The Electric Vision
In 1997 the electric car was somewhat of a utopian concept in the UK; the stuff of science fiction or playthings of the rich and extravagant. Then the Toyota Prius came along and began to chip away at the prevailing assumptions. Toyota’s hybrid offered a sort of bridge between two worlds; one of familiar petrol driven engines and the other a more ethical yet disconcerting future, with cars powered solely by batteries.
Between 1997 and now, a whole range of stylish and desirable hybrid and electric vehicles have entered the market, exemplified by the Nissan Leaf, the most world’s biggest selling electric car.
Slow on the Uptake
But consumer uptake on the Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) in the UK hasn’t been as fast as many would have hoped and in the first half of 2013, uptake on electric cars was just 14 percent, compared to 17 percent in the overall car market. What’s more, at current adoption rates just 7.1 percent of us will own an electric car by 2030; a fact which makes Nissan’s prediction that one in ten of us will own an electric car by 2020, look somewhat optimistic.
The Future of the Electric Vehicle. Video presented by Car Loan 4U
So why is current uptake still so slow? Well there are a host of reasons being put forward, which include “range anxiety” (the fear of running out of power before reaching another charge point), a lack of charge points, expensive vehicles to a belief that electric or hybrid cars aren’t fashionable or trendy and lack the power and umph of their petrol or diesel powered cousins.
Money Makes the Wheels go round
Put pure and simply it’s more money that is needed. Tax breaks, infrastructure investment and subsidies are all needed to get real momentum in the electric car market and this has certainly been somewhat slow to materialise. Incentives are now being put forward though and the tide is beginning to turn.
At the start of September, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Norman Baker, announced a string of measures, worth around £1bn, which together would form part of the Government’s strategy to remove petrol and diesel vehicles from our roads entirely by 2050.
Included in the measure is a guarantee that electric car owners won’t pay car tax until at least 2020. It’s just one of a number or proposals designed to stimulate an electric car market which is far from nascent.
As well as the headline grabbing tax free electric motoring until 2050 move, the government will be promoting low carbon vehicles through the Plug-in Car Grants, offering buyers of electric vehicles’ as much as £5,000 towards the purchase of an electric car.
The report reveals a £400 million spend from the Office for Low Emission Vehicles up until 2015, with a further £500 million budgeted for 2015-20. Impressive, but is it enough to really stimulate a meaningful upsurge of electric and hybrid cars on our roads?
“As well as huge opportunities for the automotive sector, this will bring life-changing benefits to our towns and cities improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions and it will provide energy security by reducing our reliance on foreign oil imports,” the Minister proclaimed at a Low Carbon Vehicle show last month.
But are the environmental benefits being overstated, or even misrepresented? After all, aren’t electric cars just proxies for fossil fuel pollution anyway?
The perennial criticism of electric cars has long been one of obfuscating a larger more endemic problem, by kicking the environmental can down the road. Electric cars are all well and good, goes the argument, but their environmental benefits are null and void if those cars are taking their power from the National Grid, which is predominately run on fossil fuels.
The idea of a dirty electricity grid somewhat sullies the environmental credentials of these ostensibly green icons of a carbonless future. What’s more it throws the problem back to one of overarching Government policy to cutting carbon emissions and a wider debate about global energy production. In this way your green car is only as green as your country’s energy sector.
Shrink That Footprint have produced some fascinating statistics looking at this incidentally (notice how Britain lags behind much of Europe using these measures).
Building the Right Environment
Putting the wider environmental debate aside for now though, it still feels like tax breaks and subsidies may only be addressing half the problem.
An important factor of the UK’s lacklustre electric car market is one of infrastructure, or rather a lack of it. Stimulating the uptake of electric car sales is one thing but without an integrated network of charge points in our cities and on our motorways, those “range anxiety” demons won’t be going away anytime soon.
There’s no doubt that buying an electric car can save you a considerable amount of money through tax savings and cheaper running costs but until there is a genuine paradigm shift they will always appear to the public at large as an indulgence or an extreme alternative.
Take Norway as a comparison. In a country littered with charge points, which gives electric car drivers extensive car tax and VAT breaks as well as allowing them access to bus lanes, nearly a quarter of all new registrations are for plug-in electric cars and this number is growing. The UK can’t even muster 1 percent.
The electric car market in the UK is beginning to move in the right direction but more incentives are needed to get it out of first gear. Chief amongst these is meaningful investment in infrastructure. Anxieties and social prejudices that currently exist towards ULEVs will inevitably be ameliorated through a combination of real visible change on our roads and motorways, as well as financial incentives. This means more charge points and city planning designed to accommodate, even favour, electric vehicles.