The automotive sector is facing a global seismic change, warned Philippa Oldham, head of National Network Programmes, Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), at last month’s Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum on the next steps for low emissions vehicles. Against the backdrop of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that we’ve got just 12 years to get serious about limiting the global temperature rise of 1.5C; and the ’Road to Zero’ setting the expectation that at least 50% ideally 70% of UK car sales being zero emission capable by 2030, she said the shift from our traditional internal combustion engines needs to be addressed. The APC was formed in 2013 through a partnership between industry and government, with a target to match-fund £1bn over the course of 10 years to the UK in low-carbon propulsion R&D technology. Its achievement is measured in C02 targets. It’s estimated that 26% of UK greenhouse gas emissions come from transport.

"What can our transport sector do to address this?" she said. "A lot rests on the powertrain mix, and this mix will have a big impact on the technology development, the manufacturing, the supply capacity, infrastructure development, installation of the charging points, looking at the modelling of the future of the air quality and looking at how the greenhouse gases can be reduced the list goes on and on."

She said the UK had the opportunity to lead the race for the development and integration of the future propulsion systems. In 2017 the UK produced 1.6 million cars, including the manufacture of 2.7 million internal combustion engines, with 60% of them being exported. "But with this shift to electrification, we need a plan on how both to protect the £8.5bn-worth of exports that these produce and the 30,000 jobs that currently are supported within this internal combustion engine supply chain and engine production." She said the heavy duty transport sector could not be electrified, so it was not possible to just ignore investment in advancing internal combustion engines and looking at alternative fuels for them "because if we do just electrify our heavy duty transport, actually we’ll probably only be able to carry two boxes with the amount of batteries that will be required".

She said a big challenge as well from the technology and the battery side of things was the chemistry. "We don’t currently have a lot of chemists within our automotive sectors, so actually transitioning from those rare earth materials from the lithium, from the cobalt that we currently use and moving towards a sustainable battery technology is a real challenge, not just for the UK but globally."

She later expressed concern about the focus on fast-charging for electric vehicles, a facility which could encourage greater uptake of electric vehicles: "When you buy an EV there has to be a significant behaviour change. If you’re somebody that is just going to buy an EV and rapid charge it, rapid charge it, rapid charge it, you’re going to destroy that vehicle very quickly. You’re going to get real degradation of some of the technology within it."

Looking at the barriers to electric vehicle uptake, Peter Abson, UK public affairs & policy senior manager, National Grid, said range anxiety was a concern for many people. "It’s clear that insufficient infrastructure has the potential to delay the speed of people buying an EV. Consumers will only switch to an EV if charging points are widespread, easily accessible, have the ability to charge at appropriate speed, and the chargers are compatible with all vehicle models. While charging at home will be a convenient option for some, there’s still around 40% of households who do not have access to off-street parking, and therefore, millions of vehicles will still require adequate facilities to charge.

"If we truly want to eliminate range anxiety as a worry, then we need to ensure that when potential EV consumers are thinking about their next purchase they’re left feeling confident that there are adequate places for them to charge."

He said he didn’t think it would take much to deter people from buying an EV through negative newspaper headlines and social media campaigns. And while around 90% of motorway service areas do already have some form of chargers, these were often 50 kilowatt chargers which can take more than an hour to suitably charge a vehicle.

"Where there are rapid chargers, about 10% of these on motorway service areas, they are often incompatible with most vehicle types," he stressed. However, the National Grid is planning for the mass adoption of EVs. "It’s clear that under any EV scenario, the majority of service stations are going to require some form of reinforced power connection before 2030, if they are to deliver adequate service for future EV drivers." By overlaying 165 strategic motorway service stations on top of the electricity transmission grid, the National Grid has identified 54 sites, which, when delivered, would enable 99% of future EV drivers in England and Wales to be within 50 miles of an ultra-rapid charging station.

Natasha Robinson, head, office of Low Emission Vehicles at the Department for Transport, said she was pleased that there was a commitment within the ’Road to Zero’ strategy at a range between 50% and 70% ultra-low emission vehicles by 2030, and wants a review point in the mid-2020s. She believes regulation is one of the biggest drivers for getting car manufacturers and others to bring forward the development of ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs).

"We’re putting several million pounds into a pilot study looking at how we can improve the grid connections into motorway services area, what the challenges are, and how we can look at business models for that in the future For day to day driving a lot of people will be able to charge at home, but when they’re moving into the city, and when they’re travelling longer distances, what are the options for us, and how can we make sure that works?"

She talked about the Electric Vehicle Home Charge Scheme, which offers up to £500 for installing a home charge point; and the On Street Residential Charge Point Scheme, which is open to local authorities.

Tom Pakenham, director, electric vehicles at Ovo Energy, said the electrification of transport could provide big prizes for society, for the environment and for the economy. "But there’s also a high cost of getting it wrong and we need to be quite careful that we don’t make investment or policy decisions which take us down routes which could be problematic in the long-term." Ovo Energy builds smart charging and vehicle-to-grid technology and has customer propositions that allow people to buy from the company and benefit from owning an electric vehicle: "Our ambition with vehicle-to-grid is that people never have to pay to drive to fuel their car again.