After a series of false starts, there is renewed hope for the electric vehicles market
The age of the electric car has been prophesised many times. In 1899, Belgian racing driver Camille Jenatzy broke the 100km/h speed barrier in his electric-powered “rocket car”. In the early 1900s, many New York City cabs ran on rechargeable batteries. But despite this early popularity, the inexorable rise of the internal combustion engine, and nagging problems with performance, reliability and production costs, set the electric car back.
Towards the end of the century the story repeated itself again: environmentalists were left dismayed as a renewed interest in electric vehicles (EVs) sparked by the energy shocks of the 1970s and 1980s was quickly dissipated by an unholy alliance of indifferent consumers, reluctant auto-manufacturers and hesitant governments.
With the world welcoming its one billionth car late last year, the environmental case for EVs is stronger than ever before. And in the last few years, new hope has emerged, with many in the industry predicting spiralling commodity prices, increasing pressure to act on climate change and technological improvements – albeit incremental – would finally park the electric car in the mainstream.
Progress, however, has proved as painful as ever. Dubbed the “year of the electric car” by government and industry, 2011 proved a damp squib; despite the introduction of a generous government subsidy, barely more than a thousand EVs were sold in the UK.
But if 2011 was a washout, there is renewed hope that further technological improvements, a range of new vehicles, and, crucially, the continued support of government, will provide the industry with a much-needed shot in the arm.
Last month, the government extended its plugin car grant, a direct subsidy that offers 25 per cent – up to £5000 – to motorists buying a new plug-in car. The scheme will now offer 20 per cent – or up to £8,000 – to van buyers as well.
Describing electric vehicles as “the arrowhead for a low-carbon revolution in motoring”, transport minister Norman Baker renewed the government’s commitment to the initiative, which is guaranteed until 2015.
In Scotland, despite positive progress elsewhere, carbon emissions from road transport rose by eight per cent between 1990 and 2008.
Environmentalists regularly cite this area as a blind spot in the Scottish Government’s ambitious climate-change targets, and with the SNP government pursuing an aggressive strategy of road building, that trajectory is unlikely to reverse without an explosion in the number of EVs on Scottish highways.
For its part, the Scottish Government has allocated £1m for low-carbon vehicles and green buses in its draft budget for 2012/13 as part of the Future Transport Fund. That figure will rise to £4.5m in 2013/14. Development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure will progress via the continuation of the Plugged-in Places programme, a UK-wide public-private initiative to establish a charging network across a chosen region – in Scotland’s case, the central belt. Late last year, however, the Scottish Government scrapped its commitment to supplement the Plugged-in Places scheme with a target of 375 standard and six rapid charging points across the central belt. The slow take up of EVs nationwide led to fears that with the infrastructure so concentrated, much of it would remain unused.
Instead, £4.2m of funding – in addition to the £4.3m made available in 2010 – was handed to local authorities to help subsidise the cost of buying public-sector EVs and to build the charging points themselves. Environment groups and industry backers said the decision to spread infrastructure across the country, and to boost the number of EVs on Scottish roads, was helpful. The focus on public procurement is “a good angle”, says Dr Jillian Anable of the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Transport Research. “Niche markets” are easier to find in the public sector, where short journeys are common and large agencies can deliver economies of scale by pooling maintenance.
According to Dr Sam Gardner, senior climatechange policy officer at WWF Scotland, it is important the public sector takes a lead in switching to electric vehicles. Seeing local authority, NHS and police vehicles on Scottish roads would help establish EVs in the public consciousness and dispel the fears of private consumers. He adds, however, that the focus on transforming public sector fleets should be matched by policies designed to encourage the private market as well.
Last month, WWF Scotland released Powering Ahead, an ambitious report calling for the Scottish Government to take bold action in stimulating the lowcarbon vehicle market.
According to WWF, in order to be confident of hitting its climate targets, Scotland will need to replace at least 300,000 conventional cars with electric vehicles by 2020. The charity called on Scottish ministers to commit to matching the existing UK grant, allowing Scottish consumers to claim up to £10,000 in subsidy for a single vehicle.
Other measures proposed by WWF included commissioning a review of market models for recharging infrastructure, as well as the publication of a clear and ambitious EV strategy document including targets for 2015, 2020 and 2030.
