The Speaker
Thursday, 13 June 2024 – 08:41

Are electric cars the future of transport in the UK?

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn statement outlined an important change for road users across the UK, removing electric car drivers’ exemption from paying Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) and increasing their road tax by one percentage point each year for three years from April 2025. With the UK government also reaffirming its’ commitment to banning the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2030, this environmental legislation represents a societal shift towards using more sustainable driving. However, in recent days the British electric car battery manufacturer Britishvolt has collapsed into administration, raising doubts as to whether the demand is there at all for such vehicles. This begs the question, are hybrid and electric vehicles (EV’s) truly the future of transport in the UK?

What does the current EV infrastructure look like?

As the population gradually moves away from petrol- and diesel-powered cars, motivated by either their own desire to contribute to sustainable practices or by government legislation forcing their hand, the infrastructure to support such societal changes must exist to support it. At present around 660,000 EV’s are registered in the UK. This is estimated to rise to around 10 million by 2030 when the sale and production of petrol and diesel vehicles will shut down in the UK.

According to government figures there are currently 34,637 EV charging points across the country, however this does not come close to the roughly 300,000 that would be required to support the number of electric and hybrid cars expected to be on the roads by 2030. Although much of the estimated £18 billion worth of investment for this infrastructure will come from the private sector, accessible charging points will become a serious point of issue for the then government should there still not be sufficient. Government subsidies for the sector seem inevitable considering the recent collapse of Britishvolt. Another consideration is the extra demands this would put upon the national grid. Ultimately it appears too early to forecast how the current or future governments will support its long-term goal of a majority electric car fleet across the UK, and could depend on the political party in power in years to come.

What are the alternatives to EV’s?

Eliminating petrol and diesel cars from production and sale by 2030, and shifting the population to electric vehicles for private use is just the first step towards building a more sustainable transportation system in the UK. According to the government’s Transport and Environment statistics report for 2022, land journeys made by electric vehicles contributed only the third least amount of CO2 emissions (including indirect emissions), with trains and coaches producing less. Projects such as HS2, and the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s announcement to extend the Ultra-Low-Emissions-Zone (ULEZ) to greater London, indicate that a shift towards a more public transport centered society is a promising alternative to electric car usage.

Whilst switching to a more sustainably fuelled personal car is more environmentally friendly than its fossil-fuelled equivalent, it isn’t without drawbacks. Electric and hybrid cars are still proportionally much more expensive to purchase than petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles, even without considering the infrastructure required to support them. Each individual electric car also still produces a number of emissions indirectly through being charged by electricity that is itself produced in part by fossil fuels.

Public transport on the other hand is far more efficient in sharing its emissions, relative to the number of people that use it. Tram and bus systems in some of the UK’s biggest cities such as Brighton, Manchester and Sheffield are now at least partly, or in some cases entirely, run electrically.

What can we expect in the future?

Although the rate at which hybrid and electric vehicles will become the mainstream mode of transportation may be uncertain, this government – and likely future governments to come – will push for a societal shift towards a more sustainable way of travel. The current Conservative government may opt for a free market approach to allow manufacturers to compete to build infrastructure that will support electric and hybrid cars by 2030. But a future Labour government may opt for a more direct approach through the use of subsidies and green public transportation spending to provide for future demand and to protect against big electric car manufacturers such as Britishvolt from going into administration.

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