The government’s announcement yesterday that it is to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 throws down the gauntlet to transport and energy engineers to ensure we are electric car ready.
But what needs to be done by then and is there more to change than just the cars people buy?
According to engineers, there needs to be shifts on several levels in terms of the regulatory framework, cash investment, planning and public perceptions.
Overall the move was welcomed and there was a view that 2040 is more than enough time to achieve this change. However there was acknolwedgement that the announcement leaves out the important question of HGVs and their environmental impact.
“We think the tipping point for the viability of electric vehicles in terms of being genuinely affordable and as good as petrol cars will come in the first half of the early 2020s,” said Arup global energy leader Ian Gardner.
“In part this view is us, but in part it is looking at various predictions being made from all sorts of bodies and commitments being made by the vehicle industry. There’s a general view that by say 2023 /2025 we will be in the sweet spot for battery vehicles being priced competitively.”
So if by the mid-2020s almost all new vehicles are electric, what impact will that have on infrastructure?
It raises two issues: the impact on energy consumption and roadside charging. For both these issues Gardner believes regulatory change is key to making the uptake in electric vehicles work.
In terms of consumption, he argues that looking at a suburban geographical area, there is enough capacity in the electricity network for more electric vehicles, as long as they are charged at the right time. And this is where regulation change can make a difference by giving distribution network operators the ability to ensure charging is off peak, for example in the early hours of the morning.
“Without that ability to automatically control the time people can charge the vehicles the system would get overloaded very quickly,” said Gardner. “So there’s quite a regulatory framework shift needed to make this concept work, but that’s quite possible, it just needs the syncing of transport policy with energy policy.”
The announcement is part of the new UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations produced by Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport.
It means local authorities will be able to bid for money from a new Clean Air Fund to help cut down on polluting vehicles. This could include changing road layouts or removing traffic lights and speed humps. It has announced a £255M implementation fund for work to deliver plans within eight months to address poor air quality in the shortest time possible.
Ways the government is already spending money to try to reduce pollution is £100M ring-fenced for an Air Quality Fund in the first roads investment strategy (RIS1) to help Highways England cut pollution on its network. It has also pledged £100M for charging infrastructure.
“I think it is a very brave thing to do to put a line in the sand. It is good to have a goal, but obviously you have to have a strategy to develop your highways network and other networks such as linking in to pedestrians and transport hubs,” said Aecom’s managing director for highways Paul McCormick.
It is here that Arup’s Gardner sees a need for more regulation in order to avoid the “chaos” of roadside charging points being delivered by a disparate range of suppliers.
“We are saying that at the moment with the current vehicle street charging, there is no one obviously responsible and controlling it. A measure that is needed is to give city authorities really clear responsibilities for actively managing street charging because otherwise, if you get to 2040 and you are allowing street charging on a random basis, there will be chaos. There has got to be much more joined up thinking on the whole concept of street charging,” he said.
Even though the government has committed some funding, a further strand needed to bring it all together is the amount of cash available. Any decline in petrol and diesel cars would also equate to a decline in government revenue from vehicle and fuel tax – a vital stream of funding for Highways England. And according to Aecom’s McCormick, this investment cannot wait too long.
“At some time the government will need to announce investment in roadside charging points,” he said.
Although greater take up of electric vehicles is unlikely to see dramatic changes in the way our roads are designed, it will happen in conjunction with the further automation of vehicles.
Civic Engineers director Stephen O’Malley said one of the biggest challenges is changing people’s mind-sets so that they begin to view the way they use cars and think streets should be laid out differently.
O’Malley said: “One of the biggest challenges we face all the time is that we know what a good street scape should look like…The problem with promoting these types of ideas in the UK is that politicians need to stake their political capital on that innovation. That political capital is clearly not surrendered casually. The electorate is highly sceptical and very anxious about the idea that conventional highway infrastructure would be taken away from them to use and therefore having the car and using it to regulate their lifestyle is in jeopardy.
“It’s pretty significant in terms of how we change this mind-set and bring the electorate along with us.”