We recently hosted a Chatham House discussion, chaired by editor for Business Green, James Murray, on inclusive electrification and the challenge of creating fair access to decarbonised private transport. Some of the most influential voices in the UK automotive and mobility sectors covered a broad range of challenges that could impact the industry successfully transforming itself in a way that is more inclusive than perhaps the first automotive revolution initially was. Brands in attendance included Ford, Carwow, Elmtronics, Chargepoint, Centric, Green Alliance, Ovo, RAC Foundation, and Gridserve.
We don’t have the luxury of time for EVs to reach critical mass, yet product availability, charging infrastructure and energy prices are not where they need to be for it to reach the tipping point. To be truly ready for the 2030 petrol and diesel ban and more importantly, make a significant dent in the 2050 net zero targets, the OEMs cannot go it alone, electrification is far more complex than the vehicle itself and requires several industries to work together to ensure it’s a reality for all.
The media image of EVs needs to evolve
While of course there are many lower-cost EV options emerging, many drivers still don’t feel it is viable. The image portrayed of their new EVs by many of the mass market OEM brands as premium, high tech and futuristic is alienating to many and that is before they compare the electric version of a car model they know with the regular engine and realise it is significantly more expensive. This isn’t just down to the cost, where to charge and range anxiety are still real concerns. In a recent Global Web Index survey that asked people who are considering buying a car what they perceived as the advantages and disadvantages of owning an electric vehicle; battery life, cost and driving range still ranked in the top 3 disadvantages despite heavy marketing campaigns from OEMs to combat this.
It could be argued that the mobility industry is feeding into this concern by overly focusing on the functionality of EVs versus traditional combustion engines. Rather than focusing on the benefits of EVs such as the environmental impact and lower running costs, continuing to market around the range, something which the vast amount of people will never have to worry about, is continuing to create anxiety rather than dissipate it.
The product viability and availability conundrum
The assumption that everyone can buy a new EV in the next few years is also creating the divide amongst the liberal elites that can afford new cars more frequently versus the reality of most car owners who tend to buy second-hand or run the same car for many years.
There is an increasingly buoyant second-hand market for EVs yet, due to the concerns over battery life and a lack of previous owners, a second-hand EV feels like a risk for those looking to buy. Focusing on battery warranty, not just for new cars but for second-hand ones could certainly alleviate some of the concerns.
Total cost of ownership (TCO) has also never been something the automotive industry focuses on but helping potential EV buyers to understand how their running costs could be significantly reduced and offering finance models based around this speaks more to the advantages versus focusing on the functionality of the vehicle which continues to feed into concerns. Shared ownership could also be a quicker route to encouraging more people to make the switch.
The cost difference will diminish quickly between EVs and combustion engines
All new technological innovations in any sector start out expensive, e.g. in the energy sector, solar panels started out very expensive and are now on most houses. Prices fall with rapid learning rates. Battery prices are falling by 18% per year. By 2027 there will be price parity between battery-electric cars and traditional fossil fuel cars in every segment which will then trickle down into the second-hand market creating more choice in every price range.
Charging is where the real social divide is happening
Lower income families are in flats and terraces rather than places with driveways. They are likely to be in cities with high levels of congestion and pollution so will also be affected disproportionately by the incoming clean air zones yet have limited resources to make the change to electric. All of this and yet, government incentives are being reduced.
On top of the cost and accessibility issue, it is still inconvenient to find the public plug-in points and they are likely to be 50% more expensive to use than home charging. Even when you have found a public charge point, you often can’t prebook and each different charging service has a different app to download and different payment method. Public charging is a long way away from the ease and security of pulling into a petrol station to fill up and go.
Fleets are going to be a particular issue to convert to electric, because many large businesses that rely on road transport to get their products and services around the country have drivers that do not have access to at-home charging. The charging infrastructure has to be developed quickly within depots or places where long-haul drivers stop for a period of time.
There needs to be more focus on expanding the charging network everywhere and finding a more universal pricing approach to ensure there is fairer access for those who need it the most.
The challenge of an equal charging network
Getting a charger in the ground is complex and expensive which is creating an uneven split in charging points. Cities are suffering, but so are rural areas. Because it’s been left up to market forces to get chargers in the ground, naturally these private businesses want to put them in the cheapest places and most accessed. There needs to be more government intervention to ensure a more even split. Looking across the Atlantic to California, the state tenders for charging infrastructure contracts have paired rural and urban places together to in some ways ‘sweeten the deal’ but also ensure there is rural development.
In summary, the transition to EVs is inevitable and there has been incredible progress made but perhaps not fast enough to deliver on the UK net zero goals. The transition will require making access to the vehicles and the charging network affordable and straightforward for all. A nationwide electrification strategy is urgently needed with a collaborative effort from policymakers, energy providers and the automotive industry to bring all their expertise to the table and develop incentives and investments that benefit the masses, not the few.