Electric vehicles with zero emissions are the future, so it is vital government creates the conditions to maximise take-up and build a proper charging point network

Richard Threlfall

It was a most extraordinary feeling. I was in the very heart of the capital city, just after rush hour, yet the air was as fresh as in the Yorkshire Dales, and I was crossing the roads diagonally, as you do in quiet suburban streets when there is no traffic. If I was going to be a road casualty, it was more likely death by bike than by car. You could not help but feel a sense of calm. It was, from the perspective of someone who has spent all his career in transport policy and projects, a utopia. It was Oslo. 

I grant that the Norwegian capital is not a city the size of Mumbai, Sao Paulo or London. But it shows what can be done if a city authority really focuses on creating an environment to optimise quality of life. And there is a pressing public policy case for fewer, cleaner vehicles on our roads. The Royal College of Physicians has estimated that air pollution is responsible for 40,000 premature deaths annually.

There are many elements to what Oslo, and Norway generally, is doing that are enviable. But a particularly critical part is the support for the adoption of electric vehicles. It puts the UK’s efforts to shame. Last year, 40% of the vehicles sold in Norway were either hybrids or battery electric vehicles. Battery electric vehicles now make up around 6% of the total car stock.

Hydrogen may well be used for trucks, buses and diggers, but cars will be electric. Pretty much every car manufacturer in the world has started producing them

There is no question in my mind that the global future is a 100% battery electric vehicle car fleet. Hydrogen may well be used for trucks and buses and diggers, but cars will be electric. Pretty much every vehicle manufacturer in the world has started producing electric vehicles. Volvo has announced that from next year it will only produce hybrids and battery electric vehicles. 

China, India, the UK and France have announced the intention to ban sales of petrol and diesel vehicles at some point in the future. Norway’s policy goal is that by 2025 all vehicles sold will be zero emission. In the UK, the trade union Unite has seen the writing on the wall, and urged Ford to shift its UK plants to electric. 

But as individuals we are hesitant to switch, and three reasons are usually given for this.

The first is cost – electric vehicles are still generally more expensive than petrol and diesel vehicles. But the cost is falling fast. Work I have seen from colleagues suggests that by 2022 the total cost of electric vehicle ownership will be at parity with the cost of diesel and petrol vehicles. 

The second reason is range. We want electric vehicles to go as far as a petrol or diesel vehicle would before the need to stop. But a Tesla Model S already has a range of more than 300 miles, and there is plenty of choice of vehicles with a more-than-100-mile range. As battery technology improves and costs continue to tumble, long-range and low-cost vehicles can only be a few years away.

The third reason is the lack of availability of electric vehicle charging facilities. This is an infrastructure question that the government could grip but has been slow to do so. 

I believe government should insist on standardisation of access to charging points so all owners can turn up and plug in

Evidence suggests that between 60% and 80% of charging of electric vehicles will take place at the origin, eg your home, 10%-20% at the destination, for instance your office or a car park, and 10%-20% en route. 

If we are to create conditions to maximise take-up of electric vehicles in the UK, the government needs to urgently drive investment in all three categories of location. 

The UK policy to date relies largely on market forces but has some limited subsidies for consumers to install home charging points and £200m of match funding for the Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund, which was announced in the 2017 Budget but is not yet up and running. But it is not sufficient. Many car owners don’t have anywhere to install a charging point because they don’t have a garage or off-road parking. And on the road network we are seeing the slow growth of a confusing patchwork of charging points by different providers, of variable quality and each with their own requirements for signing up. 

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, which should soon become law, gives powers to the government to require large fuel retailers and service area operators to install electric vehicle charging points and to regulate charging point operators. That is welcome, but still not enough.

I believe the government should insist on standardisation of access to charging points so all owners can just turn up and plug in. In addition, they should support local authorities to procure sufficient charging points in residential streets. And they should ensure, through regulator Ofgem, that whatever strengthening of the electricity network is required is funded and undertaken asap. 

In short, we need a strategy for comprehensive electric vehicle charging across the country. The government should be leading that now.