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Everything You Need to Know About the UK's Ban on Petrol Cars

From 2040, you'll no longer be able to buy new petrol and diesel cars. Here's what that means in real terms.

by Martin Robbins
27 July 2017, 1:54pm

Can Britain really ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, as it intends to do? Yes, it can. By the time we get to 2040 asking that question will be like asking if we can move on from the horse and cart. To put the government's "ambitious" target in perspective, Volvo have already announced a plan to convert their entire line-up of cars from petrol to electric or hybrid by 2019, and Norway plans to ban the sale of petrol cars in less than a decade.

It took from 2010 to 2015 – five years - to sell the first million modern electric cars. Getting to 2 million took barely more than a year, and sales are growing fast. These numbers are still tiny, though, compared to the billion or so cars on the planet's roads; as of 2017, electric cars are still a niche market, albeit a fast growing one. So should we be a bit sceptical?

Not really. The reason numbers are still small is that batteries are incredibly expensive. The electric Nissan Leaf can set you back twice as much as the Nissan Micra, and what you're paying for is a giant battery which can still only take you about 120 miles. That cost means electric drivetrains have been limited mostly to luxury vehicles, or green enthusiasts willing to pay several thousand pounds over the odds for a small hatchback.

However, batteries are getting cheaper at an astonishing rate. Back in 2010, cells cost about $1,000 (£760) per kWh of capacity. By 2020, it's expected that the cost could fall to about $100 (£76) per kWh, or even lower. A 30kWh battery like the one in the Nissan Leaf will have fallen in price from $30,000 (£22,836) to $3,000 (£2,286) in just ten years.

That, along with a fast-growing charging infrastructure, has suddenly made a whole range of new cars viable. A staggering 120 new electric models are planned by leading car manufacturers between now and 2020, covering everything from SUVs to sports cars, vans to family hatchbacks.


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How do we power all these new cars though? Right now, peak demand for electricity in the UK is 60 gigawatts. The National Grid reckon electric cars could cause peak demand to rise by as much as 8GW by 2030, and 18GW once all cars are electric. Which is quite a lot. By way of comparison, the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C will produce a maximum of just over 3GW, and cost about £20 billion to build. We'd need six more of them to cope.

However, that may not be a huge problem. For one thing, energy use in the UK has been falling for years now, as homes and businesses get more and more efficient. A big chunk of those gigawatts might be offset by savings elsewhere as technology improves over the next 20 years. Besides, all that extra power means extra revenue for energy companies that they can invest in new power stations.

That's great news for power stations, but miserable for petrol stations. One of the big criticism of electric cars is that they take a long time to charge – Tesla's high speed super-chargers take about half an hour to get your car back up to 80 percent. Who wants to wait around for their car to charge when petrol tanks can be refilled in a minute or two?

This, of course, is a dumb question, because it assumes that we'll recharge cars the way we refuel them, and that's just complete nonsense. Even cheaper electric cars can do a hundred miles between charges, more than most people drive in a day. Drivers doing shopping trips and school runs, and then plugging the car in at night, could easily go months or years without ever needing to visit a charging station.

People always fear change, but the reality is that almost everything about driving looks set to get better.

Even if that weren't the case, most petrol now is sold from supermarket stations. Charging machines – barely more than a power outlet with a credit card reader attached – would be an obvious next step, cheaper to run, easy to install in hundreds of bays and requiring no staff to manage. Refuelling won't be one more thing to do after you've left the shop, it'll happen while you're wandering the aisles inside. On the rare occasions when you need to drive 400 or 500 miles in a day, you'll be stopping at a motorway service station and leaving your car on charge while you break for lunch.

Charging won't be less convenient than fuelling, it'll be easier. It'll take less time, because it'll happen when you're doing other things. The idea of going somewhere just to refuel your vehicle will be as obsolete as the internet café, which means Britain's petrol stations – at least those outside of the main service stations – will be obsolete, too. In truth, they were dying anyway: the UK had more than 37,000 stations in 1970, and barely a quarter of them are left today.

There's one other group making money from the fuel pump: the government. Petrol taxes bring in billions of pounds each year. If petrol isn't sold any more, the government would have to find some other way to raise all that cash. The obvious route would be road pricing – setting a price of, say, 10p per mile and billing cars for all road usage. Technically, this wouldn't make a big difference to driving costs, but you can imagine how spectacularly unpopular it'd be among drivers.

People always fear change, but the reality is that almost everything about driving looks set to get better. Electric cars will be cheaper to run and more convenient than petrol cars. They'll cause less pollution, because the energy will be produced in clean gas or nuclear power stations, rather than burning fossil fuels in incredibly inefficient engines. Towns and cities like London, struggling with chronic air pollution, will finally be able to breathe easy. It only really sucks if you're a petrol station attendant, in which case… sorry.

@mjrobbins

Previously:

How I Accidentally Invested in Big Tobacco

Will Brexit Finally Let Us See the Light?

Where We're at with the Link Between Cannabis and Psychosis