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Are we geared up for EVs?

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The UK will only be in a position to ban new petrol cars by 2035 if the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles is fit for purpose.

In February, before the coronavirus pandemic reached the UK, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced his intention to bring forward the ban on sales of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars and vans from 2040, as previously announced, to 2032, in a bid to meet the UK’s carbon reduction targets.

The Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown and the accompanying economic downturn subsequently brought the car industry to a standstill. In the UK, new vehicle sales were down 97 per cent in April 2020, compared to the same month last year, and 89 per cent in May. And let’s not forget that only 0.71 per cent of all cars currently being driven in the UK are electric, according to a recent report from comparethemarket.com. Figures published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders show pure battery-electric cars held just a 1.6 per cent share of the new car market last year.

Despite all this, government commitment to a future where people drive only electric vehicles doesn’t appear to have wavered. The government has put Shapps’ unofficial 2032 target back, but only to 2035, and ministers, including the Prime Minister, have since said that they’d like to introduce the new petrol vehicle ban earlier. In recent weeks, government climate advisers and Britain’s top business leaders have reiterated their commitment to a green post-Covid economic recovery, along with a cross-party commission of MPs, government ministers and even Boris Johnson

In early June, though, reports emerged in the national press that the government was about to add some substance to these statements of intent. According to reports, but as yet unconfirmed by government, plans to introduce a £6,000 incentive for drivers of old petrol or diesel cars to scrap their car and buy an electric or hybrid vehicle are being considered.

The government scrappage initiative, launched in 2009, provides a clue as to how such a scheme might work. Back then, motorists were given up to £2,000 if they traded in old cars for new models. Half of this money came from the government, with the other half from manufacturers. In Germany, a proposal being mooted earlier this year would see EV buyers get an incentive of €9,000, with two-thirds coming from government and a third from the manufacturers. Currently, UK consumers can get up to £3,000 off the price of a new electric car under the Plug-in Car Grant scheme, although this was reduced from £3,500 in the March Budget. Should the reported £6,000 initiative go ahead, it would mean price parity between many electric vehicles and their petrol counterparts.

Around 400,000 new cars were sold under the 2009 scrappage scheme, but industry experts say that the country needs to improve its EV charging infrastructure if the 2035 targets are to be met.

It’s a widely held view that a petrol vehicle is more reliable than an electric vehicle, because you’re never that far away from a petrol station, petrol stations are always open when they’re supposed to be and the pumps always work. A recent report from market researcher firm IDTechEx found that 45 per cent of EV drivers were worried about a lack of chargepoints for their cars.

“Consumers want a holistic system that works,” says Dr Neale Kinnear, head of behavioural science at the UK’s TRL research laboratory, which has overseen a range of EV-charging trials. “People need to have confidence in the system; it only takes one bad experience to put you off, and then the word starts to spread.”

Not everyone agrees. According to former ChargePoint senior director Iain Mosley, now a director of his own company, Electronic Minds, the idea that it’s risky to drive an EV is more perception than reality. “You only have to take a trip in an electric vehicle to realise that it’s a viable way of getting around,” he says.

Figures seem to support Mosley’s view: the Office for Low-Emission Vehicles (OLEV) website states that a driver is never more than 25 miles away from a rapid (50 kilowatt) chargepoint anywhere along England’s motorways and major A roads. Also that, on average, every motorway service station has two EV chargepoints, with more planned for installation next year.

This isn’t just the government blowing its own EV trumpet. EDF Energy says that there are more public places to charge an EV in the UK (around 30,000) than there are petrol stations. Zap-Map.com, a UK-wide charging points map for electric cars, says that 18,340 charging points have been installed in 11,420 locations over the last 12 months, with more being added every day.

These figures mask significant regional variations, however. Research by uSwitch shows that Stoke-on-Trent, Southend and Birmingham, for instance, need more charging infrastructure. Professor Liana Cipcigan, director of Cardiff University’s Electric Vehicle Centre of Excellence, explains that charging infrastructure tends to come in clusters. “In Wales, for instance, we have a big problem,” she adds.

A recent report from Capital Economics for Scottish Power stated that the UK will need more than 22.2 million charging points by 2050 to reach its EV targets, with about 2.6 million of these in public places. Installing these chargepoints will cost around £45bn, the report estimates. Another report, this time from Deloitte, highlights the huge additional costs of supplying cabling and substations to all the charging points. There’s a lot to do, then.

‘We need a whole-system approach, looking at EV charging at all levels.’

Professor Liana Cipcigan, Cardiff University’s Electric Vehicle Centre of Excellence

Last March, the government announced plans in the Budget to invest £500m in building the UK’s fast-charging infrastructure over the next five years and another £403m to extend the Plug-in Car Grant until 2022-23. It’s currently unknown whether the plug-in scheme will continue should the recently reported £6,000 incentive get the go-ahead.

With both new schemes, funding goes to local councils, who can also apply for grants to cover part of the capital costs of installing chargepoints for those who lack off-street parking. Individuals can also apply for smaller grants towards the cost of buying and installing a chargepoint at home; this grant was reduced from £500 to £350 in the last Budget.

Announcing the funding, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said that drivers should never be more than 30 miles away from re-charging their cars. He also said that OLEV would complete a comprehensive EV-charging infrastructure review to work out how to best use the money.

On 7 May the consultation period started, with the OLEV website stating that, by 2023, motorway service areas in England will have at least six high-powered, open-access chargepoints, with some larger sites having as many as 10 or 12. The aim is to have around 2,500 high-powered chargepoints across England’s motorways and major A roads by 2030, and 6,000 by 2035.

