The recent budget from the UK government was full of many green issues and the subject of electric cars was one which cropped up and grabbed the headlines. However, do you actually know what the government is planning and what is in it for UK motorist?
The UK strategy on electric cars
Gordon Brown used the 2009 budget to confirm his government's confidence in the electric car market and eco-friendly technology. In typical political fashion there was a vague suggestion of a £5000 discount for UK motorists who acquired an electric or hybrid car. However, while the government tried to make much mileage of this particular development there are no details available as to how you would qualify for such a discount but more importantly there are no cars currently available which fit the criteria!
In a rather bizarre quirk of fate many people may not be aware that while Gordon Brown is telling us which cars we need to drive and which technologies we need to use, the man himself is not able to drive. Yes, the man ultimately in charge of the UK government's green strategy and electric car program cannot even drive himself.
What is the 2020 target?
The UK government grabbed the headlines after the recent budget with a suggestion, put forward as a policy, that all new cars sold in Britain by 2020 would either be 100% electric powered or hybrid vehicles. As you might guess, this subject has been discussed in great detail within the motoring industry and the vast majority of people do not believe the government will get anywhere near its target for 2020.
When you consider the recent demise of LDV, the UK van manufacturer, and problems at Vauxhall, which is a subsidiary of GM Europe, as well as the ultimate decline in the UK car manufacturing industry, how on earth could this target be met?
Despite all the hype in the newspapers and talk of trial projects up and down the country, of which one is actually going on, when you take a step back and look at the overall picture the UK authorities are actually putting up minimal investment for the project. More and more people now believe that the politicians of today are attempting to "kick policies into the long grass" by giving long-term targets for projects such as electric cars. Ultimately, possibly after the next general election, these projects and these policies will be reined back and possibly ended or extended.
Do as we say not as we do
While the UK government as a whole is very guarded about the amount of electric vehicles used in the public sector and by local councils, it was recently revealed that less than 5% of government owned vehicles and local council owned vehicles in Scotland were powered by electric. So while the Scottish executive appears to be making much fuss about renewable energy, wind energy and other sources available in Scotland, ultimately there is very little progress being made within government circles regarding electric vehicles.
Surely the best way to attract the attention of UK motorists would be to increase the use of electric or hybrid vehicles by local authorities and government ministers as well as actually making the goods available to the public, which would qualify them for the potential £5000 discount on an eco-friendly vehicle. Telling the UK population what to do, while the politicians do the opposite, has never worked in the past and in an area such as electric and hybrid vehicles it stands even less chance of success.
How efficient are today's electric vehicles?
While there is no doubt that vehicles such as the Tesla Roadster and other top of the range electric cars are highly efficient, there is some debate as to whether some of the current mass-market vehicles are as eco-friendly.
In an intriguing development the Car Magazine website has an off the record comment from the chief engineer from the electric Mini E series which was used by politicians Peter Mandelson and Geoff Hoon to push the government's electric policies. It reveals that if all of the electric power used to propel the electric Mini E came from UK coal powered power stations then the electric vehicle would ultimately create more CO2 emissions than the traditional diesel Mini!
While it would be wrong to suggest that all electric vehicles are in the same situation as the Mini E it is worth remembering that emissions from UK power stations, which ultimately produced electric for these vehicles, must be taken into account. It is very easy to get wrapped up in the concept of driving an electric powered car even if ultimately, as suggested in Car Magazine, the overall emissions created for your journey are higher than diesel or petrol powered vehicles.
The debate on electric cars goes on
Even though there are a number of electric vehicles available around the world, ultimately when compared to the traditional petrol and diesel vehicle market the electric market is still very immature. As a consequence the debate on electric cars has not really entered the mass-market and the current PR battle is between those in favour of electric cars and those against.
As there are very powerful companies and individuals on either side of the argument it can really depend upon which information mediums you read and subscribe to as to the impression you may be given. Thankfully, as the electric car market continues to grow the discussion will move into the mass-market and more research and information should become available.
Like so many governments before, the Labour government has tended to announce various eco-friendly and electric car programs in a blaze of glory only to find that very often the small print is very different to the headline. While there is no doubt that the authorities are funding a number of trial programs across the country, the target of all new cars in the UK being either electric or hybrid by 2020 is effectively a "kick of this political football into the long grass", i.e. off the agenda today and forgotten tomorrow.
To get the real situation with regards to electric vehicles you need to ignore the political hype, which is very often done for effect, and look at the vehicles on the ground and their particular qualities. Whether it will take a Ford or a General Motors to put its full weight behind the sector is open to debate, but currently some of the larger institutions and bigger players in the industry are drowning out the up-and-coming eco-friendly car manufacturers.