‘Charging anxiety’ may prevent the government from meeting its 2030 target for mass adoption of zero-emission cars
Last modified on Wed 26 Jan 2022 13.38 EST
The lack of a widespread electric vehicle charging network in the UK is holding back the mass adoption of zero-emission cars, according to carmakers and industry analysts.
This year is considered crucial for electric vehicles (EVs) going mainstream, but the German manufacturer Volkswagen has warned that a significant increase in the number of available chargers is needed to convince consumers to make the switch from petrol and diesel cars.
The UK government plans to ban sales of new cars with internal combustion engines from 2030, when ministers hope one in every three cars on Britain’s roads will be electric, compared with one in 100 currently.
“The key thing now is to ensure that the charging infrastructure not just increases to meet the current demand, but accelerates to overtake the current demand,” said Alex Smith, the managing director of Volkswagen UK.
“We’ve got to get the charging infrastructure ahead of the game to enable us to progress from the quite specific adoption that we have at the moment into mass adoption. And we’re not there yet.”
Sales of EVs have soared in recent years, and almost doubled between 2020 and 2021, rising from 108,000 to 190,000, according to data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). This meant that Britons bought more electric cars last year than during the previous five years combined.
However, sales have been climbing from relatively low levels, and accounted for just under 12% of sales last year.
“We’re already seeing that divergence between the acceleration rate of EV adoption and the supporting infrastructure that’s in place,” Smith said.
“Pure EV sales increased by 76% last year. The charging infrastructure increased by about a third.”
The UK arm of Volkswagen saw its EV sales double between 2020 and 2021. It has committed to investing €89bn (£74bn) in EVs over the next five years, as it tries to atone for its 2015 Dieselgate scandal. It was found to have rigged the emissions of cars to make them appear cleaner than they were.
Its newest models, the all-electric ID3 and ID4, are manufactured at its plant in the German city of Zwickau – the first factory belonging to a volume carmaker to only build cars powered by lithium-ion batteries.
Smith believes “range anxiety” among consumers – when drivers feared electric vehicles wouldn’t travel far enough on a single charge to get them where they needed to go – has now been replaced by “charging anxiety”.
“When there is a certain density of public charging infrastructure in a particular area, EV sales started to climb almost exponentially in that area,” Smith said.
“Ultimately, filling your car with electrons should be as convenient and as reliable as filling your car with a liquid fuel.”
Problems finding chargers are a common gripe among EV drivers, who complain that even if they do find chargers during their journey, they may be in use or out of order. There is also huge variation in the number of chargers available in different parts of the UK.
The UK is lagging behind its continental neighbours in this regard.
At the start of the year, there were 28,375 public EV charging devices available in the UK, according to figures published by the Department for Transport. Fewer than 20% of these – only 5,156 – were rapid chargers.
That is fewer than half of the 66,665 chargers that had already been installed in the Netherlands by 2021, and a third less than the 44,538 chargers found in Germany at that time, according to figures from the EU’s European Alternative Fuels Observatory.
Car industry analysts believe the UK government needs to take responsibility for developing and funding the vehicle charging network.
“We need fast chargers on main routes, we need destination chargers, we need on-street [schemes] for installing chargers at home. We need a really holistic approach,” said David Bailey, a professor of business economics at the University of Birmingham. “We’ve not had that from the government.”
Bailey is also critical of “premature” cuts to subsidies for electric vehicles made by ministers last year. This has been coupled with a delay in the government’s plans to force shops, factories and offices in England with large car parks to install at least one electric car charger.
“The government isn’t going to do it all, but leadership is about trying to get a variety of different actors to move in the same direction, and harnessing not only central government, but also local government and private sector investment to make this happen. Really they have not done enough,” he said.
Bailey believes a big investment in infrastructure is needed to get the UK where it wants to be by 2030, when compared with a country such as Norway, where more than half of cars sold are electric. “We have simply set a date and have not put in place the infrastructure to get us to that date,” he said.
The Department for Transport’s electric vehicle infrastructure strategy was reportedly due last autumn, but has been delayed. A spokesperson for the department said: “The government is providing more than £1.3bn to support the continued roll-out of chargepoints at homes, businesses and on residential streets across the UK, levelling up our chargepoint provision while supporting the deployment of rapid chargepoints on motorways and major A roads in England.”
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