On 26th July 2017, Defra published their strategy for dealing with roadside emissions. The big story is:
"The Government confirmed today that it will end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, as it unveiled new plans to tackle air pollution … We are taking bold action and want nearly every car and van on UK roads to be zero emission by 2050"
Contrast this with GDS' vision for anything beyond 2020
"Nobody can predict what the world of 2020 will look like. Technology moves quickly and changes constantly. However we do expect what we call ‘digital’ currently to be largely mainstream by then”
Interesting, no? Defra are prepared to think 20+ years out and GDS, our government's lead technology organisation, can't quite comprehend the world more than a few months out.
In my experience, it’s rare for such ground-breaking, multi-Parliament promises to be made. Realising this vision will involve working across the whole of government as well as with the private sector. The interesting thing about this vision is that it could happen by itself - so it's not necessarily a daring vision - but it will be a lot quicker and easier if government is pushing rather than blocking. As it starts to unfold, though, government will need to be thinking and planning hard - there is plenty at risk including tax revenue and jobs.
Defra are, it seems, out in front of the rest of government by setting out this policy. There is, though, so much more to it than this. To make this work we need other parts of government to come alive and for them to spell out more of the “why” and “what’s it for”. Government has announced an outcome (no more petrol and diesel cars), along with a series of funding inputs, but we need more - and we need a lot of different people to play their part.
So here's my attempt to fill in the gaps and say what the announcement should and could mean. This post will come in a few parts and this is part 1.
What’s It For
- Establish the UK in a leadership position on electric vehicles and, by extension, self-driving vehicles
- Begin a programme of road upgrades that will support self-driving cars through establishing standards and ensuring that all changes to roads comply
- Funnel R&D into electric and self driving.
- UK government spends £4.6bn on R&D each year - significant chunks of that can, and should, be diverted to emerging industries where we can move ahead
- Begin the restructuring of the UK manufacturing economy in support of electric and self-drive
- There will be fundamental changes in the entire supply chain as the number of parts needed to build a car falls by as much as 60-80% (with increasingly standard components made to work more effectively by software)
- Support the development of new national champions
- If it’s not about internal combustion, new players can, and will, emerge. Design champions, software leaders, battery technologists, sensor pioneers, and who knows what else
- Pioneer new technology in eg fast charging
- Leverage the work on cars to provide new trains, agricultural vehicles and, eventually, planes
- Aim to become a major exporter of electric cars and related technology
- Begin planning for a restructuring of the tax base
- Support the development of an app store, and applications, for electric cars
- Start readiness planning for self-driving to be universal
- This could include restructuring the auto-insurance industry, taxi companies, driving instructors, road haulage ete
Current UK Car Sales
On average, 165,000 cars are bought each month in the UK, across petrol, diesel and "alternative fuels. There is some recent uncertainty in these figures with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) seemingly getting its numbers wrong, but the average seems about right.
In the year to end July, nearly 1.6m cars have been registered, with the breakdown of electric and hybrid vehicles, based on SMMT, looking like this:
Whilst the numbers are moving up, they're not moving up very fast, despite the incentives available, including contributions of up to £4,500 against the purchase price and free road tax (saving another £200-300/year).
We produce around 135,000 cars/month in the UK already, exporting roughly 100,000 of those. Most of the capacity is already there, then, to build the cars we need, albeit for internal combustion engine models, if we didn't export any.
There will be re-tooling and re-skilling, re-balancing and re-thinking. Lots will need to come together. But it could. It will need leadership.
The Inflection Point
Sometime before 2040, this vision becomes self-fulfilling. The infrastructure will be in place, there will be wide choice of electric cars, incentives will be signposted as going away and the decision will suddenly move, for every buyer, from “why buy an electric car” to “why not buy one”. For a small number of people, that decision is already made - but if you live in the country, drive great distances, have a large car that needs lots of towing power or stowage space, you’re not there yet. But you will be and pretty soon I expect.
Significant change is coming, but it's going to take a lot of work for it to happen and a lot of rethinking about how our economy works, how tax to do with cars is calculated and levied and how we balance the phasing in of new economic models as we try and phase out the old models.
It's going to be interesting what the take up curve looks like - recent diesel scandals coupled with likely increased charges for such cars entering city boundaries mean that diesel sales will continue to fall.
We don't have Tesla making cars here ... but we do have McLaren and Aston Martin
We don't have Google Maps ... but we do have Improbable
We aren't Australia or Chile, the world's top lithium producers, but we might have lithium in Cornwall that can be mined
We don't have Tesla batteries ... but we are investing in batteries
There's a lot more still to think about and to bring together to make this happen. The UK should now be aiming to be a leading player in both the electric car market and in self-driving technology.
Some day soon, drivers of petrol and, especially, diesel vehicles will be like smokers today. They won't be welcome at parties, will not be allowed to drive within a mile of a school and will see their health insurance premiums climb, not to mention their driving insurance premiums.
More in part 2.