The UK government has now joined with France in banning the sale of new diesel and petrol cars from 2040. At least, that’s the headline, but in practice it’s likely that hybrids with modest battery range will become the new norm, with all-electric cars still waiting on a quantum leap in battery technology, massive investment in charging infrastructure and, last but not least, a large expansion in electricity generation.
The present generation of plug-in hybrids, with maybe a 30 mile range on battery and a small petrol or diesel engine for longer journeys, would certainly help to improve urban air quality, while still be practical all-round cars. Without such a government edict, however, their higher price would mean that the internal combustion engine would still be the choice of many. Over the next couple of decades, we can expect hybrids to become more capable and the price gap to reduce. Don’t expect much of a running cost advantage, though: governments aren’t going to lose billions in fuel tax without recouping the income in some other way.
There are, however, two elephants in the room. The first is that this move will require a big investment in electricity generation, and the power has to be there when drivers want it. Not everyone will be able to charge their cars overnight, particularly in cities where many people live in flats or terraced houses. But the alternative to thousands of accessible daytime charging points is simply to run the petrol or diesel engine to power the car and recharge the battery, significantly reducing the supposed impact on air pollution.
The other elephant, and one we hear less about, is the fact that car exhausts only contribute a fraction of the pollutants in urban air. Cars would have to be taken off the road entirely to avoid the particulates shed by brakes and tyres, for example. And, more importantly, the ubiquitous gas boilers put out significant quantities of NOx. If you think that the introduction of electric cars would cause a problem, that’s nothing compared to the infrastructure challenge created by a move to electric heating.