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Vehicle ownership in Britain has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. By the start of the 1970s, half of all households owned one or more cars, but by 1981, 15 per cent owned two or more cars — and by 2016, a third of all households had at least two cars at home.

Now the way we think about cars and how we use them is changing again as we become more concerned about the environmental impact of our transport choices. That is only likely to increase over the next decade as we consider both what vehicles we drive and how we own them.

In February, the Government announced that a ban on selling new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars in the UK — originally to take effect in 2040 — will be brought forward to 2035 at the latest. According to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, sales of electric vehicles are at record levels, and a further 23 new models were planned to hit showrooms in 2020.

But while adoption of electric vehicles is growing, the coronavirus pandemic could set back progress. Recent analysis from global energy research company Wood Mackenzie suggests that uncertainty and global recession could see the EV market worldwide stall, with automakers delaying launches of new models and suspending manufacturing to make medical equipment instead.

That economic uncertainty makes forecasting the future of car ownership tricky. But in a decade’s time, it seems likely that we will be using more EVs and eBikes and fewer petrol and diesel cars, says Peter Wells, professor of business and sustainability at the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School.

Professor Wells suggests we will see more shared car fleets, and an increase in home shopping, electric delivery vans and remote working. He says the current shift to virtual meetings is likely to become more permanent — at least for some people, some of the time. More of us will choose to stay at home, walk or cycle children to school, and shop within their local area.

It seems unlikely that we’ll move entirely to electric vehicles over the next decade, notes Dr Dimitrios Xenias, of the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. There will definitely be more EVs on the road, but a complete switchover will take time.

“It’s certainly not possible in the near mid-term — say, in the next five years — and almost certainly not possible for 2030,” he says.

“To do so, the UK would have to replace its fleet of 33 million cars [currently registered in the UK] within nine years — around 3.7 million cars replaced every year. I don’t see the capacity for EV production at this scale, or the customer purchasing power to allow this to happen. But, of course, we will definitely have more EVs on the roads in 2030 than we have now.”

Caterina Brandmayr, senior policy analyst at environment think-tank Green Alliance, believes owning an EV will become easier, so long as customers are supported with grants to make them more affordable; manufacturers are given targets so they can invest and switch to “clean tech” production lines; and there is adequate investment in infrastructure.

“Upfront costs should be more competitive, with plans to provide ‘fast chargers’ within a 30-mile radius of wherever you are,” she says.

Problems with battery life are also likely to be resolved. The driving range of an electric car is 200 to 250 miles — although some models, such as the Tesla Model S Long Range, can reach up to 373 miles between recharging.

“There are new types of battery being developed and tested globally as we speak,” Dr Xenias says.

“I believe that by 2030, there will be better batteries around. In terms of range, it also keeps improving, so I would be surprised if EV range has not matched the desired 300-350 miles of real-life range of today’s conventional cars.”

In recent years, concerns over London’s air quality have been growing. Lockdown has shown the difference that a reduction in traffic can make to our air, and might be something that motivates consumers to change their petrol cars for EVs in the next 10 years.

“Electric mobility is better, but it is not perfect,” notes Professor Wells, adding that the important change is in reducing the demand for mobility in general. That would result in choosing transport that really suits our needs, rather than necessarily defaulting to using the family car, regardless of how many people are travelling in it.

“Electrification allows a much wider range of personal transport options, from cute electric unicycles through to Twizy [a two-seat electric car designed and marketed by Renault], or complete cars. But using a vehicle of 2,200kg — such as the Tesla S — to transport one person, electrically or not, is a shocking waste of resources,” says Professor Wells.

Changing approaches to transport over the next decade might also involve thinking about the notion of ownership, and whether buying a car for your own exclusive use is really necessary. More of us may consider sharing resources, Ms Brandmayr says. “Should we all have an EV, or could we see ourselves car-sharing in a car club and so taking the burden away from the idea of each of us owning our own car?”

She supports a complete petrol and diesel ban by 2030 — five years sooner than the Government has agreed — but says that both manufacturers and consumers need to be adequately supported, with financial incentives for people to switch to electric, and funding for infrastructure.

“It’s critical to make sure that everyone can use EVs. That might mean introducing more means-tested grants to provide EVs to lower-income groups, who traditionally buy more petrol vehicles because they’re cheaper,” she says.

Using a vehicle only when you need it rather than owning it can also help with costs, says Dr Xenias. “EVs would be more accessible via hiring or leasing or through car pools, given how expensive they are,” he says.

Large-scale adoption of EVs by fleet owners such as car hire or leasing agencies, who currently buy 60 per cent of brand new conventional cars in the UK, might also help to boost rentals and second sales, and provide more accessible entry points for would-be EV owners, notes Dr Xenias.

“If large fleet owners such as car hire or leasing agencies were to bulk-buy EVs, this will encourage secondary markets and therefore private ownership. But other factors that will influence ownership models are regulation, taxation, and government-related levers.”

Once we’re through the immediate impact of the pandemic, the future looks certain to be increasingly emission-free, with people turning away from petrol cars and investing in EVs. The next decade is likely to see a period of rapid change, and it looks likely, according to the experts, that autonomous vehicle technologies will be increasingly incorporated in EVs.

But whether the EVs of 2030 will be fully autonomous — and whether we’ll see driverless cars on the road as routine — will depend on how well technology and the regulatory framework co-evolve until then.


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