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Are electric vehicles the future?

Electric cars are now a daily sight on our streets, what were previously token charging points in public places are often in use, and people are now beginning to think of the implications of the much-touted transition away from the internal combustion engine. The assumption by enthusiasts is that this is going to happen sooner rather than later but, as with any major technical change, its course (and even the end point) is very difficult to predict.

Most major changes such as this come about by a combination of innovation and market pull. Two hundred years ago, railways provided the first fast, affordable means of mass transport and, not surprisingly, grew rapidly. A century later, the development of the internal combustion engine made possible personal transport as well as more flexible public and goods transport than could be achieved with either railways or horsepower. Their rate of uptake was limited, partly by affordability, but mass motoring quickly became the norm from the middle of last century.

Both railways and cars became ubiquitous without any taxpayer subsidy or positive encouragement from governments; they were simply the right solution at the right time. Similarly, the IT revolution made possible by the miniaturisation of solid-state electronics was not planned, but evolved and developed. No policymakers sat down in the 1970s and decided that the economy would be dependent on the Internet by the end of the century, and yet technological and market forces brought it about.

Electric vehicles don’t represent a step change in transport as trains and cars did. There may be a major change in underlying technology, but this offers no intrinsic new benefits to the public. This is not a completely new generation of products, akin to moving from conventional mobiles to smart phones, but simply a different, clever and sophisticated means of powering vehicles.

But it is also more expensive. Although electric vehicles are mechanically simpler and the software needed to control them is by now fairly conventional, the need to provide a reasonable driving range means the use of a large number of heavy and expensive batteries, currently based on lithium ion technology. If this approach had intrinsic advantages over internal combustion engines, we could expect to see car manufacturers developing a range of battery-powered cars, and allowing the market to decide how much they displaced conventional cars. No subsidy would be needed, except perhaps in the early days.

In fact, the whole electric vehicle market is driven by climate change policy; the desire to slash carbon dioxide emissions means that the large (and growing) transport sector cannot be ignored once the (relatively) low-hanging fruit of electricity generation have been harvested. Tinkering around the edges with biofuels is little more than window-dressing. To make a real difference to the sector, something more radical was needed. In the absence of genuine progress in miniaturisation and cost reduction of fuel cells, enthusiasm for hydrogen has evaporated as quickly as the lightest element escapes from a fuel tank, leaving electric cars as the only game in town.

Teslas are now a common sight, as are electric models from more mainstream manufacturers, but even with the £5,000 of taxpayers’ money offered by way of subsidy in the UK (and with similar incentives elsewhere), they remain relatively expensive. First adopters are the relatively well-off and largely urban. How large a target market they represent is difficult to judge but, at some point, manufacturers and governments will face increasing difficulty in persuading consumers to buy an EV rather than a conventional car.

Both the British and French governments have announced that no new petrol- or diesel-powered cars will be sold by 2040, with the apparent assumption that by then voters will be very willing to make that choice. There would inevitably be a declining tail of conventional cars on the roads for some years after that (with some becoming the object of a romanticised affection, like steam trains and LPs, no doubt) but the transition would be inevitable.

Actually, there are a lot of problems along the way. How much space will be needed at fuel stations to cope with increasing numbers of people needing to charge their batteries rather than fill up with petrol? Given the longer time needed to recharge rather than fill a tank, long queues and ‘charge rage’ can only be avoided by installing considerably more fast chargers than existing fuel pumps. Where are they going to be put (most fuel stations don’t have lots of spare room next door) and who is going to pay for them?

The answer to the last question is that, ultimately, it will be the driver. But the driver also buys the car and votes for the government. While he or she may be coaxed and cajoled into buying a different type of car, if cost differentials remain too high, the less well-off will be disadvantaged and there is likely to be a revolt. But there is a halfway stage that gives governments a good amount of wriggle room: hybrid vehicles.

Hybrids are now definitely mainstream. They are still more expensive, still qualify for subsidy, but they are a flexible and pragmatic choice. Batteries in newer models are sufficient for modest journeys – perhaps 30 miles – which is enough for many commutes, particularly in towns. And range is never a problem, because the conventional engine takes over when necessary and also recharges the batteries. The owner has a complete replacement for a conventional car that also reduces air pollution in urban areas.

Since this is the basis of the current campaign against the diesel engine (despite the latest standard being little different from petrol engines) and no doubt against petrol engines as well before too long, governments should be pleased. But this ignores the elephant in the room, the very reason why EVs are the current focus of policy: emissions reduction targets. To meet these in the transport sector, not only must all vehicle move to battery power, but all the electricity for them must come from renewable sources.

The chances of achieving this in an affordable way while maintaining security of supply are currently rather low. If we combine this with the need to persuade people to buy expensive electric cars and for someone to provide a workable nationwide charging infrastructure, the chances become slim indeed. Thinking politicians will know this already, but continue to make the right noises to appease the green lobby. At some stage, either there will be one or more technological breakthroughs, or grim reality will force a rethink. Electric vehicles as we know them today may or may not be the future.