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Electric vehicles are ready for prime time, so why is the UK waiting for the ICE ban?

Image credit: Dreamstime

With the UK only planning to ban the sale of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in 2035, you would be forgiven for thinking the electric vehicle (EV) revolution is still some way off.

With the UK pledging to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, and internal combustion vehicles alone accounting for just over 18 per cent of emissions, electric vehicles will need to become a big part of the future transport landscape.

Even if widespread adoption is still lacking, EV technology has already matured to a point where the vast majority of trips could (and should) be carried out petrol-free.

While hopes are continuously pinned on future battery technologies - which are always on the horizon, but never commercialised - today’s vehicles are already capable of filling the current need.

According to the RAC Foundation, the average length of a commuter trip in the UK is just ten miles, yet even the cheapest modern electric cars, such as the Renault Zoe (costing around £18,000 new, after rebates), can achieve ranges above 180 miles between charges (Renault claims 246 miles; Auto Express begs to differ).

An average commuter therefore, driving the most run-of-the-mill electric car available, will be able to complete their daily commute, both to and from work, for almost two solid weeks without needing to recharge.

Even for more extreme cases - e.g. someone commuting from Oxford to London and back - the Zoe would be able to complete the journey with around 70 miles spare capacity ready to be charged overnight for the next day.

Admittedly, this type of calculation ignores longer trips, so driving from London to Edinburgh could prove to be a real pain, desperately limping from each distantly spaced charging station. For the vast majority of people, however, this will be a rare trip that could be solved with either a rental vehicle or by using public transport. In the meantime, commuters could be coining it in every day loading up their batteries with cheap night-time electricity (even getting paid to charge up in some cases).

In the UK, energy firms such as Octopus Electric Vehicles (OEV) have teamed up with smart charging cable suppliers so that drivers can fill their car with only the cheapest and greenest electricity.

The cable houses a smart box that tracks the National Grid capacity markets and only starts charging the vehicle when there is an abundance of energy. On a windy night, for example, demand is low but wind turbines will be flooding the grid with power which needs to be removed to maintain stability.

The National Grid currently has agreements in place with firms employing high-energy intensity applications to start using electricity in abundance when there is overcapacity.

Claire Miller, technology director at OEV, believes that “as we get into hundreds of thousands of EVs, that’s when ‘smart charging’ could become really important in terms of balancing the grid.

“Instead of you, as an individual, deciding when you charge your car, you are plugging your car in and allowing another system to decide which cars get charged at what time.”

A system called CHAdeMO, which is slowly being incorporated into modern EVs, will eventually allow energy firms to sequester electricity back from electric vehicles in times of need, hopefully reducing the requirement to burn fossil fuels to maintain demand.

This effectively creates a distributed utility akin to a ‘cloud-based’ energy storage solution. While a system such as this holds a lot of promise, other considerations need to be taken into account.

Julie Furber, VP at Cummins, a firm that specialises in developing batteries for commercial vehicles, believes that such a system needs further refinement before it’s ready to hit the mainstream. While the electricity storage possibilities of EVs are exciting from an infrastructure perspective, they are first and foremost a means of transport.

“If my electric car did that, how would [energy firms] know when I want to use it?” she said. “How do I know that when I get to my car they haven't pulled all my power out and my battery is flat?”

Furber says it could create a lot of practical problems that may be better solved with commercial vehicles such as electric buses, which run on a schedule and are regularly maintained. In this scenario, a power company would know when the buses are stored away in a depot and when they are needed for transport, guaranteeing their use as an energy storage unit for a set time period.

“There are uses, but I think people need to consider the practical application as opposed to the theoretical application,” she said.

Exact statistics around electric car battery lifetimes are hard to come by. Most automakers give around a five to eight-year warranty on their battery, but they can last up to 20 years before they need to be replaced, depending on the usage of the consumer.

Furber believes the “holy grail” is around 12 years, as the lifespan of the battery should be roughly equivalent to the lifetime of the vehicle as a whole.

Battery production is also a carbon-intensive process and uses lithium, a finite resource. Recycling facilities are therefore essential for the truly sustainable, carbon-free promise that electric vehicles represent.

Some firms can recycle up to 95 per cent of the original elements and commodities used in batteries. “That starts to overcome concern about how much lithium reserves are there, where they are, and is it ethically mined?” Furber said.

While the Government’s 2035 target to ban the sale of combustion engine vehicles might seem quite close considering their ubiquity, Miller believes this is not soon enough.

After all, this is not when these vehicles will be banned on the road, merely the date at which they will stop being sold. This leaves at least an additional 15-year lag time beyond this date where such vehicles will still be driving around, associated infrastructure such as petrol stations still maintained and mechanics and garages still working on increasingly outdated, polluting transport methods.

“[2035] feels like a long way off,” Miller said. “Personally, I’d like to see that date in the next five years - certainly in the next five to 10 years”.

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