According to the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), nearly 95% of new car registrations in the UK in the year to November 2017 had petrol or diesel engines. Diesel came to dominate the share of the UK car market with sales increasing each year to 2015, having been encouraged due to low CO2 levels and associated low vehicle excise duty (VED). The VW emissions scandal, concerns over overall diesel environmental performance and tailpipe emissions and proposed rises in VED and company car tax on new diesel cars have seen sales and market share decrease (from 47.8% in 2016 to 42.2% in 2017 and 37.7% for the month of November). Despite an overall drop in new vehicle registrations, due to the reduction in diesel sales, there has been a rise in the number of petrol cars and of alternatively fuelled vehicles including hybrids and full electric vehicles. Whilst alternatively powered vehicles only have a market share of 4.7% in the year to date in 2017, this is a 35% increase on the 3.6% market share in 2016. With most vehicle manufacturers already having full electric or hybrid vehicles in their range and plans for more, it is clear that this increase will continue and electric vehicles will become mainstream in the next few years.
The rise in electric vehicles is due in no small measure to proposed future regulations around fossil fuel powered vehicles. In the EU 2011 White Paper on transport, there was a key target that there should be no more conventionally fuelled cars in cities by 2050, but this target has been somewhat superseded by various national governments. The UK has introduced a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040; France has introduced a ban on all petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040; Germany has passed a resolution to ban all internal combustion engines by 2030; India will allow only fully electric vehicles by 2030, whilst Norway will only sell cars that are 100% electric by 2025; China and the Netherlands are also considering similar bans.
There are a number of cities that also have plans to restrict internal combustion powered vehicles; Paris will ban petrol and diesel powered vehicles by 2030, ten years ahead of the French ban; Oxford will ban all non-electric vehicles from its centre by 2020 and Copenhagen will ban diesel cars from 2019. Many other cities have low emission zones that also limit certain vehicles and given the large number of people who live in cities, the impacts of such bans or restrictions will be significant.
The benefits of moving away from conventionally powered vehicles in cities is obvious as full electric vehicles are quieter and produce no tailpipe emissions, although unless the electricity is generated from 100% renewable sources there will be CO2 emissions elsewhere. Even considering this, the ‘well to wheel’ CO2 emissions (that is the emissions generated by the energy used for propulsion) are lower for electric vehicles. The Alternative Fuels Data Center in the USA has estimated the annual CO2-equivalent emissions of an electric vehicle based on the electricity sources by state, compared to the average US gasoline-powered car producing 5,187kg of CO2-equivalent emissions annually. It found that national average for a typical electric vehicle was 2,184kg but this ranged from <1kg in Vermont, where oil and gas make up only 1.2% of electricity sources to 4,287kg West Virginia where coal accounts for 95.7% of electricity production, still lower than an average fossil fuel powered vehicle.
An area where electric vehicles have struggled to gain commercial acceptance is due to concerns over the limited range and long charge times. For city vehicles, this is unlikely to be a significant concern and with fast charging points in many motorway service stations, this should encourage more people to consider electric vehicles. As the market continues to develop, there will also be significant improvements in battery and charging technology in the years to come.
Despite Tesla’s recent announcement of an all-electric lorry, it remains in a relatively early stage of development and is initially opening up to the US market. In Europe, there are ongoing trials of electric highways that would charge vehicles on the move such as the FABRIC project which is conducting feasibility analysis of on-road charging technologies for long term electric vehicle range extension. This includes tests of inductive (contactless) technology at sites in France and Italy, and a conductive transfer vie electrified tacks in the road in Sweden. Another trial being undertaken in Sweden uses overhead wires based on tram technology to power and charge trucks; this ‘trial’ is being undertaken on a 2km stretch of the E16 and has two diesel-electric hybrid trucks in general use raising their pantographs when they pass under the cables to travel on electric power. The technology in this case has been proven and work is now focussing on the business model for wider deployment. Currently, the electric engines have twice the efficiency of diesel engines and the electricity is half the cost. Whilst government’s will no doubt seek to recover the lost fuel tax if electric vehicle deployment becomes widespread, there are 75% cost savings available to work with, not including the current cost to society of the health issues caused by air pollution.
It is clear then, that in one form or other, electrification of road transport seems to be viable and is gathering pace. There are pros and cons of all the on-road powering systems in terms of cost, constructability, maintenance and efficiency and there is more work to be undertaken on how much of the network needs to be electrified to be sufficient. This last point is important as there doesn’t need to be 100% coverage as the vehicles will be able to travel by battery power for parts of the journey, so the infrastructure will only need to be in blocks and specific sections such as steep inclines.
Another area to be considered is standardisation; whilst it might not matter hugely if North America and Europe have a different charging methods or approach to electrification, there does need some level of consistency around Europe, and so the EC, national governments and industry need to come together to try and agree a common approach.
It seems inevitable that there will be an increasing level of electrified vehicles which should benefit urban air quality, the wider environment and the economy. Potential changes to transport such as automated driving, the sharing economy and mobility as a service will likely demand it.
This makes it all the more strange that the UK government has chosen to abandon a number of rail electrification projects in favour of hybrid trains. Whilst there will be initial cost savings, the avoidance of disruption during the electrification process and the ability to bring in new trains sooner, the end result will be more expensive, less efficient and heavier trains with less capacity that will be more expensive to maintain, cause more wear on the tracks and result in diesel trains continuing to travel into city centres at the same time as diesel and petrol road vehicles are being replaced by electric alternatives.