The announcement of a ban on sale of petrol or diesel powered cars from 2040 must rank right up there as one of the most momentous motoring announcements of recent years.
The aim of the ban is to cut nitrous oxide emissions, which are seen as a serious health hazard. (We will now pause for a moment to consider why road users were encouraged, by the authorities, to buy diesel vehicles, when they are known to produce more nitrous oxide than petrol engines.)The Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle is one option for the future
There has to be a question mark over the government’s priorities. It is estimated that just 15 of the world’s biggest ships produce as much nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide as all of the world’s 760 million cars. What is being done to address this and the pollution produced by trucks, buses and trains?
There are also relevant questions to ask about the use of resources and the environmental costs of mining and transporting precious elements like the lithium used in car batteries.
But, back to the forthcoming ban. There seems to be some confusion, but, as far as I can establish, hybrids (cars with a conventional engine and an electric motor) will still be allowed to be sold after 2040. Let’s remember hybrids still use fuel. My most recent road test of one of the best-known hybrids, the Toyota Prius
, it still used one gallon of petrol for every 66 miles of a drive to and from Loch Lomond.
Will there be a boom in sales of mild hybrids as a backdoor to still owning a conventional petrol-powered car? There are still a few car-buying cycles between now and 2040, so I expect there may be clarifications before then that may tighten up this partial loophole.
So, why not take the plunge and switch over to electric (or a hydrogen fuel cell car like the Toyota Mirai pictured above)?
The image of the milk float has largely been banished. Most people now realise that electric cars can be every bit as rapid as their conventional petrol or diesel counterparts.
Exploits, like this Nissan Leaf on the Mongol Rally, have done much to dispel the myth of ‘milk float’ performance
But so-called ‘range anxiety’ – fears about the distance that electric cars can travel on one charge and the availability of charging points – is a more persistent concern.
Remember cars were supposed to offer us freedom. We love our cars because they give us the ability to travel where we want, when we want and as far as we want.
Although the reality may be that we usually only drive to and from work, or the shops, we still like to know that we could point the bonnet to the highway and drive to Lands End, or John o’Groats, or even the south of France.
Most electric cars, however, will run out of battery power somewhere around 100 to 130 miles. However, that range will improve and, already, Tesla are offering cars with a range of between 240 and 310 miles.
Of course, when you near the end of battery charge, your journey doesn’t have to end. But, you need to find a charging point and kill time while your car recharges.
How long it takes to recharge the car depends on the charging point you find, but with the fastest motorway service area chargers it can take just 30 minutes. On a domestic power supply, it could take as long as 12 hours.
Personally, my longest drives have been from Pisa to Aberdeen and the 2,400 miles from Santa Monica to Chicago on Route 66. How much longer would these journeys have taken, if we had to stop every 120 miles and spend 30 minutes recharging? Yes, these were leisure trips and we could have added time for the journey. But, for commercial operations time is money.
So, at this point in time, electric cars are not likely to be the first choice for a long journey, unless you are happy to take a 30-minute coffee break every couple of hours.
Again, as the range of electric cars improve, so the charging times are likely to get faster with new technology. Jaguar’s forthcoming i-Pace marks its future direction as an electric car manufacturer
There’s even talk of recharging lanes on motorways with cars being recharged as they drive. If that sounds like science fiction, just think how far technology can advance in 23 years.
So – if we were faced with the 2040 option right now – those of us with range anxiety would probably choose a hybrid. That way, the Lands End and John o’Groats dream would still be a reality with nothing more than conventional stops at a filling station.
Choosing a plug-in hybrid would give us the ability to use the car as an electric vehicle on the daily commute, while still being able to tackle a trans-continental expedition without fear of the batteries running out.
In the past it has been questionable, at the very least, to see electric cars as a genuinely clean technology. Remember, much of our power supply is ‘dirty electricity’ produced by fossil fuel-powered power stations.
Currently, in the UK, more than 25% of our electricity is produced by renewable technology. By 2040, that figure needs to increase. That means more hydro electric schemes, more wind turbines, more solar farms and the development of marine renewables.
After all, there's little point in banishing tailpipe emissions if it simply means transposing these emissions to power stations.
And, with the ban, we are likely to need a lot more electricity to keep our fleet of electric vehicles on the move. Imagine the pressure on the National Grid at the end of the daily commute. It is going to make the commercial break/tea break in Coronation Street look like a minor blip, even if timers delay the peak recharging to overnight.
At least we have 23 years to focus on improving technology and getting the infrastructure into place. At the moment it is estimated there are 12,000 public charging points around the UK. That will have to ramp up dramatically.
Road users are also going to have to think ahead. What will happen to the value of the petrol and diesel cars we own as we get closer to 2040? Will the values fall? Or, will there be a rush to buy late petrol, or diesel, cars to delay switching to electric?
We also need to consider the future of the oil industry. The UK is an oil producer and a significant player in the industry worldwide, thanks to the oil technology and expertise developed, particularly in Aberdeen. If demand slumps, the oil price falls. And oil price falls are a double-edged sword for our economy.