Charging Up? Sparking interest in Electric Cars needs more than infrastructure
Last year there were just 4,100 electric vehicles (EVs) registered in the UK, while over the last three years, local authorities have spent over £7m on charging points. That equates to a subsidy of nearly £1750 per EV according to recent research by the BBC.
BBC Radio 4's You and Yours programme (click here) recently undertook Freedom of Information requests on electric charging points with local authorities in the UK. It came up with some interesting findings.
Of the 139 authorities which said they had charging points, over one in six (25) had at least one that hadn't been used at all in the last year. And less than a third of local authorities (41) had one or more charging point that was used more than once a week. In other words, many charging points aren't being used much if at all.
This should come as no surprise. At the moment there are more charging points than there are EVs. That infrastructure may be needed so as to allay 'range anxiety' amongst potential users, but given that many users of EVs may anyway charge up at home and at work, in reality the wider charging infrastructure may not be heavily used - unless is focuses on fast chargers to quickly give cars a boost.
While policy so far has supported new EV technology and the charging infrastructure, it hasn't done enough to stimulate demand, as work by colleagues at Coventry University's Applied Research Centre for Sustainable Regeneration has shown.
Of course, infrastructure is important, but it should part seen as just part of the solution, and not the only solution. The real reason that people aren't buying electric cars in big numbers isn't just about the availability of charging stations. Rather a range of factors put people off, of which the upfront purchase price is the big issue.
The price of EVs averages well over £20,000 (even after the Plug-in Car Grant subsidy of £5,000), and are at often twice the price of their petrol/diesel equivalents. So the market for EVs amongst private consumers so far has been restricted to the green and the wealthy.
Other factors hindering the take-up of electric vehicles include: a lack of confidence in electric vehicle technology and performance; uncertainty over the lifespan of batteries which currently account for 50% of the upfront purchase cost; a lack of awareness of the incentives available that make electric vehicles comparatively cheap to run; and a relative lack of model choice, linked to a perception that electric vehicles just aren't very 'cool'.
That's starting to change with introduction of stylish - yet still pricey - models like the BMW i3 unveiled earlier this week.
Critically though, the Government missed a trick to stimulate demand with the Plug-in Car Grant. It was launched at a time when the choice of EVs on the market was limited, when there was little intelligence on what EVs could and couldn't do, and when the climate of austerity helped to place EVs out of reach for most of the population. And the Grant has gone largely unnoticed due to poor advertising and promotion.
Overall, the policy of targeting the private consumer first was anyway perhaps doomed to fail from the start and never likely to achieve the required impact relative to the cost of subsidies and incentives. It mis-fired, so to speak.
Instead government policy - in the short-term at least when upfront purchase costs remain prohibitive - should look beyond private mass market purchases.
Firstly, it could use subsidies to encourage the deployment of EVs in clubs/schemes that operate on a car share, pay-as-you-drive hire basis. Secondly, and perhaps offering the biggest bang for the buck, is the idea of using subsidies to promote the replacement of public and private sector fleets with EVs. Some local initiatives are worth highlighting here, such as the introduction of electric buses on park-and-ride routes here in Coventry.
And education is key. Intelligence on EVs in terms of their performance, practicality and suitability needs to be disseminated if consumers are to really make informed choices.
Professor David Bailey works at Coventry University Business School