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The great electric car debate

Electric cars may well be the future of personal transport, but only if consumers choose to buy them in preference to the cars of today or if governments effectively ban the internal combustion engine. In both France and the UK, politicians are leaning towards the latter, announcing a cut-off date of 2040 for the sale of conventional petrol- or diesel-fuelled cars.

Actually, it’s not really as clear-cut as that. In July, the heady early days of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, the new government announced that the sale of new conventional cars would be illegal from 2040 (France to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040). The implication was that all cars would be electric – ie, battery-powered – but in fact hybrid vehicles will also be allowed. This was sufficient for Tony Seba, an advocate of electric cars from Stanford University, to provide this quote, which may come back to haunt him: “Banning sales of diesel and gasoline vehicles by 2040 is a bit like banning sales of horses for road transportation by 2040: there won’t be any to ban.”

A few days later, the UK government followed suit (New diesel and petrol vehicles to be banned from 2040 in UK). First reports appeared to suggest that only all-electric vehicles would be on sale, a very ambitious target indeed. However, in a low-key clarification not atypical of the current muddled style of government, it was made clear that hybrids would also be allowed, while there would be an ‘ambition’ to move to all electric cars. Before this shift, some critics were already arguing that the policy was unlikely to work (eg, Diesel and petrol car ban: Plan for 2040 unravels as 10 new power stations needed to cope with electric revolution).

There is always a rational argument for encouraging nascent technologies, but only if they are economically viable when mature. Other transformative modern technologies have never needed to have a public subsidy. To take one example; with licences, VAT and other taxes, mobile phones and wireless computing have helped swell the public coffers.

Car buyers have never had a public subsidy, although owners have been nudged in what the government of the day sees as the right direction by tweaking road tax levels. Since this was based on carbon dioxide emissions, a factor which has guided so much recent policy, the effect was to encourage people to buy diesel cars. But with a change of focus to air pollution, diesel has now become the enemy.

UK electric car purchasers receive a £5,000 taxpayer-funded subsidy at present. Even then, current models are relatively expensive compared with conventional equivalents. Despite the much-vaunted simplicity of engineering for all-electric models, the cost of batteries alone is likely to make them a more expensive option for the foreseeable future.

Much lower running costs are put forward to support the argument that overall ownership costs may not be higher over the lifetime of the car (ignoring the need to replace exhausted batteries). Maybe so, but are governments really going to lose the billions of pounds received by way of fuel taxes without finding some other way for motorists to pay? Charging more for electricity used for transport than for heating and lighting is hardly a workable option, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Drivers of electric cars are going to be paying as much to the Exchequer as those with internal combustion engines before too long.

All in all, the economics of electric car ownership don’t look particularly appealing. On top of the direct cost, someone will have to pay for the new charging infrastructure; however this is presented, ultimately this will be the consumer and taxpayer. This won’t reduce the appeal of electric vehicles to prosperous people in urban areas, but it will prove to be a large barrier to mass ownership.

One of the reasons for the current political push towards electric cars is the recent heightening of concerns about urban air pollution, particularly nitrogen oxides that come primarily from (older) diesel engines. Making changes that are designed to improve health are, understandably, quite popular. But, of course, air pollution is essentially a problem of urban areas (plus a few busy rural roads in particular geographies). Pollution is a function of concentration, as for any toxicity issue, so mandating electric cars over the whole country is really a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Both petrol and diesel engines have become far cleaner in recent years, and there is every reason to think that NOx and PM2.5 emissions from internal combustion engines can be reduced still further in the timescale that governments plan to phase them out. In the meantime, if the plan is to improve urban air quality, several problems remain.

One of the first is vehicles other than cars. Buses, taxis, motorbikes, vans and lorries would also all need to be electric if exhaust pollution is to be eliminated. Another is the NOx produced by gas boilers, ubiquitous across all areas. Replacing these or retrofitting some kind of exhaust control would be an expensive nightmare. The fact that politicians and campaigners keep quiet about the issue strongly suggests they are going for the softest target first.

The third major problem is that particulates come from other sources as well as exhausts. In the case of vehicles, tyres and brakes are the culprits. This has led to a call from Prof Frank Kelly, chair of the government advisory committee on the medical effects of air pollutants, to call for a reduction of the number of all cars on the road, whether diesel, petrol or electric (London should lead in showing electric cars will not tackle air pollution).

The call for electric cars is not at heart driven by a desire to reduce air pollution, but is part of a long-term policy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Mandating this move away from petrol and diesel only makes sense if sufficient low-carbon electricity is easily available when it is needed. At the moment, governments are betting the bank on intermittent renewables, apparently confident both that batteries can become cheaper and more efficient and that enough of them can be put in place to provide a secure energy supply.

From today’s perspective, this seems like cloud cuckoo land. To assume that a major transition in transport technology can take place without the necessary enabling technology being in place, in an economic way and with the consent of the voting public stretches credibility. Without a more flexible and sensible policy, the house of cards will come crashing down at some stage.