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The desire to move to an electric transport future is clear — but there are also barriers to achieving this transformation at consumer, business and policy levels.

For many of us considering buying an electric vehicle, the most obvious issue is the cost.

“Designing and producing electric vehicles is complex, and it’s expensive to re-engineer a whole vehicle, change this manufacturing industry and develop a whole new supply chain for batteries whilst creating a new market,” explains independent mobility consultant and founder of EQ+iQ Catherine Hutt. But while initial costs may be high, long-term that might not be the case.

“With new electric technology, running costs of electric vehicles are lower,” she says, pointing towards tax, fuel and maintenance, and incentives such as the government grant for up to £3,000 towards new plug-in cars, congestion charges, and free parking initiatives.

These nudges towards electric vehicles are necessary “because habits are hard to break without compelling motivation,” Hutt notes.

One of those habits that needs breaking might be ownership itself. Traditionally, we tend to assume that individual car ownership is always best. But the sharing economy is growing rapidly, and electric car clubs or rentals might offer a cheaper way for consumers to switch to electric.

Business also has a bit role to play in helping electric vehicles to become commonplace.

Hutt argues that commercial fleets of vehicles, such as company cars, taxis, postal vans and couriers, could be better placed to start this transition and make EV use a more everyday occurrence.

“In most commercial fleets, lower running costs are balanced against the higher outlay cost, which can help increase usage nationally,” Hutt says. “Fleets often have three-year replacement cycles which would feed more EVs into the more affordable second-hand market on a rolling basis.”

A whole new supply chain needs to be established for electric vehicles, and from a circular economy perspective, by 2030 manufacturers will need to find ways of extending the life of batteries, or reusing them in large numbers.

The new electric charging infrastructure has been under scrutiny too. Drivers currently need to download multiple apps to find the nearest charging point, whilst also ensuring their plug is compatible. It’s not as simple as tapping into the very established network of petrol stations across the country.

A better public network of rapid and ultra-rapid charging points is essential to improve connectivity, especially for professional drivers such as taxis and delivery vans. At home, not everyone can access a charger and in urban areas with on-street parking, charging will continue to become more integrated with parking, via charging technology retrofitted to lamp posts.

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, EV sales rose from 1.4 per cent of the total UK market in August 2019 to 4.6 per cent in March 2020.

“The pace of change is accelerating, but we have still got a long way to go,” says Hutt, who believes that the right government support is essential.

“Policy can be a real barrier if it’s not right, and we need bold ambitions. In addition to incentives, we need comprehensive regulation. Government and industry need to work together in order to achieve significant progress by 2030.”

A more sophisticated travel system is crucial to help — multi-modal public transport needs to be better integrated with active travel such as cycling, but some local authorities are resistant to development of cycle lanes, which results in fragmented routes.

Nationally, public transport is disjointed and city transport varies enormously — from London, where it is run relatively cohesively by Transport for London, to Greater Manchester, where Mayor Andy Burnham has 38 different bus companies to unify and upgrade.

Electrification is more feasible for lighter vehicles travelling shorter distances — electrifying long-distance travel is harder, so both aviation and freight pose huge challenges.

“Aviation will need to move towards renewable combustion liquid fuels, but we don’t yet know what the right solution is for freight,” explains Andy Eastlake, managing director of Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, which collaborates with 200 organisations. “Trucks and lorries might connect to overhead wires on motorways, but that won’t happen by 2030.”

“While technology is key, behaviour change will be fundamental to take us on the rest of the journey towards net zero in the transport sector,” says Eastlake. “London’s ultra-low emission zone [Ulez] encourages the latest low-emitting technology to be on the roads, and if we electrify buses, taxis and vehicles doing high mileage first, we’ll see a greater impact.”

While it has been suspended during the pandemic, the Ulez boundary is due to be extended as far as the North and South Circular Roads in October next year. Strict emission standards will also apply to buses, coaches and lorries across the whole of the city from October this year. Together, these plans aim to help reduce emissions across London, and by 2021, more than 100,000 residents should no longer be living in areas exceeding legal air quality limits.

More clean air zones should be encouraged, Eastlake argues. Birmingham is due to implement a scheme similar to Ulez, and Bristol, York and Brighton city centres are set to ban all private cars in the next couple of years so citizens will have to rely more heavily on public transport systems. Eastlake adds: “It’s about electrifying more miles, not just about how many EVs drive on the road. We need to join up transport with energy and take a holistic view on the whole system.”

Trains will be an important part of that picture, according to Leo Murray, environmental campaigner and director of innovation for Riding Sunbeams, a company that connects solar panels to electrified rail routes. He explains that the cost of electrification is the biggest barrier on UK railways, something that is compounded by the fragmented nature of ownership across the rail network.

“Currently the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce is assessing the network, and for any routes with high frequency of services electrification is the answer, but it’s harder to make a business case for electrification of rural branch lines with more infrequent services, and it’s more difficult to electrify freight routes too.”

Costs also surge if a railway passes under a motorway or goes through a tunnel, because that must be rebuilt to accommodate overhead lines.

Murray argues that to make electrification cost-efficient, there needs to be a rolling programme. “In Germany, a small team has been electrifying a few hundred kilometres of track every year for a decade.”

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