It is a bold posture and one that goes much further than anything committed by the Scottish Government so far. A Low-Carbon Vehicle Action Plan, scheduled for publication in 2011, is yet to see the light of day and with just a few thousand low carbon vehicles expected in public hands by the end of the decade, the Scottish Government appears to be doing little more than paying lip service to the expansion of the EV market.
Not so, says Transport Scotland, which told Holyrood that the Scottish Government remains committed to the almost total decarbonisation of road transportation by 2050, of which “a wholesale shift to electric and other low-carbon vehicles will be key”.
While Gardner says the funding commitments made so far are “welcome,” they are “dwarfed by the massive amounts of money being thrown at new road building that locks Scotland’s transport system into a high-carbon future”. WWF research, he says, shows that “if traffic levels increase by [the levels] projected in the Government’s own infrastructure plan, we will need at least 1.5 million EVs by 2020, an impossibly high figure.” But if policy-makers could undoubtedly do more, in reality the long-term prospects for electric vehicles are likely to be dictated ultimately by a combination of technological improvements and consumer sentiment.
Indeed, says Transport Scotland, any market transformation will “primarily be industry-led,” with government playing a supporting role.
In its 2011 report Electric Vehicles: Driving the change, engineering consultancy Atkins identified high purchase cost, range constraints and a lack of recharging infrastructure as the three main barriers to the rapid up-scaling of the EV market. In 2012, there is hope that the release of several new models including the updated Vauxhall Ampera, Renault Zoe, as well the updated Toyota Prius (see inset), will mark another leap forward for EVs.
With subsidy in place and infrastructure expanding, it is likely sales will increase, but at nowhere near the rate enthusiasts hope for.
“It’s a huge challenge to see where the market is going to come from,” cautions Anable. “From the government point of view, not only do they have to subsidise consumers in order to have a chance of there being uptake, they have to fund the infrastructure [as well].” With the price of pure electric vehicles not forecasted to drop significantly until the 2020s, largely due to the cost of batteries, governments would need to maintain subsidies for up to a decade.
According to Anable, the cost of making a significant change to the current car fleet would be “absolutely massive”. “When you look at it in terms of the investment required to reduce carbon from transport per pound spent, it’s really not a very good return on investment,” she says. Anable adds that consumers and policy-makers would do better by accelerating the rapid improvements made to fuel efficiency in conventional vehicles in recent years, and establishing which of the low-carbon vehicle technologies [see inset] has the most potential.
In the short-to-medium term, however, EVs face an “uncertain future”.
The technologies competing to fire the market
By combining an electric powertrain with a conventional internal combustion engine, hybrids dramatically improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution. The Toyota Prius, launched in 1997, is arguably the only low-carbon car to achieve “mainstream” status. Globally, however, hybrids account for less than 3 per cent of the market.
Major manufacturers have continued to develop and promote all-electric vehicles, but the significant price premium is yet to be overcome. With over 20,000 units sold, the Nissan Leaf is the most popular EV in the world. Both the US and China have committed significant funds to developing the technology.
Hydrogen fuel cells
Long seen as the Holy Grail of low carbon transportation, hydrogen-powered vehicles could cover long distances with virtually zero emissions.
Production costs are prohibitive, however. The UK government recently launched H2 mobility, a consortium of investors hoping to make hydrogenpowered cars viable within five years.
New arrivals expected to make their mark in 2012
Boosted by a petrol range-extender generator – which charges the battery rather than powers the wheels – this family saloon offers a highly impressive fuel economy of 175mpg and low running costs. Performance comes at a price: an Ampera will cost £28,995 even after the £5,000 plug-in car grant.
A truly cost competitive electric car? An all-electric hatchback designed to significantly undercut the Nissan Leaf on price – Renault claims the Zoe, available from mid-2012, will cost less than £15,000.
A nippy city car similar in design to the popular Clio, the Zoe will boast a range of 100 miles.
This popular model was the first petrol-electric hybrid to break through commercially; over three million have been sold worldwide. A new model for 2012 will offer 72.44mpg with prices starting at £21,350. A new Plug-in Hybrid and the Prius+ people carrier will follow later in 2012.