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How long will I be able to buy petrol or diesel?

The new car talk may be all about EVs, but petrol and diesel cars are not going to vanish from the roads anytime soon. We look at the future for filling them up.

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The UK will ban the sale of new petrol or diesel cars from 2030 and plug-in hybrids from 2035. Sales of new electric cars continue to grow, which will accelerate over the next seven-and-a-bit years until we hit the 2030 deadline.

Even then, the law will only ban the sale of new petrol or diesel cars, not the sale of used vehicles. On average, cars are 14 years old when they are scrapped – millions of motorists will require fossil fuels long after the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars. The UK government has an overall goal of eliminating all CO2 emissions by 2050, although there are no plans yet in place to scrap existing petrol or diesel cars to help achieve this.

Last year (2021) more than 190,000 new electric cars and 114,000 plug-in hybrids joined Britain’s roads, the best year on record for both. However, although their sales are declining, more than 960,000 cars powered by petrol alone (including mild hybrids) were still registered, almost 235,000 diesels (and diesel mild hybrids) and just over 147,000 petrol-electric hybrids. So there’s still a long way to go to eliminate petrol and diesel from new car sales, let alone removing them from our roads altogether.

By the time the axe falls on any kind of petrol-assisted cars in 2035, there will still be tens of millions of petrol and diesel vehicles on UK roads, which will all still need fuel. That’s aside from the demand from road freight, maritime and aviation sectors. So sales of petrol and diesel fuels will continue for the foreseeable future, although there are some important developments that will change the nature of those fuels.

Biofuels and synthetic fuels

Fossil fuels, of course, contribute to global CO2 emissions. So far there is no end date for their availability but oil companies and carmakers are working on substitutes which are carbon-neutral from production to the exhaust pipe.

You may have heard of the terms synthetic fuels (or e-fuels) and biofuels. These have the advantage of using the same infrastructure (transportation, storage and pumps) as their fossil fuel equivalents. Car engines also run in exactly the same way on these fuels, with no side effects. They are sometimes called ‘drop-in’ fuels.

Biofuels are produced from a renewable energy source, for example biomass (such as wood or crop waste), oil extracted from plants, or from previously used materials such as used cooking oil, or animal fats.

The idea of biofuels is not new – King Charles has been championing them for decades, and runs some of his vehicles on biofuels based on waste from white wine and cheese production – but scaling up production has been a challenge.

Now being sold at 20 sites in South-East England as a pilot scheme, Esso Supreme 25% Renewable Diesel is made with a minimum of 25% premium renewable content – hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO).

That’s to say used cooking oil refined into a high quality fuel component and blended with conventional diesel. Esso claims Renewable Diesel has 15% lower life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than its regular diesel. The only stated downside is that it is more expensive because it costs more to produce.

And no, it doesn’t make your car smell like a chip shop.

E-fuels are synthetically produced CO2-neutral liquid fuels based on hydrogen and CO2 which, like biofuels, meet fossil-fuel quality standards and can be blended with regular fuels. This raw material differentiates them from biofuels. The cost of e-fuels is currently high, but they are already being welcomed by classic car owners and for motorsport.

The downsides to e-fuels are their cost and their need for large amounts of electricity in their production. So for them to be genuinely carbon-neutral, they have to be produced using renewable energy (solar or wind power, for example) or decarbonised electricity.

Porsche has invested heavily in a plant in Chile producing e-fuels from hydrogen and CO2 using wind energy. It claims these electricity-based synthetic fuels allow combustion engines to be operated in a potentially almost CO2-neutral manner. Porsche initially plans to use the e-fuel from Chile in motorsport and says it’s conceivable that the first tank of fuel from its petrol and diesel cars leaving its factories will be of e-fuel.

The technology and investment into these alternatives to fossil fuels has been slow in coming, largely because crude oil has always been very cheap and replacements to fossil fuels have been seen as a problem for future generations. However, with more urgent global imperatives to reduce global warming, there has been significant investment into synthetic fuels in recent years.

The future of filling stations

There are about 8,000 petrol stations in the UK, a figure that has been in decline in the 2000s. Can we expect fewer petrol pumps in the future as they give way to electric charging points? It’s still a developing picture but oil companies are forging ahead with public electric charging in the UK: Shell owns the Ubitricity company and BP’s equivalent is BP Pulse.

