How fortunate that electric vehicle technology has moved on to the extent that transport secretary Grant Shapps is able to announce he in looking at bringing forward to date on which petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2040 to 2035. Or maybe not. On closer examination, it isn’t battery technology which has advanced – only the political pressure for being seen to act on climate change. It is possible, of course, that some as-yet unknown technology will arrive to make it feasible to ban all petrol and diesel vehicles from 2035. But we are no nearer discovering it yet. Without it, the government is heading for a very big policy failure.
I wrote here about electric cars in August 2017, just after the then environment secretary Michael Gove had announced the 2040 date. At the time it seemed like a leap in the dark, for two reasons: firstly, the very limited range of electric vehicles and secondly their high price. The best-selling electric vehicle in Britain, the Nissan Leaf, was then being quoted by its manufacturers as having a range of 124 miles – although some owners posting on green websites reported their own real-life experiences as being somewhat more disappointing: one reported a range of 45 miles (a vehicle which had covered 52,000 miles, tested at 70 mph) and 30 to 35 miles (in a car which had covered 90,000 miles).
The good news is that Nissan seems to have managed to increase the range of its Leaf. The base model is now quoted as having a range of 168 miles. That is still a long way short of the 800 miles I can do in my nasty Citroen diesel, but at first sight it seems to be going in the right direction. The bad news is that Nissan seems to have achieved this increase in range by stuffing more, rather than better, batteries inside. In 2017 it was suggesting that owners could fully recharge from an ordinary electric socket in 12 hours, or from a specialist socket in 4 hours. Now, it is quoting a recharging time of 21 hours from a normal socket or 7 hours 30 mins from s specialist socket. It claims I could also do a 20 percent to 80 percent recharge from a rapid charger in an hour – although finding a working charging point is not always easy.
The other bad news is that the price of the Nissan Leaf has gone up sharply. In 2017 the base model cost £21,680 (a price which took into account a £4,500 government grant). Now, the base model costs £27,995 (which also takes into account a government grant, since been reduced to £3,500). By the way, Nissan Juke – the nearest petrol equivalent to a Leaf – can be bought new for £15,520.
I would love it if it were otherwise – not least because my smelly old diesel will need replacing soon – but it is hard to see a huge amount of progress being made on the electric vehicle front. Moreover, it is hard to see anything changing in the short-term. Still batteries are dependent on cobalt – a mineral whose supply is unfortunately concentrated in one unstable country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Imagine if we were dependent for 60 percent of our oil supply on Iran and you get the picture.
The silly thing about the government’s target is that the transition to electric vehicles would be more likely to succeed if it were less purist. We could very quickly switch to hybrid vehicles, capable of being run 30 miles or so in pure electric mode – allowing all towns to be declared zero emission zones within 10 years. If we did that, we could allow a recharging network to be built up gradually. But hybrids do not seem to form part of the government’s ambitions – it recently ended all grants on them. Instead, it is trying to force us to run before we can walk – with our legs in plaster.