Electric vehicles: is the UK ready for the end of diesel cars?

Out-Law Analysis | 02 Dec 2020 | 10:10 am | 3 min. read

Tighter European emission controls and localised emissions limits in London and other European cities are rapidly bringing to an end the era of the diesel car engine, but electric vehicles need more support if they are to take its place.

The UK government has announced that it will bring forward a planned ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2035 to 2030 as part of its 10-point 'road to zero' plan to meet its legally binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The plans, which will be subject to consultation, also include extending the ban to include the sale of hybrid vehicles.

The clear policy direction of travel is already having an impact on sales of diesel cars in the UK. SMMT UK new car registration data published in September 2020 shows that sales of diesel cars – which, in 2016, matched petrol engine cars at 48% market share – have now dropped to 16.8%, almost at the same level as electric and hybrid sales, which have almost doubled in the past 12 months.

Feehan Peter

Peter Feehan

Partner

The lack of truly accessible, easy to use and fast charging national charging infrastructure remains a substantial barrier to wider uptake

Clearly, 'range anxiety' issues are beginning to ease, with the latest electric models offering drivers real life ranges and making the switch to electric more viable. The change, linked to emissions, to the tax incentives for company cars will in the long run act as an incentive to fleet operators; while there is also talk that Covid-19 has changed opinions, as city dwellers have appreciated the fresher air and quieter environment resulting from the lockdown of Spring 2020.

In all honesty, it is too early to judge long-term trends in this area - but one thing is clear. Despite government commitments in the recent budget to provide £500 million over the next five years for charging infrastructure, and other measures in support of electric vehicles, the lack of truly accessible, easy to use and fast charging national charging infrastructure remains a substantial barrier to wider uptake.

As a firm, we have seen how our car manufacturing clients have tackled this challenge. Some have sought to create networks at 350kW, cutting charging times; others have sought to create destination charging solutions, invested in future 'vehicle-to-grid' technology or simply relied on the fact that most charging occurs at home.

Drivers are all different and use their cars differently, and the simple truth is that no one solution will fit all customers. The real problem lies with the UK's grid infrastructure, as lack of network capacity often means the cost of installing charging infrastructure outweighs the commercial case for installation. Companies such as Ionity are trying to tackle this but, fundamentally, grid access – and in some areas competitive barriers to entry – prevent this infrastructure from coming forward. The way the electricity grid is regulated and funded in the UK doesn't help, due to the need to balance investment needs with the costs to energy users, who ultimately bear the cost of such investment via energy bills.

Feehan Peter

Peter Feehan

Partner

We anticipate, and have seen, a key role for local authorities in delivering the infrastructure that is needed, including through public-private collaborations

There is no easy answer here. We anticipate, and have seen, a key role for local authorities in delivering the infrastructure that is needed, including through public-private collaborations. The government has also confirmed the availability of more than £530m in 'plug-in' grants to incentivise drivers of cars, vans, taxis and motorcycles to switch to electric – but it is difficult to see taxi drivers investing £70-80,000 in a new LVEC taxi while Covid-19 keeps passengers indoors. Once drivers actually get to a charging point, how long will they have to wait, and will they have the right app or RFIC card to allow access?

Solving the infrastructure problem will require understanding driver preferences: how, when and where do drivers of electric vehicles use them? This will ultimately require data. The data already tells us that 80% of charging in Europe occurs at home, so the next step is to understand where drivers are going to in order for them to charge effectively at their destination, as either a 'top up' or overnight. Companies like Gridserve are seeking to establish charging hubs as retail destinations, enabling drivers to take a break whilst they charge, but these will require significant grid reinforcement if they are to offer true charging speeds and grid access will be costly, particularly in popular areas.

The UK government knows that it must address this. The Office for Low Emission Vehicles, which is part of the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is to carry out a "comprehensive review" of electric vehicle charging infrastructure to ensure that funding is targeted effectively. The government has said that its investment "will ensure that drivers are never more than 30 miles from a rapid charging station" but, with the pressure Covid-19 has put on both the economy and government time, this programme will inevitably suffer.

Finally, regulation remains an issue. Electric vehicle charging is technically a supply of energy, and ultimately one which could be regulated - although both the UK government and market regulator Ofgem currently have no plans to do so.

Without better data, and better infrastructure, electric vehicle transition has some way to go, with the risk of negative PR around diesel emissions reducing consumer choice. For drivers of electric vehicles, keeping a charging cable in the boot alongside the spare tire will be a necessity for some time yet.

The way we move is changing radically – climate change, superfast telecoms networks, electrification, AI and digital payments are rewriting the transport rulebook. Autonomous and shared vehicles and mobility as a service are fast becoming a reality.