Guest Blog: Electric Vehicle dreams are now a reality – well, are they?

21 Nov 2014

Following a spate of news stories about rising use of electric cars - including upbeat comments from transport minister Baroness Kramer - we asked Oxford University's Christian Brand to separate hype from reality.

Are Electric Vehicles (EVs) a reality? It’s certainly true that there are many positive signs but, given that the number EVs sold in the UK in 2013 represented just 0.3% of all vehicles, we perhaps need to be a bit cautious about such dramatic statements. Rather, it would be more realistic to say that we are currently at the tipping point for the adoption of EVs, but still with their widespread adoption at some risk.

Baroness Kramer recently stated that “we are on the cusp of a technological revolution”. She pointed to a rapid increase in sales and government support in the form of a £500m investment programme, including further support for the plug-in grant, and a plan to install rapid chargers across the trunk road network.

For EVs to become mainstream we require a coordinated public/private industry effort. Simply leaving it to the market would be unlikely to work because of the need for consistent, clear messages and easy to use and inter-operable supporting infrastructure – not just in the UK but also when taking EVs abroad. In this respect we are not quite there; with differing charging technologies and networks (slow, 6-8 hours to rapid DC, ½ hour chargers) and a confusing array of types of electric vehicles (battery only, plug-in hybrid, extended range, etc.) available. Nevertheless there is progress. The industry is now working together to create an inter-operable network of charging stations throughout the UK. In October 2014 there were 7,185 UK charging points of which 649 were rapid chargers.

A question which consumers are concerned about is whether EVs are just a passing fad – a technology which will be soon outdated. However, the situation is becoming much clearer and we can now be reasonably confident that EVs are here to stay, at least for the next 40 years or so. This is because while electric power has some drawbacks, as a technology it wins out in the long-term. It is true that the full benefit of electric vehicles will only be realised when electricity generation is substantially decarbonised, but even in advance of this, it has clear benefits in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and immediate benefits in terms of air quality. The key drawback of battery-based technology is the low energy density, which translates into batteries being big, costly, slow to re-charge, and providing less range. In practice, the issue of range is primarily a fear of the unfamiliar and something which can be overcome, as recent field trial have shown.

Globally, it seems likely that electricity will become the dominant source of power for cars and light vehicles at some point in the future, with China leading the charge (no pun intended). The question is really one of how quickly this will happen and whether the UK manages to be a leader or late adopter of the technology. This comes on the back of a growing appreciation that, while by no means perfect, EVs are the best available technology for the foreseeable future.​

Christian Brand is a Senior Research Fellow in Transport, Energy and the Environment, Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University.