What happens to traditional cars when EVs rule the road?

What happens to traditional cars when EVs rule the road?

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The UK is banning the sale of new internal combustion engine (ICE) cars from 2030. Len Williams asks what might happen to the millions of ICE vehicles that will remain on the road.

I am sat in the passenger seat of a Land Rover Defender 90 as it pulls off the roundabout onto central London’s Lambeth Bridge. Rather than the gutsy roar you might expect from the engine of this 1980s classic, the manoeuvre is accompanied by the low-key hum of a battery. This is because I’m being driven in a car that’s been converted into an electric vehicle (EV) by London Electric Cars (see ‘Converting ICE cars to EV’).

As we cruise over the Thames, Matthew Quitter, the firm’s founder, points out the improved performance this conversion provides: “We wouldn’t have been able to pull away from that roundabout anywhere near as fast [before an EV battery was fitted].” Switching out the petrol engine and replacing it with a Nissan Leaf battery involves some complex engineering, with quite a bit of trial and error involved.

Still, it’s an impressive job, and the firm has introduced some nice touches. For instance, the original fuel gauge has been kept, but shows battery charge instead of petrol level. The conversions also allow classic cars to reach high speeds faster.

While London Electric Cars currently serves a niche market of (mainly) wealthy owners of (mainly) classic cars, Quitter believes transforming ICE to EV could feasibly be done at scale. And that could be part of the solution to a big question that the UK will soon need to face up to.

As of 2030, it will no longer be legal to sell new petrol or diesel-powered cars (people can continue driving cars they’ve already bought, and used ICE car sales will be allowed). Still, as EVs come to rule the road, millions of people will own cars that have an uncertain future.

What will become of all those vehicles? Are they all destined for scrap? Could older ICE cars become prized by drivers who resist the switch to EVs? Or will they become stranded assets, unusable due to high fuel prices, taxes, and low-emission zones? It’s probably a little too soon to say. The country needs to plan for this transition, however it turns out.

While EVs are getting a lot of attention today, it’s important to get some perspective. According to Professor Aruna Sivakumar, a researcher at Imperial College, less than 2 per cent of the current UK vehicle fleet is powered by electric battery (excluding hybrids). Still, this proportion is steadily growing.

Corey Cantor, an analyst at BloombergNEF, says there were about 6.6 million EVs sold worldwide in 2021, up from just over three million the year before. And by the end of 2022, BloombergNEF reckon around 10 million will have rolled off forecourts. Looking at the UK data in particular, Cantor notes that 20 per cent of all new cars sold last year were EVs, making it one of the bigger markets globally. The direction of travel seems clear.

As we approach the 2030 deadline, there are several factors that could come into play which will affect the ICE market.

The ideal scenario, and what the government is hoping for, is that EVs will reach price parity with today’s ICE cars, making the transition straightforward.

This seems plausible. Cantor points out that EV investments by auto firms seem to take about three years to bear fruit; firms like Volkswagen, which began investing in 2018, are now churning them out at scale. Many other car brands have made similar commitments in the last couple of years, so we could see more models on the road soon. At the same time, if battery technology continues to improve, then the used EV market will take off, making the cars more affordable.

However, things could play out very differently. In another scenario, batteries don’t get much better, the charging network fails to improve, current supply chain issues around chips and raw materials continue, and EVs remain unaffordable for most people. As we approach 2030, there would be huge demand for new and used ICE cars, ramping up the price. We could then face the worst of both worlds: millions of people stuck with ICE cars that are ever-harder to maintain and run, but who have no desire to switch to unreliable EVs (there are, of course, many other plausible scenarios).

There’s also the hotly contested debate around how ‘green’ EVs really are. From raw material extraction to energy used in manufacturing the things, they’re not all eco-friendly. Recent analysis by news agency Reuters reckons you’d need to drive around 13,500 miles in an EV before your environmental impact was lower than using a gas guzzler.  

Assuming EVs do improve, get cheaper and come to dominate the UK market, what will we do with all those older ICE cars?

