Electric cars not sparking joy for motoring Brits

There’s a shocking amount of resistance towards going electric – but why? 

There’s nine years left until we reach the government’s proposed 2030 target for the end of new petrol and diesel cars. But with only 1% of cars of the UK’s roads being electric vehicles, there’s a steep hill left to climb and many seem worried about whether EVs have the energy to climb it.

With concerns that are as diverse as environmental impact to the effect on the hard of hearing, electric vehicles aren’t as popular as the government might have hoped. Their cost is another barrier to their sales, as well as the dearth of available charging points. Since millions of Brits reside in houses without their own drives, creative solutions are required to make electric cars feasible for the general population.

Today’s news that Japanese carmaker Nissan plans a major expansion of their Sunderland plant is welcome economic joy for the area, meaning a potential of just under 2000 new jobs. Part of their expansion means investment in a brand new all-electric vehicle which will rival their existing hybrid, the Nissan Leaf. Envision AESC, Nissan’s partner, is also planning expansion of its production of electric batteries which should power an extra 100,000 batteries. 

According to the BBC, Vauxhall are also planning major innovation in producing electric vehicles at Ellesmere Port with some government support expected. This, according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, should “drive down the cost” of the vehicles – one of the largest barriers to the uptake of the new cars within the country.

Safety issues

One of the criticisms often levelled at electric vehicles might seem strange to haters of the noise pollution of normal cars: the newer hybrids are almost entirely silent when driven on a normal road. This might seem positive for those who live near noisy roads, but it can be dangerous for small children who are taught to both look and listen for cars and those with vision issues. Electric cars are often fitted with noise emitters to overcome this problem, but they can be switched off by drivers. 

Last year, Mel Griffiths, a Business Support Coordinator for Guide Dogs UK published a public plea on her Facebook page:

“Today my husband and I with our two guide dogs had another near miss with an electric car. We were crossing a side road and it came in off the main road and passed very close in front of us. If it’d been a petrol or diesel engine, or if it’d had a sound emitter fitted, we’d have heard it, but, apart from the sound of the tyres on the road, it was virtually silent.

I am a confident guide dog handler but I can honestly say that silent electric vehicles scare me. I fear that it will take serious injury to a blind person, or even worse, death, before any meaningful legislation is put into place. If it happens to me or someone that I care about, I’ll be in court and I won’t rest until we have justice.

So please, if you drive an electric vehicle, switch on your sound emitter. After all, you wouldn’t drive at night without your lights on, it’s the same thing.”

Range anxiety

The most common objection to switching to an electric car has to be what’s been dubbed by some as “range anxiety”. The convenience of pulling over to a petrol station and it taking mere minutes to fill the tank and drive away again is lost when it comes to charging a vehicle. Those who have wrestled with a dodgy battery on a mobile phone or laptop will understand the annoyance of having to charge something they rely on – especially as batteries seemingly tend to die only at the most annoying times. Having a fully electric vehicle won’t just require planning and organisation – it will also rely on the ability to hook one up to an electricity source at home and with only a minority of people having a home with a drive, it’s a real issue. 

The UK’s energy regulator, Ofgem has said that plans to invest £300m in 3,550 charging points for the vehicles should renew the public’s appetite for the vehicles but these mostly apply to motorways. Ultra-rapid charging points can add around 100 miles to electric cars in just half an hour but there are only 900 points currently in the UK. Ofgem wants to add another 1,800 plus 1,750 rapid charging points, which take a little longer. 

Website and app Zap-Map has a list of almost 24,000 charging points in total but this doesn’t address the issue of charging from home. 

Only 4.6% of new vehicles registered in the UK are battery powered and the heaviest investment of charging points has been in the South East. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has suggested that we will need 2.7 million charging points to satisfy the government’s plans for 2030, including the accessibility at home to do an overnight charge. The SMMT estimate that a third of car-owning households have to rely on on-street parking, which means that we will need to see serious investment in roadside charging points in our residential streets. These are likely to be at a premium in terms of space and require serious investment. Lamp-posts are currently undergoing conversion in some areas, but one can imagine it would lead to serious push back from residents of areas requiring them, as pavements are dug up. This could also lead to accessibility issues for pedestrians, especially those who need extra space, like families with young children in push chairs or wheelchair users, where pavements and roads are too narrow to allow for extra street furniture. 

Ofgem’s research reveals that 6.5 million households are planning on going electric before we reach 2030 but only 1% of the 35 million registered cars are currently electric (SMMT).

Ford, who are the leading seller of UK vehicles told Radio 5 Live that customer attitudes aren’t changing quick enough and called on the government to “continue to support the whole range of battery electric vehicles”. The SMMT has urged “better incentives” to slash the high cost of the vehicles. Upfront cost, claims Auto Trader’s Commercial Director, Ian Plummer, is the main challenge for consumers. At the moment, all but 13 cars on the UK market cost more than £30,000.

The government has introduced a grant system, investing £582m and will invest a further £500m in production of the batteries. 

Lessons from Northern Ireland

According to the Electric Vehicle Association NI, who gave evidence to the Stormont Infrastructure Committee, the recharging network in NI is so dire that drivers are simply giving up on their electric cars in favour of petrol or diesel models. Broken chargers have led drivers to describe the state of the network as “appalling”. Sales in 2020 were up 290% on the previous year, meaning a lot more cars but not enough investment to support those who owned them. Access to chargers is not 24/7; many chargers are being disabled or locked overnight. With many rural houses in NI relying on generators due to power drops in inclement weather, electric cars will be an unreliable way of getting around. Those who live rurally in England have similar concerns that their areas will struggle for enough charging points, especially since the infrastructure in many rural parts of the UK lacks in many other areas.

Environmental concerns

Though environmental group Greenpeace has welcomed the government’s accelerated goals of banning petrol and diesel cars from 2030, calling it “a major milestone in the fight against the climate crisis”, others remain sceptical about the environmental impact of electric cars. 

Whilst petrol and diesel car batteries have lead-acid batteries which are widely recycled, this isn’t currently the case for lithium-ion batteries. These are far heavier and also larger than their petrol/diesel counterparts and also contain hazardous materials. If they are not disposed of correctly, they pose a risk to life and property, as they can explode. 

Nissan has found a way to extend the useful life of batteries from the Nissan Leaf – they reuse the batteries in their robot vehicles within their factories. Renault and Volkswagen have also invested research and funds into the recycling issue and Renault in particular recycles all the electric car batteries it produces in conjunction with Veolia and Solvay. This is currently time and resource intensive however, so the industry is working hard on a robotic, automated method for the process. 

Since the UK and Europe don’t have natural resources of many of the metals that are used in the battery manufacturing process, however, recycling will be the key to keeping new ones in production. 

The UK government has been extremely bold in their drive to cut the numbers of petrol and diesel vehicles on the road, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that they have underestimated the sheer amount of infrastructure that is required to really make it feasible – we require exponential growth in charging points as well as a commitment to make the cars affordable before people will be convinced by electric vehicles as a viable alternative to the second hand vehicles that will still be available once new petrol or diesel cars stop rolling off the production line.

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