Electric cars: are we being too optimistic?

Electric cars: are we being too optimistic?

by Martin Livermore
article from Monday 19, March, 2018

"The number of electric cars sold in Britain has fallen by a third since the start of the year, amid concerns that motorists are being put off by high prices, limited battery range and a lack of roadside charging points." 

THESE ARE the opening words of an article in The Times this week (Electric car sales tumble over price and plugs). The question is, are these just inevitable teething problems or are the plans for a grand phase out of internal combustion engines fatally flawed at this stage of technology development?

This is a young market and doubtless prone to hiccups, and a key factor in its growth is government policy. In the UK as in many other countries, sales of electric vehicles are subsidised to develop the market. At present, this means a grant of £4,500 per car, which cynics might categorise as rich consumers being given a price reduction by poor taxpayers, since the majority of purchasers are comparatively affluent first adopters. Since the claimed advantages of battery power are also more relevant to urban areas and relatively short trips, this is also in part a subsidy for prosperous city-dwellers at the expense of their country cousins. In any event, this is a form of regressive taxation.

The future of this grant seems in doubt: The Times reports it is to end in April although it seems unlikely that the government will not extend it in some form. In practice, its absence might make little difference to the early adopters, who have made the pricy Tesla model S as common a sight on Britain’s roads as the more mainstream Nissan Leafs (Leaves?) and Renault Zoes. But affluent consumers who can afford to buy the latest toys and environmentally-conscious city-dwellers are not enough to create sustained growth and a switch away from petrol and diesel.

The Times article quotes figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, showing that less than a thousand fully electric cars were sold in the UK in the first two months of the year. The total for the whole of last year was 13,600, which sounds high but still represents just half a per cent of total sales. More popular by far are hybrids. Over 11,500 conventional/electric hybrids were sold in January and February, of which more than 3,800 were plug-ins. This compares to just 990 pure electric cars.

Despite the relative popularity of hybrids, we should put this in perspective. The total number of hybrids and electric vehicles sold in the UK in the first two months of the year is just 12,500, or a tad over 5 per cent of the total. There is no major shift in the market away from petrol and diesel engines. And to give a better gloss on the situation, governments, including the Westminster one, when speaking of the growing market for electric cars, deliberately conflating the various categories.

The reality seems to be that consumers who move from conventional cars are much more interested in hybrids than purely electric cars, and only about two thirds of hybrid owners are shelling out for the plug-in versions. Even these have severely limited range on battery; fine for short commuting, but the combustion engine is certainly needed for anything more significant. Given that they come at a significant price premium to shorter range, non-plug-in hybrids, their market is currently limited.

These facts have to be seen in light of the stated intention of both the UK and French governments to halt the sale of purely petrol- or diesel-fuelled cars by 2040. Many politicians are indeed upping the ante on this, for example we read this week that MPs warn of ‘poisonous air’ emergency costing £20bn a year, and have demanded a faster phase-out of the internal combustion engine.

Despite the headlines, air quality has improved considerably over recent decades. The problems that remain – nitrogen dioxide and small particulates – tend to exacerbate existing health conditions and it would surely be a benefit if the air we breathe could be cleaner still. But the real problems are localised, particularly on busy urban streets and next to main roads, and don’t affect the whole country. Local solutions may be needed for local problems.

If all the cars currently on the road could be removed overnight, the problem wouldn’t disappear. PM2.5 and other small particles come from a variety of other sources, and nitrogen dioxide is found in the flues from gas boilers, for example. If all cars in cities were replaced by electric vehicles – assuming the logistical problems of charging could be overcome – the cars would still put additional particulates into the air from brake and tyre wear.

Using the latest petrol and diesel engines would contribute a small amount of nitrogen dioxide, but in other respects would be very similar to using battery power. But the big difference is it would be more affordable for the average motorist, and the existing refuelling infrastructure could accommodate it.

The other factor, which we can forget now that air pollution is such a big issue, is carbon dioxide emissions reduction, the reason why so many people were encouraged to buy the now-demonised diesel cars in the first place. Switching to the latest petrol and diesel engines would reduce emissions in comparison to older cars, but electric vehicles could in principle cut them further. The elephant in the room, though, is the need to do this using low-emission electricity generation.

Generating capacity would need to be significantly increased to cope with charging demand and, in the absence of new nuclear stations in the short to medium term, this would doubtless be wind and solar farms, needing additional gas-fired backup. The net effect on emissions is unlikely to be large, if power is to be delivered when it is needed.

If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on the car fleet in 2040 being largely hybrids rather than pure electric. Simply waving a magic policy wand won’t achieve the impossible.

Martin Livermore is director of Scientific Alliance and writes a regular blog on scientific matters.

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