One option is retrofitting them with EV batteries, as in the example with the Land Rover. However, as London Electric Cars’ Quitter tells me, swapping petrol and diesel engines for EV batteries is currently complex and costly given the sheer variety of models, technology and accessibility of parts.

Another likely outcome is a boom in exports of old ICE cars, says Professor Liana Cipcigan, an EV specialist at the University of Cardiff. Many exporters will try selling old ICE cars to Africa and parts of Asia, she predicts. This would, however, undermine the whole point of the 2030 ban, which is to encourage a move to less-polluting transport. By exporting old ICE cars, we’d just be shifting the problem elsewhere.

Some entrepreneurs will inevitably spy an opportunity for the classic car market too, snapping up and storing today’s most popular cars to then sell to afficionados as the vehicles become scarcer.

According to research firm NimbleFins, the average cost of a new EV in the UK in 2022 is £44,000, while an ICE car will set you back around £24,000. There’s a lot of variation within those prices, but buying an EV is only really an option for wealthier drivers today. So, if EVs don’t come down much in price, less-well-off people could find themselves priced out of owning a vehicle in the next decade.

The notion of a ‘just transition’ extends beyond income too; people in rural areas who rely more on their cars to travel could be at a serious disadvantage compared to city dwellers, Imperial College’s Professor Sivakumar notes. And people with disabilities could struggle too – over the years a wide range of ICE cars have been adapted for people with disabilities. Sivakumar says there’s a lot of uncertainty about whether EV models are ready to replace them.

With seven years to go until new ICE car sales are banned, there’s clearly a lot of work to do when it comes to ironing out the details of this transition. “[Policymakers] are not unaware of these issues,” notes Sivakumar, but she does think more sophisticated demand modelling and a wider discussion of the challenges is needed.

Still, our societies have managed major technological transitions before, so why not again? Commenting on the rapid EV uptake in recent years, Cantor of BloombergNEF says: “Sometimes, because there’s so much looking to the future, there isn’t as much acknowledgement of how much has happened already.”


Should we be rethinking mobility altogether?

Swapping ICE cars with electric vehicles will certainly help bring down carbon emissions in the long run. But are we aiming too low – and missing an opportunity to transform our entire approach to mobility? Rather than swapping very polluting vehicles for slightly less polluting ones, perhaps we should be investing in bold new approaches to travel.

For example, app-based car-sharing schemes have already had some success (think of ZipCar in the UK) and show we could shift away from a reliance on private cars. The benefits of active travel are well-known, and it should be possible to improve public transport systems so people needn’t rely on having their own vehicle as much. There’s also the potential of autonomous vehicles, which people could book on demand.

Professor Aruna Sivakumar of Imperial College is not convinced about how ready governments and the general public are for anything too radical. She describes car sharing trials in Germany: “They have actually had shared car service trials to see if they could help smaller towns... They basically concluded that it’s not possible to get people out of their [own] cars completely in the long term.” For better or worse, private cars look like they are here to stay.


Converting ICE cars to EVs

When a car comes into London Electric Cars’ garage, CEO Matthew Quitter says his technicians begin by stripping out the internal combustion engine before installing EV batteries (they typically use Nissan Leaf kit, although they also use Tesla and Jaguar iPace parts too). Then comes the hard part of connecting everything.

The process can take anywhere from a couple of months up to a year, he explains, depending on experience (if they’ve previously converted a similar car it takes less time), the age of the vehicle and its idiosyncrasies. He notes that modern cars are usually much harder to convert due to the amount of computing and sensors built in.

For example, one current project is a client’s much-loved Fiat Multipla (that peculiarly bulbous family car). Even though an EV battery has been installed, a warning flashes up on the car’s dashboard alerting the driver to massive engine failure – the car can sense that its original engine has been removed. Fixing these sorts of issues takes a lot of time.

Quitter says basic conversions start at around £35,000, but the fee can easily go north of £100,000 depending on the complexity of the project.

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