Farewell to Pistons

Blog post posted on 28/07/17 |

The government has given a signal to the car industry that it wants to end all sales of petrol and diesel only cars by 2040. Technically this is perfectly feasible – it doesn’t exclude hybrid vehicles and the industry has 23 years' notice. Volvo has already committed itself to this as a policy from 2020.

There are technical challenges for the car makers, but none are hard to overcome.  There are already lots of hybrids on the market from virtually every manufacturer, pure electric cars are a small but significant part of sales and battery technology is improving in leaps and bounds.  Charging points are spreading and, more importantly, charging technology is improving as quickly as battery technology.  The industry will introduce more and more electric and hybrid vehicles and I suspect from about 2025 or 2030 at the latest, no more purely piston engine cars will be launched.  New cars will just be hybrid or battery (or hydrogen) and the industry will make them as desirable and affordable as piston engine cars are today.  Most people keep a car for about 3 years, whether they buy new or used.  By 2040, most non-electric cars will be at least 10 to 15 years old and buying electric or hybrid will be as normal as choosing petrol or diesel today.

Charging all these cars will be an issue, but not a particularly difficult one if we get some decision making by government, power companies and the national grid.  Headlines from today such as 10 new power stations being needed just to charge our cars are nonsense.  That assumes we’ll all go home and plug in our electric car while cooking dinner and watching East Enders.   By 2040 we’ll plug the car in, tell the smart meter what time we need it again and the national grid, via the smart meter, will decide when to charge it – such as after we’ve all gone to bed and demand is low.  In fact there are serious talks about using the batteries in plugged in cars to boost the national grid supply at peak demand times and charge them up again when demand drops.  The aim is to use our generating capacity more consistently; smooth out the peaks and troughs by getting better at storing electricity and using it to supplement the national grid as required.  All this is very feasible technically – there are no insurmountable problems. 

A more difficult challenge is persuading us to trust the electricity companies to get it right. Most of us have wasted hours on the phone to a vast utility company, trying to sort out billing errors or get some apparently simple change made.  Will I really trust them to have my car charged when I want to go to work, or will I claim that I need it charged by 10 pm, just to be on the safe side?  Will I be OK with them "borrowing" my electricity from my battery and promising to put it back later?  Will the media headlines tell me about the success of the technology or focus on the plight of the pregnant mum left stranded by the ineptitude of the power company?

To add to the concerns, there is another demand issue.  To play our part in avoiding irreversible climate change, our goal is to be a zero-carbon economy by 2050. That means virtually all our energy must come from renewable or nuclear sources.  That’s heating and cooking as well as transport and industry.  Factories, trains, farms, and building sites will run on electricity, while at home, we’ll all have electric central heating and electric cookers.  Today, without all this extra demand, we keep hearing how close we are to the lights going out.  The recent announcement about making it simpler to have solar panels and a windmill in the back garden may contribute but it’s going to take more than that to fill such a huge gap in our generating capacity.   Even when Hinkley Point and its successors start working (assuming they will work, which seems constantly to be thrown into doubt) we’ll still need pretty radical plans for renewable electricity generation.  I don’t see any evidence of an expansion programme for renewables on the scale that’ll be needed.

What we do seem to need are decisions on future electricity generation and reassurance that we can trust the electricity supply industry to make sure we have the electricity for our cars, cookers and heating when we need it and when we want it.  Compared to that, making the cars is a side issue.

Tim Shallcross, IAM Roadsmart’s head of technical policy and advice