The Politics of Electric Cars

In  the UK, cars and light vans account for around 16% of CO2 emmissions, with the figure being around 12% for the EU as a whole (2008 figures).  However, the oil based car industry is so engrained into our society and economics that the electric car and wider electric vehicle (EV) revolution must be given a helping hand if it is to gain any real ground into the car markets.  Highly pro-active politics and associated policies are required if the electric car is to catch up, then eclipse the use of petrol cars.

Incentives for EV owners

Many countries and cities are beginning to penalise gas guzzlers and incentivise electric car owners.  London’s congestion charges don’t apply to electric vehicles, while Norway gives electric cars access to the public transport lanes, free parking, and toll-free driving.  Italy has actively restricted use of petrol cars in some city centres while electric cars have free access.  Even America, home of oil and the SUV has tax incentives for manufacturing and owning electric cars.

UK Politics and Electric Cars

The UK government have committed to reducing greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050.  That might seem like a long time away but if they really want to lose 80% in 40 years they need to start acting now!  They recently announced a scheme costing £100million which will trial the use of electric cars and vans in 3 cities across the country.  They also invited several electric car manufacturers to bring a demo vehicle to Downing Street.  However, they need to act decisively and with far more ascertiveness on the issue of sustainable transport and the role of electric cars.

At the recent Electric Vehicles International Experts meeting (Oct 2008) the UK Department of Transport with Geoff Hoon at the helm, recognised that they needed to find ways of addressing major hurdles such as cost of batteries, their range, the development of recharging infrastructure, and the upfront development and retail costs of new models.  In a country where there are now more families with 2 cars than no cars, its reassuring to hear the government specifying a desire to make the ‘runabout’ car in 2 car families a green car.  Geoff Hoon announced the governments intention to fund three main programmes every year :

The first programme

Titled the « Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstration Programme » is aimed at encouraging development of electric vehicles aims to have up to 100 innovative vehicles on the road next year with tailpipe emissions of 50 grams of CO2/km or less and a significant electric-only range.  This will allow the government to test how the latest all-electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles operate in the real world and understand when and how consumers re-charge them.

The second of the programmes

It is a competition to be run by the Technology Strategy Board which will provide up to £20million for electric and other low-carbon and hybrid car research and development projects.

The third programme

Announced was the Low Carbon Vehicle Procurement Programme which aims to speed up commercial viability of the electric van market by having a policy of public body use of electric vans where possible.  So far Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, and Newcastle City Councils are all signing up to the programme, along with the Coventry Low Carbon Fleet Partnership. As such, they join the Royal Mail, TfL, the Metropolitan Police, the Environment Agency, the Government Car and Dispatch Agency and HMRC on the list of partners.

The electric vans to be supplied under the procurement programme will be made by Modec, Smiths Electric Vehicles, LDV, Nissan, and Allied Vehicles.

Enforcement or Incentive for the Car Industry?

There is much debate how best to aid momentum to build up amongst the major car manufacturers.  So far, they have been extremely sluggish in doing much about developing their electric car product lines.  One argument is that you can sit back and market forces will take care of the rest.  Another argument is that if you don’t MAKE the manufacturers start playing the electric game, then they won’t bother. The other way of tackling the issue is to bribe the manufacturers of electric cars into becoming involved.

We think you need all approaches for a successful outcome.  Without active regulation – perhaps stipulating that a steadily increasing percentage of cars sold by a manufacturer in the UK must be zero emission – the industry will continue to be slow to act; however, without incentive will manufacturers choose to focus more heavily on less restrictive economies?  Market forces will of course help and really the last thing that will help the environment is a major new discovery of more oil – the best thing for the electric car market will be soaring oil prices.  At the same time, governments need to find ways for oil prices to change the market in favour of the environment without the consumer bearing the brunt of the changeover period.

Provision of Electric Car Infrastructure

The Electric Car Industry will go no-where quickly without widespread infrastructure improvements.  We all know that any sort of battery takes time to charge up, which might work for commuters who have a short drive to work followed by a full day of charging time.  However, for electric cars to be viable for making longer journeys they need to be able to stop and fill up in the same way as a conventional car user can.  Since batteries will always take time to charge the only obvious solution we can think of is for electric car users to be able to « Stop and Swap » their batteries – exchanging their run down battery for a fully charged one.  That sort of infrastructure across the country requires major investment and help from governments.  Perhaps its right to let the technology mature in cities first before leaping into this aspect of electric car development, but the time to start planning for it is now!