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In an exclusive interview with Autocar, transport decarbonisation minister Rachel Maclean discusses limiting new ICE car sales, being ‘technology- neutral’ and improving BEV charging
Despite the outlawing of new petrol and diesel car and van sales in the UK being eight-and-a-half years away, 2030 is writ large within the automotive industry.
It’s also at the forefront of the minds of those who work at the Department for Transport – not least Rachel Maclean, the Conservative MP for Redditch who is the minister responsible for transport decarbonisation.
It seems as though the tide is turning and British drivers are slowly backing out of petrol and diesel vehicles in favour of zero-emissions ones. Statistics published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show that electric cars took 10.7% of all new registrations in June. But there’s still a long way to go.
Although the focus so far has been on battery electric vehicles (BEVs), Maclean said the government is open to other technologies, such as hydrogen, playing their parts in decarbonising our vehicle parc.
“The approach we take is that we don’t prescribe one technology over another,” Maclean told Autocar in an exclusive interview. “We’re completely technology- neutral. But it’s a fact that some technologies have been accelerated beyond others. While we’re technology- neutral, we’re not outcome- neutral: the outcome has to be decarbonising the economy and hitting net-zero.
“The truth about hydrogen is that it’s very expensive to produce. The government has supported hydrogen, and it does have a role to play. We’re going to be releasing a hydrogen strategy very soon. Our ambition is to aim for 5GW of [annual] hydrogen production [in the UK]. We see it being used in the end to decarbonise areas such as HGVs, aeroplanes and ships.”
Synthetic fuels – recently touted by Porsche and other sports car manufacturers as a potential future solution – also “have a role to play” in driving down emissions, said Maclean, although she added that they will probably be used more in the aviation and maritime industries, “because those sectors are hard to decarbonise”.
One area that will be affected as the automotive industry evolves into an electrically powered one is classic cars. In May, the Historic and Classic Vehicles Alliance hit out at the government for unfairly penalising classic cars as part of its drive to decarbonise, despite the average classic car driving just 1200 miles per year. However, Maclean made a commitment to not unduly impact the sector.
“Obviously, the classic car community is a really important group and a really important part of the whole picture, and I’m sure many of your readers will fall into that category,” she told Autocar. “It’s important to be clear that while we’re phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles, at this stage we don’t have any plans to actually ask people to remove existing or classic cars or older cars from the road.
“The existing policy is that obviously we won’t be allowing any new [petrol or diesel] vehicles to be sold [beyond 2030], but those existing vehicles can continue. It’s quite important, so hopefully I can say this and reassure people.
Even when we think about things like E10 petrol, we want to be very clear that we do consider the needs of classic cars and their drivers, because it’s a big part of their lives.”
While the 2030 phase-out date is a clear marker for the industry, there’s little to stop manufacturers (at least in theory) flooding the market with ICE vehicles as a final hurrah. This is a possibility that Maclean is concerned about. “We do need to look at the constraints we can put on the industry in terms of what car manufactures can and can’t sell, and we need to have a solution to stop them from doing that in some way, shape or form,” she said.
One idea could be a system whereby manufacturers are obliged to ensure that a certain percentage of their sales each year are electric – effectively limiting the number of petrol and diesel cars that can be sold. However, Maclean said that “we’re not there yet on the specifics and the numbers, as we need to allow the industry to respond.” She continued: “Any regulation we make is going to have an impact on manufacturers, because they will seek to maximise their returns.
And now that the UK has left the EU, we need to make our own regulations around CO2 emissions. What we need to do – and we will do this shortly – is to publish our green paper talking about what the regulatory regime will look like, and there we will talk about how we tackle this problem.”
Given the focus on CO2, some argue that the changes the government made to its Plug-in Car Grant in March, cutting it from £3000 to £2500 and lowering the price cap for eligible EVs from £50,000 to £35,000, were backward steps.
Defending the move, Maclean said “it’s right” for the government to look at “where it’s making the most impact”, and that the EV grant is now targeted toward “lower-priced vehicles” because “that’s where people are less likely to be able to fund the cost out of their own pocket entirely.”
Maclean also hinted the EV grant could disappear entirely over time: “I think it’s right to keep on looking at that [the future of the scheme], because ultimately we need to make sure we’re not using government money to help people buy cars who could have afforded them anyway.
“One of our concerns is to make this an equitable transition for everyone, and of course at the moment electric cars are a bit more expensive – although if you factor in the overall cost of ownership, they will be on a parity soon.”
Vision for charging infrastructure
Rachel Maclean daily-drives a Jaguar I-Pace and has used the EV to take her family on holiday to Wales, so she “has experienced the charging infrastructure first-hand”.
“I’m aware that more needs to be done,” she said. “The conversations have pivoted from the upfront cost of an EV to ‘well, if I buy an EV, I can’t charge it’ or ‘the chargers are broken and I need lots of apps’. “At the moment, there are too many charging points that aren’t working when I turn up. We need to fix that. We need to see a big change there.”
However, Maclean did acknowledge that “a lot of this is happening without government intervention, because there’s a revenue stream for the charging operators, as they know they will get the user base”. She cited Gridserve’s recent buyout of Ecotricity as a step in the right direction.
“We’re going to be laying new legislation about the requirements we’re going to put on [charger] operators later this year,” she said. “We’re going to require them to have contactless payment, share data, be transparent about costs and sign up to a reliability standard.
“It can’t just be for people who can afford a Tesla and have their own driveway: it has to be feasible for everyone, whether they have a terraced house or live in a block of flats, or whether they have to drive to work to charge. Our vision is to make it as easy as filling up with petrol.
“I think it will take a while. People often look at it and say ‘well, it isn’t there now’. It’s not, but it’s a new market, and any new market with infrastructure like this is going to take a bit of time to roll out for it to become a reality.”