The government’s delayed electric and ultra-low-emissions vehicles (EVs) strategy, Road to Zero, was published this week and has turned out to be more Volkswagen E-Up than Tesla Model-X: perfectly decent, will do the job, but not particularly exciting.

No sense of urgency

The strategy lacks ambition, sticking to a 2040 target to remove petrol and diesel cars from sale, despite many voices calling for a 2030 deadline. It’s hard not to feel the government could have been bolder. Nine other countries, from Slovenia to China, have earlier targets, so it is hard to square 2040 with the government’s claim to be taking a global leadership position. This is particularly so given that Whitehall has seen how technological progress on the clean energy side of the EV equation has moved much, much faster than government and other commentators predicted. As such, it seems unlikely that technical progress and cost reductions for EVs will suddenly slow down.

Just a day after Road to Zero was published, the National Infrastructure Commission’s first National Infrastructure Assessment punctured any sense that a 2040 target is admirable. The Commission was significantly more bullish on EV uptake than the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Department for Transport. While holding back from explicitly recommending a 2030 target, it noted that cost-parity between EVs and conventional vehicles should arrive in the 2020s, and recommended that government, Ofgem and local councils work to ensure charging infrastructure is in place to allow for close-to-100 per cent EV sales by 2030.

Yet sensible policies look set to deliver progress

The lack of ambition reflects the fundamentally conservative nature of Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. This has resulted in the strategy being a missed opportunity to send a clear signal to the market, not just about the direction of travel, but about the speed of the journey.

However, Road to Zero does set out some important steps forward, such as:

  • Requiring charging infrastructure in all new homes (subject to consultation.)
  • Launching a delayed £400m fund for charging infrastructure.
  • A commitment to future-proof all new street lighting columns with charging points.
  • Reviewing provision of residential charge-point infrastructure for those with communal parking, or who are non-owners; tweaking permitted development rights to remove technical barriers to off-street residential charging.
  • Examining building regulations to require charging for new non-residential buildings.
  • Investing in research and development for innovative wireless charging systems.
  • A promise that grants for plug-in vehicles will last until at least 2020, with a promise of some form of consumer incentive beyond then.
  • Reiterating the commitments in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, to smart charging, interoperability and provision of motorway service area charging.

Major questions around charging infrastructure remain, most notably how to tackle the challenge of charging infrastructure provision for all those existing households without off-street parking. But the focus on lower hanging fruit seems sensible. Thornier problems should be solved by the market, or with appropriate government intervention over time.

Expectations

Our expectation is that, in time, the 2040 target will become redundant as it becomes clear that the market will deliver more quickly. If by 2025, as industry commentators have noted, it is not just cheaper to buy an EV but far cheaper to run it. It is likely to result in the conventional vehicles market dying fairly quickly in the late 2020s. Moreover, removing conventional vehicles from sale earlier than 2040 will likely be needed to meet carbon targets.

This week’s strategy may be lamented as a little unambitious, but it should nonetheless be seen as a good starting point for industry engagement with government, with work from the sector remaining. While commitments to incentives and improved charging infrastructure are welcome, industry needs to work hard to ensure that government delivers both in a way which continues to drive consumer demand, and broaden EV ownership from current early adopters through to the mass-market.