The invasion of the electric vehicle


Former UK minister of state for transport Dr Stephen Ladyman explains how road authorities should prepare for an electric and hybrid future

The UK’s Climate Change Act of 2008 set a target for reducing CO2 emissions by 26% compared to the 1990 baseline, by 2020, and although progress has been made to reduce CO2 output compared to the level in 2008, almost no progress has yet been made compared to 1990.

Allied to EU legislation that imposes severe penalties on car makers who have an average fleet carbon footprint of more than 95g/km by 2020/1 (compared to the current average of 128.3g/km) and you can only conclude that the fleet of new cars in 2020 will look very different from the fleet on sale today.

Hybrid vehicles will be part of the solution and many already deliver CO2 emissions below the 95g/km footprint, but a lot of the current models on sale exceed that figure and even those that do fall below 95g/km are not dramatically lower. For every vehicle that falls above the 95g/km figure, another has to be sufficiently below that level to maintain the average: and if you think of Volkswagen, for example, they also sell Audi, Porsche, Bentley, and even Bugatti.

I doubt many of those vehicles will achieve sub-95g/km footprints by 2021. So we have to assume that there will be a massive increase in the number of ultra-low emission vehicles that will be on the road by 2020, and there must be a big increase in the proportion of purely electric vehicles. We have to be ready for the invasion of the electric vehicle into our towns, cities and business parks.

So what is holding people back from buying electric vehicles?

The relatively high price and short range are two key factors, but we can expect both to improve over the next few years – although people still won’t buy them unless they can be confident that they can be charged when they are out and about.

While you are in work, in the cinema, in the shops or anywhere away from your own home you’ll want to put the car on charge. If you are on a long journey you’ll want to find a vacant rapid charger that can recharge your battery in the time it takes to have a coffee or a bathroom break in every motorway service station. And if it’s important that motorists driving petrol cars are able to find a vacant parking space without spending too long driving around the city: it’s doubly important that the driver of an electric vehicle can find an available charging space.

So where are the charging points in your town? How many do you have? How do the drivers of an electric vehicle find them, and how do they know that they will be free when they get there? How will you ensure that only drivers of electric vehicles are parked at charging points, and how will you make sure that they are actually charging their vehicle, and not just parking while they nip into the shops?

And when they have finished charging, how will you make sure they move off and free up the charging point for another electric vehicle?

Parking occupancy sensors have to be part of the answer but only part of it. The information that a charging point parking space is occupied or not has to be correlated with whether the charging point is in use, and that information has to be transmitted to drivers who might be looking for a space and to traffic wardens who can ensure that drivers occupying a space when they have finished charging are penalized.

Ultimately, electric vehicle drivers will want to know more than whether a charging point is free now – they may still be 30 minutes away – they will want to know that it will be free when they get to it. That suggests the ability to book a slot in advance will have to be part of the solution, especially in the busiest areas.

Of course, charging points are not the only strategy that should be explored and the Highways Agency are looking at ways that wireless charging can be offered on the strategic road network. If the technology proves effective why should it be restricted to the strategic network? Larger towns and cities are bound to come under pressure to offer similar facilities – assuming that vehicle manufacturers respond by building the capacity for wireless charging into their vehicles.

Whatever, the mix of charging points and wireless charging lanes that has to emerge by 2020 we can be sure of this – we only have five years to be ready, and many local authorities have only just started on the journey.

Dr Stephen Ladyman is a strategic advisor to Clearview Traffic Group

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