How will we achieve an electrified car market by 2040?

Can the government's plan to ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 really work?

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The UK government has announced that it will from 2040. Inevitably, the mainstream media launched itself into a frenzy even before the details were announced, and the usual confusion and Twitter ranting have ensued.

At 22 years into the future, this ban may seem like a long way away, but it will take a lot of work to actually make it happen. Not just for the car industry, but for the required infrastructure to charge millions of electric cars.

To achieve a 100% switch of new cars and vans from petrol or diesel engines to “electrified” motors (which includes hybrids) will be a major challenge, but certainly achievable. Today, fully-electric cars only make up about 1% of all new car sales in the UK, with hybrids making up another 3%. The remaining 96% run on either petrol or diesel.

To hit the 2040 target, electric vehicle sales will have to start replacing fossil-fuel vehicles at a rate of more than 150,000 cars per year. Given that these numbers will include hybrids, this is not unreasonable over a 20-year period.

Most car manufacturers have already been working on developing electrified powertrains for all their cars for several years now. This week’s announcement simply gives them a target date for implementation. Despite any public protestations, they will welcome a formal deadline.

In fact, the UK is far from a world leader in this regard. France recently announced a similar 2040 target date, Germany and India are ten years ahead of that with a target of 2030, and Norway and the Netherlands plan to stop selling petrol and diesel cars in 2025, just over seven years away. The real powerhouse behind the electric car revolution is China. Despite not setting a date for banning petrol and diesel cars, China is leading the push towards electric cars because it has so many massive cities with major pollution problems.


China is battling huge pollution and air quality problems in its cities
China is battling huge pollution and air quality problems in its cities

Electrified does not mean purely electric

The inclusion of hybrid vehicles along with purely-electric cars is critical for this plan to work. It also means that pollution levels will not fall as rapidly as with purely electric vehicles.

Realistically, most hybrid cars spend the first few minutes of a journey as an electric car and the remainder as a petrol car lugging a large dead battery and useless electric motor around. This will still be allowed under the 2040 proposal.

Plug-in hybrids spend more time operating electrically (therefore more time dragging a large petrol engine, emissions system and fuel tank around) before switching to petrol mode, while range extender vehicles use a petrol engine as a generator to power an electric motor whose battery has gone flat.

So it’s clear that petrol power will still have a role in new cars after 2040, albeit a smaller one than today. Diesel is a different story, however. For several reasons, diesel engines are generally not as good in hybrid scenarios, which is why there are very few diesel hybrid cars for sale compared to petrol hybrids.

Today’s announcement is only going to accelerate the decline of diesel-powered passenger cars in the UK. That will be of concern to the car industry, but it’s probably only bringing forward the inevitable.

A selection of electric and plug-in hybrid cars now on sale in the UK
A selection of electric and plug-in hybrid cars now on sale in the UK

How to get consumers to buy electric cars – carrots and sticks

Currently, new electric, plug-in hybrid and range extender cars benefit from a government grant of up to £4,500 to make them more affordable. There are also various support mechanisms for electric car owners to install upgraded charging units at home or work. These incentives will need to be maintained or increased to help get sales up to the levels required.

Other enticements, such as EV-only parking spaces or motorway lanes, will probably be needed as well. Of course, these will benefit buyers of used EVs as well as new cars.

The inevitable flipside of this sort of ambition will be a steady increase in penalties for petrol and diesel vehicles over the next two decades.

There are numerous methods available to do this, but the most likely short-term candidates will be increasing road tax (vehicle excise duty, or VED) charges for new petrol or diesel cars. Fuel duties will also start to increase, although this obviously hits used car buyers as much as new car buyers and is always unpopular with voters.

After that, congestion or pollution charges to enter cities will appear. London will be the first UK city to introduce this in 2019, and others like Manchester and Birmingham will follow eventually.

Then there will be increased charges for parking permits, tunnel and bridge tolls, taxes for disposing of waste oils, and so on. The only limits will be the imaginations of the bureaucrats. Again, these will hit owners of existing cars as well as used car buyers, not just new car buyers.

However, there is another tax problem that will inevitably arise. Motorists have been a favoured cash cow for governments for many decades, usually from tax added onto the price of fuel. But with far less petrol and diesel being sold, far less tax will be raised. Expect creative new ways to tax electric vehicles once there are enough of them on the roads to bring in significant tax revenue.

As the marketplace shifts towards electrified vehicles, the resale value of petrol and diesel cars will start to sink. This is likely to accelerate over the next decade as we hit a tipping point. With plummeting used values and increased costs of ownership, fossil-fuel car sales will spiral downwards during the 2030s.

This will most likely lead to the scrapping of perfectly-serviceable used cars that simply have no market value, as happened during the last scrappage scheme in 2019 but on a much larger level. The government has rejected calls for an immediate scrappage scheme of older diesel cars, but it seems inevitable that something along those lines will happen eventually.

In the next few years, the price of petrol and diesel at your local service station may actually decrease despite increased taxation. The oil-producing cartels in the Middle East will be concerned that they now have a finite time to sell all of the oil sitting under their deserts – if we’re all driving electric cars, we won’t need their oil. This is likely to lead to heavy discounting as the different producers and countries desperately try to flog all of their oil before demand disappears.

How will we charge all these electric cars?

The biggest obstacle to hitting the government’s 2040 target is not likely to be getting the cars on the road. It’s going to be keeping them charged.

A petrol or diesel car needs about two minutes to refuel with enough energy to drive about 300 miles. Charge an electric car for two minutes and you won’t get enough energy to get to the end of your street. The average electric car needs 5-6 hours of charge to get about 100 miles. That will improve as technology develops, but it’s still the biggest problem in the widespread uptake of electric cars.

There will need to be considerable investment in more charging points for all of these new electric cars. Both private and government money will have to flow into providing more charging points in public spaces, as well as on residential streets, in office car parks and so on. The UK is going to need hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of charging points to service tens of millions of electric cars.

Within a decade, you can expect to see numerous charging points on every street in major cities – there will need to be if we are all going to be able to charge our cars. You can already imagine the complaints from people about the visual clutter of charging points strewn up and down every street in the country…

There is considerable concern at the national electricity network’s ability to cope with millions of extra cars being plugged into the grid at the same time. Most of that will be addressed by smart charging at off-peak times, but there will be a need for other solutions like home battery units to store electricity. These are just starting to hit the market now, but will become much bigger news over the coming decade.

So in summary, the 2040 target is achievable from the car industry’s side, regardless of how much certain dinosaurs will moan about it. Every car manufacturer was already working on pretty much this exact scenario even before the government’s announcement. But it is still going to take an enormous amount of effort from all sides to make it happen.

Millions of charging points will be needed to make all of the UK car's electric

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Stuart Masson
Stuart Masson
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Executivecondominium, and . Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.

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