Comment: The uncertain future for clean cars

The rush for clean cars is being slowed by manufacturers' fear of becoming the latest betamax.

By Dr. Jason Begley

The policy landscape for the low carbon vehicles (LCV) sector in the UK is a complex and at times confusing mix of competing objectives.

Up until 2009 the three key government departments with a stake in the low carbon vehicles [LCV] sector were the Department for Transport, the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. All three were committed to carbon reduction and emissions saving, but all three had different priorities and different approaches to the issue.

A major priority for both the Department for Transport and the Department for Business has been the revitalisation of the domestic automotive sector. The Department of Energy for its part, took an over-arching view of planning for a sustainable, industrial future, of which the LCV sector was just one component. In 2008/09 these stakeholders were brought under one umbrella; the Automotive Council and the Office of Low Emission Vehicles. However, despite this centralisation, problems remain with both the content and the intent of UK national policy in relation to the LCV sector.

While environmental concerns remain a key component of LCV policy, the potential of the sector to revitalise the domestic automotive industry has become a major focus for legislators. This has undoubtedly had a bearing on the current approach to the sector which focuses on the benefits the low carbon agenda offers to business, industry and the UK economy as much as it does on the environmental benefits of introducing the technology.

Generally government policy around low carbon vehicles aims to ensure that the UK fleet undergoes technological transformation, consistent with both consumer preference but also the climate change agenda. Policy makers encourage the use of advance internal combustion engine vehicles (particularly diesel), as well as hybrid technology and emerging plug-in electric vehicles to meet the medium-term demands of the issue (to 2020).

In the long-term – to 2025 and beyond – the plan is for large scale electrification with potentially mass produced hydrogen vehicles emerging later. The logic behind this approach was derived from the 2009 report by the New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team (an industry-led automotive group established to advise government policy makers) in which it was recommended that: "It is worth resisting the temptation to pick a winner prematurely, however politically attractive it may appear. Plurality of solutions in the interim is likely and this is healthy for inter-technological competition."

With this national approach to the LCV sector to date major automotive producers in the UK have pursued a range of solutions to offset the anticipated decline in traditional vehicles. However, this breadth rather than depth approach has arguably only served to slow the rate of technological development and dampen demand as consumers remain unsure which technology to invest in.

Betting on which technology will succeed in the medium to long term is a business risk that discourages focused technological development. There is almost a fear amongst manufacturers that investing heavily in one technology will leave them as the beta-max to their rivals' VHS. Ultimately this technological hedging of bets is indicative of the slow-moving nature of the automotive sector, a luxury not shared by national and supranational legislators.

Central to the road-map for the future is the belief that technological breakthrough will, at some unspecified point in the future, bridge the gap between existing technology and performance. One obvious flaw with such a 'wait and see' approach is that it slows the pace of innovation with manufacturers not wanting to invest heavily in technology which is not going to be profitable in the long-run.

Current technology is a series of trade-offs, for example hybrids offer better performance but fully electric vehicles are a cleaner technology. By compromising on green technology to deliver improved performance to consumers government policy can be accused of being not fully committed to the climate change agenda.

For consumers there is a danger of paralysis, faced with a range of technologies none of which successfully meet the criteria of satisfying consumer demand and the climate change agenda there is little incentive to switch from traditional internal combustion engines. One issue that is yet to be addressed by policy makers is the need to change motoring attitudes and values to meet the new limitations association with the emerging technology.

There are currently two main barriers to the mass uptake of low carbon vehicles; cost and infrastructure. For consumers a significant factor in the poor uptake of LCVs is the cost associated with their purchase. This is around a ten per cent increase for a full hybrid electric vehicle all the way up to double the cost for a battery electric vehicle.

Since the current crop of LCVs still have question marks over their environmental cleanliness in the UK – related to their production methods and their dependence on unclean energy – there is little incentive to consumers to pay so much extra for marginal gains.

Subsidising the purchase of LCVs, a move that has proven popular amongst policy makers to date, is economically unviable for the long-term development of the sector since the desired market penetration would only come at considerable expense.

The other major concern is the infrastructural challenge of developing supporting services and charging stations across the UK. As yet no provision has been made for the early adoption of standards. The current framework for developing recharging points looks to focus on urban centres, supermarkets, retail centres and car parks. With this focus on electrified urban centres, allied to escalating costs of operating conventionally-fuelled cars are oil prices increase, rural areas may require some further action to resolve mounting personal transport challenges.

Most worryingly there appears to be no plan put in place for if the low carbon vehicle sector should fail to ever meet consumer expectations. While the environmentally conscious and affluent may make the change, there is a distinct possibility that the average consumer will wait for the technological gap to be bridged rather than altering their approach to motoring.

Unfortunately, by slowing the proliferation of LCV technology (until the point where the price of oil means consumers literally cannot afford not to have a low carbon vehicle) could have obvious repercussions for carbon reduction targets. In addition, by procrastinating on the introduction of LCV technology, it may be that policy makers are merely delaying the inevitable whilst failing to address obvious problems associated with prevailing driving attitudes and behaviours.

Arguably LCV policy needs to be reconsidered along more holistic lines with greater emphasis on long-term sustainable solutions that continuously reduce carbon emissions through transport. An important component of rethinking LCV policy would be to address how vehicle users utilize emerging transport solutions, in particular how they drive and when they use these vehicles, whilst maintaining mobility for all areas of society.

Dr. Jason Begley is a research fellow at Coventry University's Sustainable Regeneration Applied Research Centre (SURGE) and a member of Coventry University's Motor Industry Observatory (MIO).

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