The UK government has announced plans that would spell the end for petrol and diesel car sales from 2040. The move follows similar plans made by other European countries, notably France, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway who have each set a date; 2040, 2035, 2025 and 2025 respectively.

The news comes in the wake of the UK government’s clean air plan to rid towns and cities of poor air quality that has plagued the nation for decades, with the past seven years in breach of EU-imposed limits.An estimated 40,000 premature deaths are caused by air pollution each year; particularly by elevated nitrogen oxide levels in urban centres.

The government’s draft plan revealed in May 2017 was criticised for not doing enough and even being called “weak” and “illegal” for not addressing the problems directly, with many critics calling on government to implement a new diesel scrappage scheme to encourage uptake of newer, cleaner vehicles.

However, there are two very distinct sides to this story that have appeared.

Firstly, those in favour of the ban and those against. Curiously, those in favour of the ban have also criticised it for being too little too late and for not being sooner, effectively committing the UK to a further 23-years of poor air quality at least. There’s more to say here too, as people buying petrol and diesel cars in 2039 are likely to be driving them around for the next ten years thereafter, either as first or second hand cars, and this effectively puts a date of 2050 by the time any real benefit to the environment may be measured.

Those already in favour of electric vehicles mostly agree that EV adoption could come far sooner than government’s predictions, although there are many reasons why 2040 is a realistic date.

There are a great deal of subjects surrounding electric cars and the vehicles themselves that also need to be understood before public adoption is likely to progress.

For the past 100-years, customers have largely been concerned with petrol or diesel fuel, the vehicle’s performance and economy. Electric cars are largely similar, but there is so much more on offer. For starters, the “petrol or diesel” question has been replaced with, “petrol, diesel, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, battery electric or range extender?” That’s a lot of choice. Within those, there are also sub categories of each, for example some hybrids work with a separate front and rear axle, which gives very different properties to a hybrid that uses an electric motor in-between a petrol engine and the gearbox. And again, many hybrids use NiMH batteries, while others use lithium-ion.

Timing is everything

So why 2040? There are several reasons for this, despite some saying it’s too late and others saying it’s too early.

In the ‘too late’ camp, electric vehicle enthusiasts already believe electrified vehicles satisfy the needs for the majority of motorists, and they’d be right. However, the current generation, which arguably arrive in 2010 and was the first wave in the EV renaissance, are the cars people think of when talking about electric cars. These often had small ranges to one-charge, which is often a perceived problem. In addition, the infrastructure is – even today – still in its infancy, which again puts people off delving into electric vehicle ownership.

If you consider that the second generation of the ‘new wave’ of electric cars is only just coming about over the next few years, these cars will likely be with us for the next seven to ten years before being replaced, which puts us up to (roughly) 2025. For true market saturation and acceptance, however, the third generation is needed as are the sales of second hand electric vehicles. This take us to roughly 2035. As far as manufacturers are concerned, they have three generations to get people interested in electric cars, which although may be criticised by saying they could do it in one, it allows time for technology improvements necessary to facilitate adoption of electric vehicles.

Therefore, 2040 is a slightly odd date to choose considering the above, but it allows for a more natural public adoption rate if compared to countries like Norway where they’ve set 2025 as their target date.

Fundamental differences

The biggest difference between petrol/diesel and electric propulsion is convenience. People didn’t favour petrol cars over horse and cart because they were less convenient, instead they adopted them because they were “better” (or in other words, more convenient). Convenience can, however, be subjected to different categories. For some, speed is paramount, so they prize this as a vehicles most convenient attribute. For others, it’s efficiency and many more its cost. Convenience is a difficult thing to persuade people, but the truth today is electric cars are seen as less convenient than petrol or diesel cars. The transition to electric, if it is to stand any chance of succeeding, therefore needs to be based on electric cars being more convenient in every respect when compared to petrol/diesel. This requires price parity, similar performance and recharging time.

Two of those three are arguably already here, with most electric cars being cheaper to own (less expensive to run, but initial purchase price may be higher) and performance being on a par with a petrol/diesel equivalent.

Technology

By stating a petrol and diesel ban by 2040, car makers are no longer forced to develop EVs as intensively as they might otherwise be doing already. Safe in the knowledge that anyone buying a new car or van from 2040 will have to buy EV, car makers may pull back on research and development spending, as the impetus to do so has been taken away with a non-organic transition to electric vehicles.