In January 2022 Shell opened its first EV charging hub in the UK in Fulham, London, where petrol and diesel pumps at an existing fuel station have been replaced with ultra-rapid charge points. A global pilot, this was the first time the company had converted one of its existing sites to cater solely for electric vehicles.

We asked Esso, Shell and BP what their future UK plans were for the petrol and diesel pumps (and biofuels and e-fuels), and whether there would be fewer of them. Sadly, none replied.

However, many filling stations aren’t owned by oil companies but by independent business who often sell well-known brands of fuel. For them fuel sales are becoming even more of a sideline to the far more profitable provision of shopping, car washes and services such as Amazon Hub collection points. Greggs, Aldi and Lidl are all expanding into independent filling stations.

“It’s not so much petrol stations than ‘food retailers which also sell fuel’,” says Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) which represents independent fuel retailers who now account for 65% of all UK forecourts.

“Fuel sales have declined 10% since the pandemic and owners of filling stations have been moving to add in ‘non-food sales’ as there is now a lot more local shopping from convenience stores.”

There’s been an increase in valeting and car wash machinery, in response to non-compliant hand washes (‘slave labour’ and not meeting environmental standards) since Brexit and Covid-19.

Some independent garages have put in charge points but they face an issue of needing a safe space away from fuel pumps and access to a high voltage power supply – they have to be near an electricity substation.

“A lot are adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach,” Balmer says. “Because some invested in 50kWh charging points but people are now demanding 100kWh for faster charging so the amount of time they stop can approach a fuel fill.”

There’s reassurance from the Motor Fuel Group (MFG), the UK’s largest independent forecourt operator with more than 900 sites with brands such as Shell, Esso, Texaco, JET and Murco. It says that given the slow churn of the car parc, millions of motorists will require fossil fuels long after the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars.

It says it is committed to supporting these motorists by providing the necessary fossil fuel infrastructure, while enabling their transition to clean fuels with a major rollout of EV charging hubs.

Fewer sites as petrol becomes a niche product?

If we fast forward a decade to 2032, the vast majority of new cars in the UK are likely to be electric cars powered by batteries – essentially, improved versions of what you can already buy today. For the few car users who can’t get by on a battery-powered car, there will still be the availability of plug-in hybrids until 2035. These are likely to only be for niche sectors as batteries and charging infrastructure will have both improved to the point where almost anyone will be able to get by with an EV.

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles will probably still exist, but are also likely to be niche compared to battery-powered EVs as there doesn’t appear to be any global imperative to develop them or commit to building the necessary infrastructure to support them.

As new cars transition to being mostly electric over the rest of this decade, used cars will start to follow along behind. The UK’s used car market will still be full of petrol and diesel cars in a decade’s time, although it will certainly be declining for garden-variety family cars.

Sports cars are likely to remain available with petrol power right up until the 2030 deadline, so there will still be plenty of used petrol performance vehicles on the roads for many years after that. And there will still be some people who simply prefer a petrol or diesel vehicle so will stick with them for as long as possible.

What we’re likely to see over the next decade is significant growth of premium synthetic fuels, with suitably premium prices, for owners of sports and classic cars who tend to only use them for occasional enjoyment rather than daily commuting.

Ordinary petrol and diesel will still be available, although prices are likely to keep increasing as governments around the world keep ratcheting up taxes to ‘encourage’ owners to switch to EVs. Chances are that you may have to drive further to find a petrol station, and that you’ll be paying a lot more for each litre.

Additional reporting by Stuart Masson.

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Russell Hayes
Russell Hayeshttps://amzn.to/3dga7y8
Russell Hayes’ early career was 14 years of motoring journalism in print, television and online. He worked for What Car? and Complete Car magazines, the BBC's original Top Gear programme and Channel 4's Driven. Since 2007 he has written motoring history books on subjects including Lotus, TVR, the Earls Court Motor Show, the Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Beetle and Bus and the original Aston Martin V8. Now a full-time author, two more books are in the pipeline for 2023 and 2024.