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Tougher electric car standards should be applauded

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Reports that the government is planning to toughen up its 2040 electrified vehicle goals have been met with predictable howls of opposition from car industry spokespeople.

The Financial Times reported last week that the government is preparing to announce that, from 2040, new cars will have to be able to travel a minimum of 50 miles on electric power alone. This is a step up from previously-announced plans that simply said that all new cars would have to be “electrified” (ie – either a hybrid of some sort, or a fully-electric car).

To absolutely no-one’s surprise, car industry representatives immediately denounced the as-yet-unannounced plan. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) doubled down on a few of its favourite phrases – “confusing consumers”, “consumers need certainty” and so on – and various industry-friendly media outlets were sycophantically supportive in their coverage of the pro-industry, anti-government agenda. Situation normal, then…

Toyota Prius Plug-In hybrid electric vehicle
Behold, the future! Oh no, wait. That’s the present. The Toyota Prius Plug-In can already do 30+ miles on its electric motor

The technology already exists; it just needs to improve

The media outlets have been sure to name-check the Toyota Prius as often as possible, pointing out that the poster child for hybrid vehicles will be “banned” by the government in 2040 since it can only manage a couple of miles on electric power. But so what? The petrol-electric hybrid system was debuted by the Prius more than 20 years ago. By the time 2040 arrives, that technology will be more than 40 years old, and why should we be basing legislation on 40-year-old technology?

Toyota already builds a plug-in hybrid version of the Prius that can do 39 miles from its electric batteries alone. It’s available right now, in 2018 (and other manufacturers have similar products). Surely it’s not too much to expect that another 20 years of development will find the remaining 11 miles of electric power? If the technology is already on sale now, it can’t be that difficult to hit those targets across the board in 22 years’ time. Indeed, consumers will probably be demanding it far before then anyway.

Consider that 22 years ago, people basically drove hatchbacks, saloons and states – SUVs were for farmers. Today, every major manufacturer has a fleet of different SUV models in its range while traditional saloon and estate cars have virtually died.  And look what’s happened outside the car industry. Ten years ago, Apple had only just launched the iPhone and people thought that it was little more than a novelty. A decade on, our lives have changed enormously as a result of the revolution that Apple started. Entire industries have grown out of nowhere, others have collapsed and the world looks quite different now thanks to smartphone development. 20+ years to get every car doing 50 miles on electric power should be easily achievable if car companies put their brightest minds to it.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV hybrid electric
Oh look, here’s another car that can already do 25 miles on its battery alone – been on sale for years…

What does this mean for consumers?

As usual, we have heard loud cries about why it’s so unfair for the poor multi-billion pound car manufacturers. But what would such a move mean for consumers? You know, the supposedly confused people for whom the industry is desperately trying to provide “certainty”?

The idea that the government wouldn’t actually quantify its electrification legislation was always unrealistic. If that did happen, you can guarantee that a number of car-makers would simply build hybrid vehicles that couldn’t even make it out of your driveway on electric power – absolutely useless but in compliance with the letter of the law. Let’s face it, we’ve seen the level of contempt that Volkswagen has shown for its customers and the law over the last few years. Why would it suddenly become all virtuous on a different law?

So the idea of a minimum level of electric-only mileage certainly seems a reasonable way to ensure that car manufacturers are genuinely building cars that are capable of driving through cities without using a petrol or diesel engine. And that’s important for anyone who lives in an urban area, which is the majority of people in the UK (and the rest of the world). The only real point of contention should be where to set that minimum level.

If the rumours are correct, the government wants to set that minimum level at 50 miles of pure electric power. The same sources that leaked the plan also insist that this is not yet finalised, so maybe it will be 40 miles, or 60 miles or 20 miles or 100 miles. But let’s assume that 50 miles is the magic number. That means that nearly every car-driving consumer will spend every day using only electric power to get from A to B, with (probably) a petrol engine to provide back-up power for longer trips between charges.

The word “consumer” is important here. Consumers are the supposedly confused private car buyers, who are currently refusing to buy diesel cars because of their “confusion”. The simple reality is that, for most consumers, an electric vehicle is a far better solution to their needs than a petrol car, and certainly better than a diesel car.

Most consumers drive less than 25 miles in a day. Business-use drivers do a lot more, but no-one is talking about business users being confused so presumably they’re smart enough to understand their needs without the car industry patronising them constantly. If your car can do 50 miles on electric power, that means you can go for two days without charging your vehicle. Plus, if you have a plug-in hybrid car, you’ll still have a petrol engine that can keep you going if you can’t get to a charging point. So the downside for consumers is low. The upside will be cleaner, quieter cars and fewer trips to the petrol station.

UK petrol retailers look to introduce Uber-style surge pricing
Will you really miss this?

What about charging your car?

The other issue raised constantly by the car industry is a lack of charging facilities. It’s obviously an issue, but the industry doesn’t seem to be interested in putting any numbers on the table to work out what will be needed. No-one seems to know how many charging points we’re going to need and how quickly. Instead of bleating about how unfair it is that everyone now hates diesels, maybe the industry lobbyists should be making some valid points about how many charging points are going to be needed, when they’re going to be needed, where they need to be placed and how much it’s all going to cost. If you want to get some government support, come up with a plan rather than just complaining all the time.

If you only need to charge your car every two days at most, it should be easy to do that by 2040. There will need to be millions of charging points installed, covering virtually every car park in the country. Private companies are already ramping up to deliver a massive increase in charging infrastructure, and tougher limits will only encourage this investment.

Yes, this is clearly going to take a lot of work and will require some solid planning across local, regional and national governments. But it will be up to the car manufacturers of Europe to decide whether they want to participate in this brave new world or be shoved aside. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of consumers, China is leading the world on electric vehicles and setting itself up for global dominance in this technology. If European car companies don’t get their heads out of the sand, we’ll all be driving Chinese cars by 2040.

Electric car charging point.
Like this, but multiplied by millions.

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Stuart Masson
Stuart Massonhttps://www.thecarexpert.co.uk/
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Car Expert, The Van Expert and The Truck Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.