Conversely, there is every chance that the increased demand and therefore competition will be the overriding influence for vehicle manufacturers to develop and enhance current battery technology.

Petrol and diesel cars will be around for years after 2040

In a similar way to how an isolated and embargoed Cuba drove around in 1950’s American cars for generations, due to a lack of being able to import anything newer, petrol and diesel cars are likely to be with us for a good number of years after 2040. Today, the used car market is strong and filled with countless examples of vehicles all the way back to their origins in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. Some of these cars are still on the road and many who fear the transition to electric – if the principle questions have not already been resolved (see below) – will want to keep their petrol and diesel vehicles in operation for many years to come, after 2040. They are not likely to be outlawed, unless additional government legislation dictates, for example, that they cannot enter town or city centres.

The principle questions about electric cars

Currently, the common perception of electric vehicles (EV) is wrong, misinformed, outdated or a combination of all three. Chief amongst the most common questions asked are;

  • EVs don’t have enough range
  • EV batteries wont last longer than ten years
  • EVs are slow
  • EVs have nowhere to charge
  • The electricity is more dirty than fossil fuel
  • There’s not enough electricity to power cars for everyone
  • Battery production is worse for the environment than burning fossil fuels

Unfortunately, some of these questions had merit in 2010. Today, the same questions still stand but things have moved on in the past seven years and by 2020, these questions will be nullified. Today, most EVs (in other words, those that are already on the road, or second hand) have a range of around or below 100-miles. There are, however, some that have a range of 300-miles, for example the upmarket Tesla Model S and X.

No electric vehicle is slow, despite what you might have read in the tabloids, or if you are old enough to remember milk floats. The technology is vastly different from the days of old lead-acid batteries and today almost every electric car on the market can beat a petrol or diesel equivalent from 0-30mph. 30-60mph is a slightly different story, as most electric cars have been designed with the city in mind. However, the fastest road-cars on sale today are all electric. Tesla, Rimac and more each hold acceleration records and even the fastest production motorbike is electric (made by Lightning). 0-62mph in 2.5 seconds is possible from a car that costs about £100,000, whereas a petrol car with similar performance costs just shy of a million – and those cars happen to be hybrid, so need an electric motor to keep up.

Charging infrastructure is another matter and the principle reason why electric cars have not been more adopted. Traditionally, car makers were just that – they made cars. Fuel has been taken care of by the likes of BP, Shell and others who distribute fuel for the benefit of the masses to be able to travel the land. With electric cars, the approach has been similar, although as with most early infrastructure, there’s been a struggle to get it sorted. This is the key problem. However, to suggest there’s nowhere to charge is a nonsense, as there are more than 13,000 chargepoints active in the UK today. And, most 3-pin sockets are suitable to charge an electric car at a pinch, although they do of course take a lot longer than what we’re used to at a petrol pump.

Chargepoints

  • Rapid – these tend to be 23kW or faster, which means you’ll be spending less than an hour plugged in to recharge a typical EV. Just as is true of petrol cars, if you charge from half full, the time is reduced and there’s no reason to charge to 100% either if your journey is covered by the range available. In other words, far less time can be spent at a rapid charger, and many people use them for quick top-ups.
  • Fast – These tend to be 7-22kW and are mostly situated at offices or areas where short-term parking is offered.
  • Slow – Usually 3.5kW, these charge points are ideal for overnight charging and typically take between 8 to 10-hours to recharge an average electric car like a Nissan Leaf 30kWh.
  • Other – many manufacturers have been working on in-road charging systems using wireless charging, for example Qualcomm Halo. The implication of this is that if widespread, electric cars may not require large battery packs for long range driving, so could be made lighter and more efficient.

One of the major drawbacks of the current electric vehicle infrastructure is that very few accept payment via debit or credit card and none take cash payment – in complete contrast to the petrol/diesel network, where payment by any means is simple and straightforward. This is perhaps the single largest hurdle the industry must overcome to attract new customers to electric cars.

