As the effects of climate change ramp up, the world’s love affair with the internal combustion engine may be coming to an end. Transport is the largest energy-consuming sector in the UK, with cars, buses, lorries and motorbikes making up 73% of all transport-related pollution. Transitioning to electric vehicles would make a substantial difference to the UK’s carbon emissions, as well as improving air quality in urban areas and delivering substantial savings in running costs and maintenance for consumers. But is the UK ready for an electric car revolution?
Barriers to entry
Despite the clear benefits of electric vehicles, adoption has not been widespread. 'We are still wedded to the internal combustion engine in a variety of ways,' notes Professor Tim Schwanen, Director of the Transport Studies Unit (TSU) at Oxford's School of Geography and the Environment. 'For some segments of the vehicle market, few electric models are available – and those that are on the market are often considerably more expensive than their conventional counterparts. For heavy goods vehicles, electric versions are often not yet on the market.'
Even for those who can afford an electric car, infrastructure to support them is lagging behind. 'A charging infrastructure will in particular have to accommodate charging at home, because this is what potential users tend to prefer,' says Professor Schwanen. 'It is also unclear what "home" means – whether this refers to private parking, street parking in front of the house, or if people are willing to charge at safe overnight parking nearby.' Research will soon start at the TSU to understand more about charging preferences for people considering an electric car. The outcomes of this work will generate solid evidence that could potentially be used for policymakers considering the roll-out of electric car infrastructure.
'The biggest infrastructure challenges lie with the electricity grid,' explains Professor Schwanen, 'which is in no way equipped to accommodate massive adoption of electric vehicles. One issue is peak use, with large numbers of people charging their car at more or less the same time (for example, between 5pm and 11pm). This can be addressed with smart charging, whereby algorithms determine when is the most appropriate time for a car to be charged, and/or vehicle-to-grid technology, where stationary vehicles are functioning as storage devices or batteries and can support the grid. Another issue is that in many geographical locations the grid will have to be upgraded, because there is often insufficient power for fast and ultra-fast charging.'
Political action will be necessary to encourage the public towards electric vehicles. 'The time for a gentle approach is now well and truly over, given transport’s immense contribution to climate change and the slow pace with which ultra-low-emission vehicles have been adopted by private households and professional organisations,' says Professor Schwanen. 'A mix of policies will be needed. Current initiatives such as subsidised charging infrastructure and government grants for battery electric vehicles should be maintained. At the same time, we need more zero- or low-emission zones in cities and an increased tax on internal combustion engines. Freight and goods transport is disproportionally responsible for air pollution, so those industries need to be targeted for electrification.'
Even if the UK was prepared for a transition to electric vehicles, ditching our conventional cars for greener versions will not be enough to combat global climate change. 'Electrification of vehicles is only a part of the solution,' says Professor Schwanen. 'A much more comprehensive change will be necessary, and this will inevitably involve changes to our behaviour. Replacing driving your own car with public transportation, walking, cycling and using a car club will be key elements of what is going to be required.'
Other transport networks will need to be addressed, too. 'Flying will need to be curtailed somehow, as this is the fastest-growing contributor to CO2 emissions in the transport sector,' adds Professor Schwanen. 'The sort of change required to address climate change will not be popular – driving your own car and flying for business and pleasure have become a way of life for most of us. But, as Greta Thunberg shows, avoiding flying while still playing a prominent role in public life is entirely possible.'