As the green transition gains momentum and urgency, we are seeing economic, business, and societal shifts that are changing the way we live our day to day lives. Though some changes relate solely to niche industries or specific sectors, there are some transformations taking place that touch everyone in the UK. One example is the overhaul of our transportation as we move towards an infrastructure that is supported solely by electric vehicles (‘EVs’). The uptake of EVs across the country has been slowly gaining speed, and as UK government regulations accelerate the pace, the sector is ballooning with opportunity. This article gives a comprehensive summary of the UK EV sector, presenting the current state of affairs, key timelines, and future opportunities.
Before we jump into questions of regulation or analysis of EVs in the UK, it’s worth asking ‘what is the EV sector’?
The EV industry relates to the electric car or vehicle market. An electric vehicle or EV is a vehicle that does not have a combustion engine or use petrol or diesel, but is powered by an electric rechargeable battery. Some EVs are what are known as ‘ZEVs’ (zero emission vehicles), whilst others are ‘ULEVs’ (ultra-low emission vehicles). It’s important to understand that electrical vehicles, whether they are cars, buses or bikes, are the product of a very long and complex supply chain. Though EVs are simpler from a mechanical point of view, the technology they draw upon makes them more challenging to mass-produce.
There are 3 types of EV, as well as fuel-cell EVs:
Powered wholly by a battery which is charged from the mains. Almost all manufacturers offer pure electric cars, many of which can now travel upwards of 200 miles on a single charge.
Offers the best of both worlds, combining an electric motor with an internal combustion engine. Typically, the battery range is in excess of 20 – 30 miles, good for short urban journeys. For longer trips, or if the battery charge is depleted, an efficient petrol or diesel engine kicks in to power the vehicle.
Similar to pure electric vehicles, can typically travel up to 150 miles on a single charge however contains an on-board ICE generator that can charge the battery when the level of charge drops below a certain level. Unlike a PHEV, the ICE generator does not directly provide power to the vehicle.
Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), with zero emission at the tailpipe. FCEVs use hydrogen fuel cells for power.
EV sector growth in the UK has been slow but steady. Indeed, the UK actually boasts the second largest ‘plug-in’ car market in Europe after Germany. Unsurprising once you learn that since 2011, car manufacturers have committed £10.8 billion into research and development of the UK EV sector and battery production.
In order to understand the sector, it’s important to understand how it sits within a context of nationwide commitments to green transition and widespread environmental awareness.
The UK has committed to zero-carbon emissions (‘net zero’) by 2050. In this vein, a substantial focus has been on reforming the UK’s transport sector. Transportation is a major priority because it constitutes our largest emitting sector – responsible for 27% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. Within that, it’s important to realise that over 55% of the sector’s emission stems from cars.
Fortunately , the government is doing a lot to redress the problem. As part of its 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution, the Government announced the gradual phase out of the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and that all new cars and vans would be completely zero emission by 2035.
The market has grown quickly and EVs actually now count for more than one in six new cars. However, to maintain this momentum, there’s a critical need for key industry stakeholders to do their bit and help to ‘plug the gap’ between proclaimed ambition and actual delivery. It’s predicted that if the EV market is properly supported, it will create ample job opportunities, support economic growth, and attract lucrative investment.
In 2020 alone, electric car sales rocketed by 186%, demonstrating the catalytic change taking place within the transportation sector. Additionally, there has been a 60% increase in cars that sell for less than £35,000 since 2019, opening up the market to a wider range of buyers and budgets.
According to the Government’s timeline of key deliverables, this is how the next 13 years or so should pan out:
The UK government has committed vast swathes of new regulations to supporting the green transition of the transport sector. These regulations and roadmaps are helping to catalyse key industry change that are stimulating the growth of the EV market. However, it is important to acknowledge that while the government is committed to playing a key role in the green transition, it also anticipates that the private sector will do much of the heavy lifting to generate the necessary momentum.
As we mentioned earlier, a significant regulatory milestone was the ZEV mandate which was announced as part of the ‘Road to Zero Strategy’ in 2018. This mandate will require vehicle manufactures to sell a minimum number of ZEV as a proportion of their overall UK sales from 2024. This proportion is being progressively increased over time until ultimately hitting 100% by 2035.
In July 2021, the UK government published the transport decarbonisation plan alongside a 2035 delivery plan which outlined the exact measures, policies and investments the government intended to take to support the transition to zero emission cars. As part of its support package, the government has committed £2.8 billion to ensure that the phase-out deadlines are met. The government has also created new funds to support the expansion of the charging point infrastructure in private homes, workplaces and on local streets. As a result, according to the government, a driver is never more than 25 miles away from a rapid charge point if they’re driving on any of England’s major A roads or motorways.
Additionally, the ‘Plug-in Car Grant’ (PiCG) is available to help to finance the purchase of pure electric cars, offering buyers up to £2,500 to buy qualifying vehicles that costs less than £35,000 and that have a minimum range of 70 miles on a single charge.
The growth of the EV sector is not without its hurdles. The current achilles heel of the EV market in the UK is the delayed improvement of the infrastructure necessary to support electric cars on our roads. Charger availability is a huge issue both for people who already own EVs and for those considering purchasing one.
Additionally, problems relating to the ‘standardisation’ of the necessary infrastructure and equipment is of key concern. Ensuring the adoption of industry-wide standards by manufacturers (and governments) is essential to securing efficient roll-out and uptake of EVs. This is because standardisation drives efficiency in infrastructure and also helps to maintain healthy competition between manufacturers. Just think how much easier it would be for EV drivers if the charger plugs and electricity grid sockets for their cars were the same across brands and countries! There would be less hassle changing between EV cars and using charging points would be simpler.
‘Range anxiety’, relating to concerns about the limited travel distances that EVs can go between charges, constitutes a major impediment to the uptake of EVs – exacerbated by the relative shortage of charging points.
However, as we touched on earlier, the government is taking measures to address this matter. With its charging point funds and new proposed amendments to building regulations which will require new builds and major renovations to install an EV charging point, the government hopes to create 145,000 extra charging points to support the growth of the sector.
Another issue is that EVs are not totally zero-emissions contrary to what you might think. Because of the overall lifecycle of both the vehicle and all of its various components, it’s impossible for an EV to be completely free of an environmental impact. Though, of course, when compared to a standard petrol or diesel fuelled vehicle, EVs are the best option.
Finally, to support the uptake of EVs, an increased production of batteries will be necessary. However, EV batteries have sparked ethical and environmental debates because of the various implications of the materials needed to manufacture them.
It’s clear that the EV sector will continue to grow in coming years. In part supported by rigorous government legislation, but also because of increasing public awareness around the detrimental environmental impact of conventional petrol and diesel powered vehicles. As the market expands, so too do the options available to consumers. To power the market and supercharge its growth, however, serious collaboration between government, private and public sectors, as well as comprehensive and integrated planning will be absolutely essential. One thing’s for sure, though. The future is electric.
It is estimated that there are around 477,000 electric cars in the UK.
Electric cars are definitely available in the UK. As we upgrade the infrastructure and the market grows, EVs will become even more readily available. And eventually, they’ll be the only kinds of vehicles available for purchase.
Britain is arguably already ready for EVs, but its infrastructure is constantly improving.
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