Should We Expect a Fully-Electric Future?

It’s fair to say the automotive industry is a rapidly evolving beast, and we all know that even bigger changes are anticipated in the near future and beyond. One of the most significant shifts we’re seeing relates to alternative fuels and electric vehicles, which many commentators now believe will be the only types of cars, vans and trucks available in around 15 to 30 years’ time. But are they right? We assess the evidence.

Low-emissions zones

In late 2010, Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, announced a Greener Vehicle Discount as part of revisions to the London Congestion Charge, exempting vehicles emitting 100g/km CO2 or less and that met Euro 5 air quality standards. It sounded positive at face value but meant that motorists who had put their trust in supposedly green self-charging hybrids like the Toyota Prius would no longer qualify. Just a few years later in July 2013, the London Congestion Charge exemption threshold was lowered again to 75g/km, meaning that only plug-in hybrid, ‘range extender’ models and fully electric vehicles would be eligible. Further afield, cities like Gothenburg, Milan, Paris, Riga and Stockholm have also been busy introducing various emissions zones, clearly showing their respective governments’ intention to tackle climate change, improve air quality and change consumer behaviour in the automotive sector.

Tax and other government incentives

The latest terms of the Plug-In Car Grant (PiCG) enable purchasers or leasers of vehicles emitting less than 50g/km CO2 and that can travel 70 miles or more on electricity to enjoy a 35% discount, up to £4,500. This maximum discount decreases to £2,500 for 50-to-75g vehicles that can manage 10 miles or more on battery power.

Businesses too are offered government incentives to switch to plug-in hybrid and fully electric cars and vans, with benefit in kind (BIK) tax and employers’ Class 1A National Insurance contributions directly liked to CO2 emissions and vehicles’ total values. Drivers can potentially save several thousands of pounds depending on which models they choose.

April 2017 saw vehicle excise duty (VED) or ‘road tax’ bands overhauled, resulting in only zero-emissions vehicles qualifying for the lowest tax-free band. A year later, the system was updated again with first-year rates for new diesel cars going up a band and the ‘diesel supplement’ for company cars increasing to 4%.

Will diesel, petrol and even hybrid cars be banned?

Since the so-called ‘dieselgate’ emissions scandal hit the headlines in 2015, the future hasn’t looked at all good for the once praised fuel, and many voices from the government and car manufacturers to environmental groups have encouraged a switch to petrol, hybrid or, if possible, fully electric vehicles.

The media is awash with commentary on the government’s mooted Road to Zero plan to ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2040. It’s now becoming apparent that self-charging and even some plug-in hybrid cars that still contain combustion engines in their powertrains will be caught up in the ban, the key criterion being the ability to travel 50+ miles on battery power alone. Voices including Greenpeace and the Green Alliance have even said that the combustion engine ban should be brought forward to 2030.

What hurdles stand between now and a fully electric future?

Electric cars and vans might now be suitable for some people and businesses, but certainly not everyone given the fact that their battery technology still can’t offer the long mileage range that many petrol and diesel engines can.

At the supermini end of the model spectrum, the Volkswagen Polo BlueMotion offers a range per tank of up to 800 miles, the same as many of its VW siblings, but the fully-electric Volkswagen e-up! has a range of up to 99 miles. Jaguar’s imminent I-Pace electric SUV in the premium corner of the car market will have an electric range of up to 300 miles, but the diesel F-Pace 163PS can travel around 750 miles before needing to visit a filling station. Until solid-state battery technology is proven and becomes mainstream in electric vehicles (EV), range anxiety will remain a hurdle for individuals and businesses that travel longer distances.

Recharging times

Petrol, diesel and even hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEV) are much more conveniently topped up, too, with forecourt visits taking no more than around ten minutes for many car drivers. Electric cars, on the other hand, often require overnight charging using manufacturers’ dedicated wall-boxes, while plugging an EV into a domestic electricity socket can result in charging times of 20+ hours. This will pose an inconvenience for many drivers and will require determination and discipline even from motorists who do have the time and circumstances.

The charger network

Public charging points are of course available, including fast units such as Tesla’s network of Superchargers, but the wide variety of different charger speeds, connectors, adapters, networks and their fee structures leave some EV adopters confused and frustrated. 

“In the rush to accommodate increasing numbers of electric cars, some cities are letting bulky charging stations take space from pedestrians”, reported the Guardian, highlighting the other side of the argument, with social media posts evidencing how pavements are being eaten up by the UK’s expanding charging infrastructure. Other candid photos show buses and other inconsiderate road users blocking access to charge points, illustrating the far from seamless experience many EV drivers face.
Local authorities are reportedly struggling to access government grants in order to install residential on-street charging facilities for EVs, but some commentators say the blame lies with the councils themselves who lack understanding of the different funding pots available, while others cite tightened budgets as the reason for their slowness in rolling out facilities. Delays to the government’s plans to drum up £400 million worth of funding for zero-emissions vehicles certainly doesn’t instil confidence in potential EV drivers either.

Can clever technology accelerate EV take-up?

Perhaps ironically, though, energy company OVO reckons the UK is leading the way in vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology whereby electric cars feed surplus energy back into the grid.

Sweden has become the first country in the world to build a road that incorporates 1.2 miles of electric rail in its surface, charging compatible vehicles as they drive along, rather like a real-life Scalextric track. Other technological breakthroughs have seen, for example, induction charging techniques integrated into roads whereby electric cars are charged wirelessly. With UK motorists having become sick and tired of seemingly endless roadworks to facilitate smart motorway upgrades and other projects, it’s understandable that many are sceptical over the likelihood of the government sanctioning roads being dug up yet again to accommodate charging electric vehicles.

Summing up

A lot can happen in twelve years so it’s still possible that battery technology will suddenly improve to the point whereby competitively priced new EVs will be able to cover ranges of 500+ miles and be recharged in around fifteen minutes by 2030. There are no guarantees on this right now though. Governments and others certainly seem determined to bring about an electric society, though - so /while it’ll happen in stages, first by all new models becoming EVs, such a future is almost inevitable given time.

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