As is seemingly customary for big government announcement relating to the car industry, the expected decision to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 screams of headline announcement first, detail later.
The government has been taken to court over illegal levels of air pollution in the UK, and today’s imminent announcement is the headline of a series of measures to bring air pollution back inside legal limits.
The path to electrification is an inevitable one, and will happen by 2040 anyway. 2040 is 23 years away, which is three generations of cars on regular production cycles. Innovation and progress is happening at an unprecedented pace in the industry, with more in the last three years and the previous 20 before that. This will not slow down, so to that end the government is dotting the Is and crossing the Ts of something already in motion. The headline is fine and logical then, but here comes the detail. The industry is constantly asked to jump higher and it does so. But with this announcement more than ever, it needs the government support.
This requires an investment infrastructure in electric charging points – and fast ones at that – on an unprecedented scale. There are 12,000 public charging points in the UK now versus 8500 petrol stations and the scores of pumps on them. Refuelling takes a couple of minutes, recharging considerably longer. This announcement makes electric cars no longer a curiosity or a lifestyle choice, they now become the way of keeping Britain moving. People will not want to compromise. This will require an equally big update to the national grid to facilitate the surge of power, tipped to be as much as 16% greater than today’s when electric cars really take off, and the grid struggles with surges as it is. We’ll also have a whole heap of batteries needing an ‘end of life’ use. Manufacturers speak of using them in our homes on smart grids, but our grid just isn’t set-up that way. It will need to be.
Given the comical pace the government operates at in any kind of major infrastructure project, can they really deliver this in 23 years?
The date might seem a long way away for the industry, but this date is much closer for a major infrastructure project. It’s one brought to you by the people behind HS2 (is this ever going to start?), the heel dragging on a third runway at Heathrow decision, and an announcement just last week on plans to cancel the electrification of major rail networks in the north of England. It can’t even commit to a date to switchover to digital-only radio.
Then we move to taxation. The government takes in 7% of its taxation – some £40billion – from fuel. It will need to make up this tax shortfall somehow. And on the subject of moving charges from one technology to the next, there remains the elephant in the room that electricity production still comes largely from fossil fuels, so is the pollution not being moved elsewhere?
This quickly reopens the semantic debate of whether the government means electric, or electrified. We had this debate a couple of weeks ago with Volvo, which said it would make electrified-only models from 2019. That includes hybrids, which have petrol and diesel engines. Does the government understand the word electric, and the nuances of the technology? Clarity is particularly needed on this point to avoid the kind of wrong, ill-informed headlines we saw post-Volvo.
And if it is fully electric only, where does that leave our wonderfully prosperous and innovative low volume car makers? The likes of Morgan, McLaren and Aston Martin all have electric models coming, but it’s inconceivable they will do without a pure internal combustion engine of any kind by 2040. Will they be exempt, or will the government sign their death warrant on one of the key things that makes these cars so appealing all over the world?
Quite a long to do list, then. The industry will again jump as high as it will be asked, and as quickly as it needs to. But for the government, 23 years suddenly seems not that far ahead. A line in the sand, you hope, will focus the mind. We reserve judgment.