We’re all from families full of eccentrics, if the Gallagher brothers are to be believed, because the UK is turning electric. OK, that’s a slight overstatement, but the UK did lead Europe in the number of new registrations of electric vehicles in 2014, with more than 15,000 new electric vehicles registered, compared to less than 4,000 the year before.
Despite this jump, electric vehicles still represent just 0.6% of the UK new car market as a whole, but policy-makers are keen to promote their use. The Department for Transport announced this week that an additional £43million would be poured into electric vehicle promotion – including £15million in incentives for drivers and £8million ear-marked for charging points across the country.
The charging points are a crucial piece in the puzzle. Electric vehicles rely on this infrastructure to make them a viable alternative to traditional cars, but even in London the provision is patchy at best.
A survey of London’s network of charging points by the Financial Times found that of the 1,300 public sites, four in ten were out of service. A tangled knot of contracts and sub-contracts has resulted in a lack of clarity over where ultimate responsibility for maintaining these sites falls. Worse, in some places electric vehicle drivers must dodge parking wardens – in Camden, for example, parking next to a charging point and not charging, even if that’s because it’s faulty, is a ticketable offence.
Drivers are left sitting in their Nissan Leaf wondering: “Do you want us doing this…or not?” Inconsistency abounds – both in the patchy physical provision of infrastructure and in the messages being sent to users.
On the one hand, government is incentivising the electric alternative and leading politicians are voicing their commitment to it. On the other, faulty charging points and a confused approach on the ground are discouraging potential users.
Electric vehicles have the potential to thrive in urban areas – the technology is ideal for making short distance trips more efficiently than petrol-driven vehicles and can help local government meet its air quality targets.
That’s why the government made £250million in purchase grants available from 2011, contributing up to £5,000 to the cost of a new electric vehicle. And why they made £30million available for regions to build charging infrastructure. And why electric vehicles are exempt from London’s congestion charge.
So, we’re looking at an overall spend in the last five years of upwards of £300million, and only 15,000 new vehicle registrations last year.
It seems that the initiatives to date have failed to address perception issues that prevent electric vehicles going mainstream.
Compare electric vehicle purchase grants to the vehicle scrappage scheme at the end of the last government: again, an initiative with an overall budget of around £300million. In this case, government subsidised the purchase of new, more fuel efficient vehicles to the tune of £1,000, providing it was match-funded by the dealer. Less of an investment per person, but car sales increased 300,000 in the year the scheme was operating, and the average emissions of new vehicles sold that year fell 5.4%.
Why the difference in outcomes? The public simply don’t yet trust the electric charging infrastructure – the vehicles might be more affordable to buy, fit with your personal circumstances or ethical outlook, and they might be cheaper to run in theory – but there’s an expectation of hassle, and the risk of finding yourself stranded without charge. Imagine if four in ten petrol stations couldn’t give you any petrol…
What needs to be done to correct this and make electric vehicles a viable mainstream option? Two things:
1) Get the infrastructure in place. Not a quick win, but the network of charging points needs expanding nationwide, starting with getting it right in urban areas with clear guidance on provision and maintenance. Patchwork and piecemeal provision decided upon and administered at the local level hasn’t been working – it needs the centralised strategic approach we give to other nationally significant infrastructure projects.
2) Improve perceptions. Years of negative views of electric vehicles have left them seen as a risky, eccentric option. Car manufacturers champion efficiency and reliability in their messaging. The electric option has the first; it needs to have the second.