ll be needing their products for many years to come. Car pundits are also skeptical that a 2040 deadline is feasible. Watching this debate are bodies such as the UK National Grid, who have recently predicted steep rises in electricity demand with even a modest rise in electric car rollout.

So who’s right, and will the Government be able to hit their 2040 deadline without the country grinding to a halt?

The first, and perhaps most obvious, consideration is whether the Government’s plans include hybrid cars: those using conventional petrol or diesel engines alongside electric motors. The document released today remained quiet on this point, merely stating that the Government would ‘end the sale of all conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040’. Media views seemed to differ, perhaps confirming that the Government hasn’t clarified that point.

There are two reasons why the hybrid point is so important. The first is that they cover a very wide range of technologies; from electric motors that just provide a bit more grunt to assist the petrol engine, to so called ‘plug in’ hybrids that have a short all-electric range and can be charged from the mains. Hybrid cars have been on sale for nearly 20 years now, and scaling up production (with notice) would presumably be reasonably easy.

The second is that, as they can use conventional filling stations, hybrids don’t require a huge infrastructure rollout before they’re a represent a practical proposition for the masses. Hitting the 2040 deadline with, say, plug-in hybrids doesn’t seem out of the realms of fantasy. The downside is the added weight, space and cost of packing in two sources of propulsion, although in the UK’s best selling plug-in hybrid –the Mitsubishi Outlander 4x4 – this is less of a problem due to its hulking size and weight.

So what about all-electric cars, could we skip hybrids and move entirely to batteries by 2040? 5 years ago I’d have said the biggest road-block was the availability of attractive, competitively priced cars. Back then the choice was really between the dorky ‘n dangerous G-Wiz and the more attractive but short ranged Nissan Leaf.

Things have now changed. Electric car buyers now can choose from a far wider range of vehicles, from the cheap(ish) and cheerful VW e-Up! to the cool, technology packed Tesla Model S. New, cheaper, long range cars continue to hit the market, and prices are dropping as the cost of producing the most expensive component – the battery – fall. Some forecasts have electric cars becoming cheaper than conventional vehicles in the early 2020s.

With attractive cars now available the key factor is whether you’ll actually buy one. If the mass market hasn’t embraced the electric car by the 2030s it’ll be a brave Government who actually goes ahead and bans the sale of conventional vehicles. And here’s where this article jumps from stating the facts to a bit of crystal ball gazing.

My view is that, beyond the committed petrol heads, most people don’t give two hoots as to what powers their car. With a few carrots and sticks they’d probably make the jump from pump to plug, if (and this is a big if) electric propulsion isn’t seen as an inferior choice. At the moment though for many people they are inferior, for one big reason.

The simple fact is that, whilst range on a single charge is improving, electric cars take a long time to charge up. Even with one of Tesla’s whizzy superchargers, at best a recharge takes 30mins. Fast chargers may improve, but the shorter the charging time the greater the demand they place on the local electricity grid. 10 cars being ‘supercharged’ by Tesla, for example, draw the same amount of power as 60,000 household lightbulbs. Clearly electric cars are not going to use a ‘filling station’ model unless charging times come down and the grid is hugely beefed up to take the enormous localised loads this would entail.

The alternative is charging at home coupled with a ‘top up when you can’ model. Essentially, whenever you stopped you’d plug in to charge. This model is far more realistic, but needs an enormous roll out of charging points. Pretty much everywhere you see a car parked now would need a charging point, which in the tight streets of urban Britain would be a big ask. Without this we’d have a two-tiered future: suburbanites could easily charge on their driveways, whilst city dwellers would be permanently on the hunt for somewhere to plug in their cars.

Of course a roll out of electric cars doesn’t have to slavishly follow the same pattern with which we buy and use cars now – we could do things very differently. This could be time for the UK to switch to a  ‘vehicles as a service’ model, essentially an umbrella term for long and short-term car hire (car clubs), Uber taxis and, possibly one day, autonomous cars. Under this model rather than own a car you just pay for one when you needed it.

Freed up from the ‘one car to do it all’ restriction things like range and recharging time become much less of an issue. You could order a small electric car for short city journeys, and a bigger, long range car for that trip to Granny’s in Yorkshire. Some people see this shift starting to happen now: to date the Millennial generation are less likely to own a car or even have a driving licence than their parents at the same time of life.  The big question is whether they will keep these habits when they become older and wealthier (and have children), or plump for the convenience of  a personal car ready and waiting on their driveway.

To sum up the current situation then, the vehicle technology for a big shift to electric cars is here right now, but the supporting systems and ingrained expectations of drivers still represent huge barriers to a fully electric future.

Note that I haven’t even touched some of the other big issues surrounding electric car deployment. Where would all of the electricity to charge these cars come from? Can battery supply chains be scaled up to meet the demand? How would the Treasury manage the transition from heavily taxed petrol and diesel to very lightly taxed electricity? These are all huge issues that would need to be ironed out soon to hit the 2040 cut off date – it’s not just a case of swapping cars in the showrooms.

Ultimately though predicting future development in technology is a mugs game, as anyone who watched ‘Tomorrow’s World’ as a child will attest.  It may be that electric car technology improves to the point where the market shifts completely to electricity well before the Government’s 2040 deadline. We may also find that the policy urgency to cut carbon emissions ratchets up, and electric cars are forced through whether or not the public are behind them. Or maybe some new, currently unknown transportation technology will come zooming out of the left field and revolutionise the market (Mr. Fusion anyone?).

In the immediate, less uncertain future though expect to see more electric cars on the road, as for certain uses they’re starting to make a lot of sense. One example is 2nd cars – at the time of the last census 32% of UK households had two or more cars. If you’ve already got one car capable of making longer journeys then a fun, cheap to run electric car for local use is a good option. As new, attractive models hit the market we can expect electric sales into these niches to blossom.

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