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Tough on e-vehicles, tough on the causes of e-vehicles

The DfT pretends to have an electric car strategy

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Tough on e-vehicles, tough on the causes of e-vehicles? The Government's ultra-low carbon vehicles strategy,* unveiled this week, seems at best a mechanism for keeping UK electric car development in a holding pattern for the next decade, and at worst a cunning, albeit inadvertent, plan to miss the boat entirely.

There will be, say Peter Mandelson and Geoff Hoon, "help worth £2,000 - £5,000 towards buying the first electric and plug in hybrid cars when they hit the showrooms", and these are the headline numbers they'd like you to take away. This funding, however, is part of a "£250 million scheme to deliver a green motoring transformation", and it's at this point that it all starts to come unpicked.

In the wake of the announcement numerous analysts pointed out that using the whole £250 million for subsidies at the £5,000 level would only cover 50,000 cars (total UK car sales in March were just over 300,000). But it's not as straightforward as that - the DfT wants the auto industry to chip in, and says most of the money "will be used to create a scheme to reduce the price of electric and plug-in hybrid cars by around £2,000-£5,000," and that it "will begin discussions with the automotive and finance industries on how this reduction can best be delivered."

The DfT Roadmap expects multiple breakthroughs post 2020. Cross fingers.

Effectively, the DfT would therefore seem to want to crowbar the £250 million into car companies existing discounting and financing plans. The car companies, already heavily leveraged in this area, are unlikely to be enthusiastic, and it's hard to see how the objective of making electric vehicles price-competitive with conventional ones can be achieved.

Nor does the £250 million exist yet, as such. The DfT doesn't envisage the scheme being in place before 2011, and along with specifically confining it to electric and plug-in hybrids (which cuts out the vanilla hybrids that actually exist), it's aiming it at 'normal' cars driven by 'normal' people. "Eligible cars will need to meet strict safety standards, not exceed a maximum CO2 ceiling and be designed for the mass market."

That looks like enough Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt to push the existing, tiny, electric car market (whose sales cratered last year) over the cliff.

Of the total not-quite-real-yet investment, £20 million has been allocated "for charging points and related infrastructure to help develop a network of 'electric car cities' throughout the UK and an expansion of an electric and ultra-low carbon car demonstration project [run by the Technology Strategy Board]on the UK's roads. This project will mean over 200 motorists... will have the opportunity to drive a cutting-edge car and feedback the information to make greener motoring an everyday reality."

Even if all of that £20 million was being invested in charging infrastructure rather than 100 more wacky cars as well, it would be largely symbolic, and the bulk of the funding for credible levels of infrastructure for "electric car cities" will need to come from, er, someone else.

London Mayor Boris Johnson is himself intent on delivering such a city, and is aiming to have 25,000 charging spaces in London by 2015. He estimates that this will cost £60 million, is prepared to fund £20 million of this and is calling on the Government and the private sector to fund the rest.

Matching BoJo's roadmap up with the DfT's, however, raises a few questions. Johnson aims to have 100,000 electric vehicles on London's streets, somewhat lamely, "as soon as possible." His caginess is understandable, but if he does deliver the infrastructure on schedule, he's going to look a bit of a prune if a handful of G-Wizes have 10-20 charging points each. The DfT, however, thinks the next five years will bring "gradual emergence of early market ultra-low carbon vehicles", while "large-scale production" won't commence for five to ten years (i.e. 2014-2019). Only after that, the DfT reckons, will we see "significant market penetration."

The DfT is right - just about - in its belief that 'normal' mass-market plug-in vehicles don't exist yet, and it's quite possibly also right about significant penetration of the whole auto market being at least another ten years off. But it seems to be entirely missing the volume rollouts that are imminent (e.g. the 100,000 planned for Israel in 2010), and it appears not to have given any serious thought to the need to overcome all of the negatives of electric vehicles, all at once, as part of a coherent plan, in order to get the market to take off.

So you need a dense charging network, as Johnson is planning, you need a headline price low enough for electric cars to be competitive with conventional ones, and if you want private industry to chip in, you need to be giving them some idea of how they can make money (say, mobile phone style price plans and/or leasing deals?), as opposed to trying to squeeze extra discounts out of them. And, given the range issues of current and near-term electric vehicles, you probably need to be doing it in a city or a smallish country to start with. Figuring out how to get 100,000 electric vehicles in London would seem a plausible way to start. ®

* Do pause at that URL, and note the Department for Transport's ominous inability to spell "vehicles".

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