Electricity source

Where energy comes from is important, of course. However, even if you ignore this point, if everyone in our towns and cities drove electric, air pollution there would be all-but gone, or at least moved elsewhere. The truth is the UK’s electricity national grid is already 25% powered by renewable energy, which makes it 25% better than fossil fuel right off the bat. Renewable energy is often laughed at as insignificant, but to counter this misinformed idea, just remember that the massive great ball of fire in the sky is the very thing that offered enough energy to power this planet’s entire existence and the billions of living creatures that inhabit it. Don’t underestimate the power of the sun. Roughly 1.5kW of energy arrive per square metre from the sun, which, if captured, can be used to power a great many things including electric cars. Furthermore, planetary scale energy is abundant including geothermal power, wind and tide energy. To an extent, hydro electricity is also a form of planetary energy, as it works using gravity.

Burning fossil fuel, on the other hand, provides a large amount of energy, but for a very short time on a planetary scale and once used up, there won’t be any more for another few million years, which is how long it has taken for that fuel to be created. In effect, you could think of fossil fuel as burning a million-years worth of energy in just a couple of hundred years. It’s great while it lasts in respect of the energy it can provide, but once used it’s gone and the harm it does by using it is catastrophic to the environment.

A car required a large amount of energy to accelerate, but little energy to keep it rolling at a constant speed once in motion.

Is there enough energy to power electric cars for everyone?

Yes. Today, there are some 35-million cars on UK roads. However, 90% of their time is spent parked at the roadside, on a drive or in a car park. When stationary, these are opportunities to trickle charge energy into them, which can be obtained from solar, wind or other renewable energy. There is literally energy all around us, and it should be remembered that basic physics states energy cannot be destroyed, only changed from one form to another. Keeping this in mind, the energy we currently get from fossil fuel can be gotten from other sources, it’s just a question of harnessing them.

One study concluded that the national grid needs a lot of improvement to support electric car adoption, with only six electric vehicles recharging at the same time needed to overload the local substation. However, true as this may be, it avoids the realities of electric driving. Like most people with a mobile phone, electric car drivers tend to recharge their car overnight, when there’s little electricity used for anything else and in fact generators need to be powered down or reduced speed, which affects their performance. Effectively, electric vehicles can be recharged overnight without too much of a burden on the grid. The other key factor here is adoption rate. If everyone bought an electric car tomorrow, there’d be a grid meltdown. But the reality is, that’s not likely to happen – and nor will it is 2040.

Furthermore, energy companies have to date been sat on the fence with regards to electric cars. Some, including Ecotricity and British Gas have been reasonably proactive, but the others have largely only supported EVs in words. There is a big incentive for electricity supplies to encourage and improve infrastructure, because they may be the next oil-barons.

Battery production

The short answer here is that battery production is largely a mining exercise, like many others. The raw minerals in the ground are extracted, processed and ultimately used in battery production. This does, of course, necessitate the transport of minerals from where they’re found to where they’re needed, which isn’t dissimilar from oil, which is found in remote parts of the world and then transported to major hubs before being processed, transported again and then poured into car fuel tanks, where it is transported again before being used by the engine.

Lithium-ion production is still in its infancy and to date has largely served the electronics industry, rather than the automobile industry. New factories are being built, such as Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada USA, which will both improve efficiency of building them and is close to a source of lithium mining too. Arguably, battery construction is similar to oil in this respect, but there’s one major difference that isn’t often mentioned.

Fuel burns using our atmosphere and once burnt, it’s changed into exhaust gas. We don’t use this for anything, and instead breathe in the toxic fumes and effectively poison ourselves. Batteries, on the other hand, have all the chemicals they need to distribute power contained within. It’s part of the reason why they’re heavy. They don’t use up the air we breathe and they don’t emit exhaust. And yes, they do degrade, but indications from existing electric cars built in 2010 show that they only degrade by about 10% after ten years. Don’t forget, petrol and diesel cars lose their efficiency too, as unburnt fuel and the wear-and tear on engine components all chip away at fuel economy.

Furthermore, if you create a lithium-ion battery today, it can have a use as a battery for an estimated 30-years, whether that’s in a car or as a second hand battery in another use, such as battery storage for grid-power. And, at the end of that time, it’s 100% recyclable. The lithium contained within can be repurposed and reprocessed to make a brand new battery and the process starts again.

It’s also worth mentioning the above just talks about lithium-ion batteries, which is the current preferred battery for many things in our lives, including mobile phones, laptops and now cars. However, work on other battery chemistries is underway and they may offer better – or worse – recyclable properties, but the fundamental aspects of the battery containing everything it requires to store and emit energy remain the same.

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