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Are we there yet? The challenges on the Road to Zero

Gavin Bailey, Sustainable Future Transport lead at Eunomia, discusses alternative transport solutions and the current state of play in the UK’s transport infrastructure

The Department for Transport’s Road to Zero policy, released last year, outlined the UK’s ambitions to be at the forefront of the design and manufacture of zero emission vehicles, with the aim for all new cars and vans to be effectively zero emission by 2040. A year on from these commitments, the market share for new battery electric vehicle (BEV) registrations has almost doubled from 0.6% (2018) to 1.1% (2019). This seemingly small increase is a notable success in the context of the relatively flat growth in the BEV market share over previous years - that said, it also highlights the amount of action that needs to be taken in order to meet the 2040 target.

The largest share of alternative-fuelled new vehicle registrations is for hybrid electric vehicles, at 6.8%. This would suggest that battery vehicles, despite the recent surge in interest in zero emission options, aren’t quite meeting the needs of those looking to switch over to cleaner vehicles. 

Earlier this year, a report published by Deloitte indicated that the adoption of BEVs continues to be hampered by concerns related to driving range, price and charging infrastructure. These concerns provide valuable insight into why consumers continue to favour the more established plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEV). PHEVs and HEVs offer greater range and less dependency on public charging networks thanks to their back-up energy sources from fossil fuelled electricity generators and internal combustion engine drivetrains. The greater security and longer distances that these vehicles are able to cover make it likely that consumers will continue to select PHEVs and HEVs until more acceptable battery-only ranges are on offer.

This is not a new issue: vehicle range has long been a problem when it comes to BEVs. Some manufacturers claim to have achieved ranges of 200 miles and above on a single charge. However, under real-world driving scenarios BEVs have been found to achieve ~80-90% of their stated range. Such discrepancies increase driver range anxiety; until next-generation batteries, which promise ranges of 300 miles and above, are available, the only way to allay these fears is to address range issues with an extensive network of rapid chargers. 

The UK charging network currently comprises more than 25,000 charging points nationwide. However, grid capacity still poses an issue, often requiring upgrades to the local energy grid infrastructure to support connections and meet energy demand. While smart charging systems can provide a means to manage the electricity demand for charging vehicles against the grid supply, and alleviate the pressures of a widescale electric switchover, large energy distribution improvements are still required.

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It is becoming apparent that, in order to move the UK towards a zero-emission vehicle future, we need to think beyond the concept of the car. Switching all vehicles on UK roads over to battery power would address tailpipe emissions – but it wouldn’t solve the issue of fine particulate matter (PM2.5, solid particles 1/40th the diameter of a human hair) which originate from brake, tyre and road wear. Such sources have been found to generate more than half of the total PM2.5 from transport.

Based on our current understanding of vehicle emissions, the capabilities of BEV, and the energy generation and distribution network, it is becoming apparent that BEVs are not a panacea for our transport woes. A more holistic approach to this problem requires the overall reduction in the number of vehicles on the road and decarbonisation of the remaining fleet. This will have a direct and immediate impact on vehicle emissions, and decrease the potential peak electricity demand. Moreover, a reduction in traffic volumes on the road network will reduce congestion, resulting in less of a requirement for road building – which will in turn protect natural capital and avoid the embedded carbon emissions associated with road construction.

Reducing motorised travel demand has never been an easy task. There are a multitude of barriers to consumers choosing to make the switch to more sustainable travel which, combined with pushback from the automotive industry, can make it difficult to progress the transition to cleaner transport. The advent of new technology will undoubtedly make this transition smoother – new solutions like mobility-as-a-service, which enables connected end-to-end journeys through a single ticketing solution, and micro- and e-mobility solutions (such as e-bikes and e-scooters) are just some of the emerging technologies on offer. 

What we need to move towards an operationally – and environmentally – sustainable transport system is support for a solution which isn’t highly dependent upon a single mode of transportation. On the individual level this can be achieved through transport users challenging their own choices, and trying something else on offer. At an organisational and governmental level, it requires decision makers to move towards long-term intelligent and adaptive design.

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