OLEV indicates that the £500m is there to cover some costs in strategically important places, where commercial schemes aren’t economically viable. It also states that the infrastructure will be put in place ahead of need, not just in places where large numbers of people are already driving EVs, which Mosley thinks is a good idea.

“EV charging is a young market, so it’s hard to get private industry to buy into this,” he says. “If government incentivises first, then hopefully it will become self-sustaining after not too long.”

Mosley explains that any EV-charging system needs to meet a variety of driver requirements. “High-power charges are quick but fast chargers are expensive, so you’ll only see them in commercial places like petrol stations,” he says. “Home charging stations are ideal if you want to replenish 25 miles in an hour, overnight. You can also get higher-powered versions of home chargers for use in workplaces and shopping centres.”

Cardiff University’s Cipcigan believes that its important to get the right technology in the right location. “We need a whole-system approach looking at EV charging at all levels,” she says, adding that local councils shouldn’t have too much power over funding, as she believes that councils often lack the technical knowledge to install the technology. Mosley agrees, adding that councils tend to want to get the technology in and done with, whereas a charging system also requires a budget for maintenance.

Interoperability is another concern for Mosley should individual councils strike deals with different manufacturers. “You might end up with all sorts of different systems that don’t work well together,” he says. “We need to create interoperable networks, or you have a situation that you have around Europe where there are so many providers that you need to carry ten charge cards to access all the chargers.”

The NewMotion 2020 EV drivers survey found that EV drivers on average carry 2.5 charge cards and that 15 per cent have five or more. The survey also reported that EV drivers in France carry the most (3.48 cards on average), followed by Germany (3.37) and the UK (3.19). The situation is better in the Netherlands (1.82), where most chargepoints are interoperable.

Forty-one per cent of those surveyed by NewMotion would like to see a system in which drivers could use a single charge card. OLEV information on the rapid charging fund says that chargepoints will be easy to use and hassle-free, and that each site will have chargepoints that support all types of electric vehicle.

No one type of EV charging system is without its problems, however. Cipcigan explains that fast charging causes big spikes in electricity usage for a short duration, which can create an unusual and high load for the electricity grid. “You have to ask whether the overall power system is ready to support the extended infrastructure,” she says. “Currently, what you can do with the infrastructure is restricted by the capacity of the electrical system to cope with the additional load.”

Moseley says that not everyone can plug in at home, if, for instance, they live in a flat or a house with no driveway. He adds: “Wireless systems (like those currently being trialled in Nottingham) are OK for low power, but they are less efficient at transferring energy than wired technology. The waste energy generates a lot of heat, which could damage the electrics over time, so they can’t charge quickly.”

In February, the IET, which, with the British Standards Institution, maintains the national standard for electrical installations, introduced new regulations for EV-charging installations which will make it easier for engineers to install charging technologies in more places: roadside and in homes and workplaces.

The IET’s head of technical regulations, Mark Coles, explains that under previous regulations, engineers were unable to install EV chargepoints in many homes and streets because of earthing issues. “When an electric vehicle is charging and a fault occurs on the electrical underground supply network, for example if operations at roadworks have damaged a buried cable,” he says, “it is possible for a person charging their car to receive a dangerous electric shock when they are just simply touching the vehicle.”

Coles adds: “The regulation changes allow for the device itself to measure the current flowing through non-expected routes, for example, a person, during charging. When this unexpected flow of current gets above a level that could be dangerous to a person, 30 milliamps, the system disconnects from the car and halts the charging of the vehicle.”

There’s a lot going on with EVs, and much more to follow, and Cipcigan thinks that the schedule is ambitious.

For a start, organisations representing drivers and motor manufacturers and traders have already labelled the new targets too challenging, whereas others, such as the Green Party and Friends of the Earth, want to see the petrol car ban brought further forward. It’s not just the activists who are complaining. Recently sacked COP-26 boss Claire O’Neill also accused the government of not moving quickly enough to deal with climate change issues and claimed that her “absolute desire for action had not been comfortable for some”.

More debate, dissent and feet-dragging will likely slow things down. Whether the country meets its targets won’t just be down to governments, regulations and the car industry; it will also be about ordinary people and their choices.

“Driving an electric vehicle when you’ve always driven a petrol or diesel car means planning ahead, and we’re not used to that,” TRL’s Kinnear says. “Policy makers need to help make it as easy as possible to make that change, or better still make it seem like it’s not a change at all.”

Kinnear adds that many potential EV drivers will be motivated to change by the reported price cuts, others by doing their part to fight climate change, and others by the preferential treatment they might get on taxes, parking spaces, lanes in crowded areas, or like in China where EV owners don’t have to apply for a permit to drive in a city, something that can take petrol drivers a very long time to get hold of. Kinnear admits that preferential treatment only works as an incentive at the outset of a project like this; it becomes incrementally harder the more people actually buy electric vehicles.

The immediate future, then, seems to require flexibility and innovation. The IET’s Coles thinks that more electricity companies might offer customers Economy-7-style arrangements so they can charge their vehicle overnight at cheaper rates. Mosley wonders whether commercial public places might start offering visitors free EV charging, as some shopping malls have done recently.

“Maybe we’ll have more electric bikes, scooters,” he says, “or even car-share schemes where a customer joins and uses a card to find the nearest car, drives to wherever, and then leaves it for the next person to pick up and use. Maybe future generations won’t be so attached to owning a car as we are.”

And if all that fails, there is always the threat of the impending ban itself, be that in 2035, 2032 or whenever it happens, to motivate people to challenge their own thinking and behaviour. “After all,” Cipcigan says, “who wants to buy a car now that you won’t be able to sell on in 10 or 12 years’ time?”

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