Any colour you like as long as it is green

It is January 1922; you are considering making a journey North on what is still the Great North Road. You have prepared your car ready for the journey, you have put as much fuel in the car as its tank will contain. There is, however, a problem: the capacity of the tank is not sufficient to reach your destination. Purchasing more on the journey is an option, but not necessarily a straightforward one. The problem is that there are few petrol stations. The first one was not opened until November 1919 at Aldermaston in Berkshire by the ‘Automobile Association’. Even then, it was intended for AA members use only, with the association making no profit on the sale. In the absence of a petrol station, you had to buy petrol in a two-gallon can from ironmongers, blacksmiths, chemists, or whoever else may be the local stockist. The journey would need a bit of planning. Move forward to 2022 and once again we could be facing similar issues.

The move from the internal combustion engine to electric-powered cars is a radical change to motoring, especially with the shift from hybrid to purely electric vehicles: one that could see the situation described above almost repeating itself. Hybrid vehicles have virtually been a compromise, an electric motor with a combustion engine back up. Sales have been modest, their use as electric vehicles has mainly been for local purposes only, with longer journeys reliant on the same familiar combustion engine that has existed for nearly a century and a half. However, for purely electric vehicles, the situation is vastly different. It is inevitable that the change of motor power will transform car ownership, the architecture of our streets, and quite possibly the way use them.

Again, it is worth considering the position back in 1922. In the aftermath of the First World War, car ownership was increasing, but only within a small base. In 1920, (the year the registration authorities began keeping a record for each vehicle) the number of car licenses in Great Britain stood at 187,000. Currently, the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road is estimated to be 370,000, but according to DVLA records, the total number of licensed cars in the third quarter of 2021 exceeded 33,000,000. The Government plans to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030, and by 2035 all new vehicles must be ‘zero emissions at the tailpipe’ according to the ‘2035 delivery plan’. At what point the internal combustion engine becomes no longer used is not appear noted, but it could be assumed the plan would be before the 2050 net-zero target. This would suggest that unless the overall market for cars diminishes, at least a million cars per year currently running on petrol or diesel will need to be replaced by EVs.

Equally, the infrastructure for cars in 1922 was vastly different to the position today. As previously noted, the provision of petrol stations was uncertain, not dissimilar to public charging points for EVs today. The state of Britain’s roads in 1922 left much to be desired, even major roads such as the Great North Road (designated the A1 in 1923) had changed little since the days of the Turnpike Trusts a century before. The last century has transformed the road network, and minimal change and investment will be required for the transition to EVs. It is the roadside ‘furniture’ that may undergo the most significant changes. Back in 1922, roadside facilities available for motorists were mainly remnants from the coaching age, but with increasing car ownership and the spread of petrol stations, cafes, and tea rooms began to open. The roadside facilities available today are possibly sufficient but will need to adapt to support the requirement for EV charging points. The question is whether in the short term the physical capacity of existing petrol stations is sufficient to support the number of charging points required in addition to their existing pumps. It takes a few minutes to re-fill a car with petrol or diesel. According to an Office of National Statistics document from October 2021, a ‘rapid charge point’ (with speeds of 25Kw to 350 Kw) can charge an electric car to 80% in as little as 20 minutes. However, many chargers are not rapid, and at these, the time to charge a vehicle can run to hours, although an inevitable improvement in technology might speed this up. According to Government figures as of April 2021, ‘there were 22,790 public electric vehicle charging devices in the UK, of which 4,259 are rapid chargers”. Government plans for this include a “Rapid Charging Fund [that] is our flagship £950 million infrastructure delivery programme dedicated to supporting the rollout of a massively expanded rapid charging network at motorway service areas across motorways and A-roads in England”. The numbers quoted: “by 2030 we expect to have 2,500 rapid charge points across the strategic road network, and we expect 6,000 by 2035” do not seem ambitious given the timescale announced for replacing combustion engine vehicles with EVs. A far greater number of charge points in other locations will be required to take up the slack and if the charging time at these remains 20 minutes at best, facilities for the waiting motorist will need to expand to occupy their time. These may not turn out to be the ‘eye-sore’ of the 1920’s tea house, but the appearance of supermarkets, public car parks and any other site where cars are left for any length of time is likely to change. According to the think tank ‘New Automotive’, between 40 and 50 a day new charge points need to be installed over the next decade to meet demand. At, say, 45 per day that would be 164,250 over the next ten years.

It is possible that the home charging of vehicles will sufficiently reduce the overall public charge point capacity required to make this number viable. For many people, their home will be their most frequent 'charge point’. This does, however, require somewhere suitable to park your car to complete an overnight charge that can take some hours to do. This is fine for those with drives adjacent to their homes but problematic for those who do not. On-street parking is the norm for many car owners, especially those in terraced homes or flats. The government acknowledges this is a potential problem and has launched the “On-street Residential Chargepoint Scheme….[to] provide local authorities access to up to 75% of funding to install EV infrastructure on-street and in public car parks”. £20 million has been confirmed for this in 2021/22 and there is a commitment to support it until 2024/25. What the practicalities of this will involve for potential EV owners and the visual impact on where they live is open for debate.

This does highlight the demographic issues surrounding EV ownership. The cost of the vehicles remains high compared to their petrol or diesel equivalents, although according to a House of Commons Library Report, it is projected that price parity will be achieved by the mid-2020s. At present, it is clear that owners of EVs tend to be those with higher gross disposable income, who can afford new cars at premium prices. The suspicion associated with this is that many will have off-road parking at home to be able to install the charge points required. The Office of National Statistics notes that “Only one of the 20 local authority areas with the highest proportion of plug-in vehicles had an annual gross disposable income per head below the UK median of £20,237”. It is a situation that would have been all too familiar to the aspiring motorist in 1922. Ownership of a car then put you very much in the minority, a situation that for many families was to continue until the nineteen- sixties. Given the current cost of the batteries, the availability of an equivalent ‘economy’ EV in the near future appears a little unlikely. With conventional cars, the recycling of second-hand models provides mobility for the less affluent. Here, again, it is the batteries that may become the stumbling block. The RAC reports that batteries degrade over time, reducing their charge capacity and endurance levels, their suggested lifespan being 8 years or 100,000 miles. Experience over the next few years will help clarify the position, which given a cost of £5,000 plus to replace a dead battery may materially affect the second-hand market for these vehicles. Tim Schwanen, director of the ‘Transport Studies Unit’ at Oxford University was quoted in ‘the Guardian’ in October 2021: “EVs are disproportionately used by middle-class households. It’s a point that the government is silent about”. The risk is that if this situation is perpetuated, people in lower-income groups may eventually become excluded from the car market. There may be an argument for reducing the level of personal mobility overall, but to do so based on financial affordability seems a retrograde step.

This brings matters to the final point in a vehicle’s lifecycle. Scrappage: this was hardly an issue in 1922. The numbers were small and in the case of obsolescence or accident cars were probably just dismantled. As numbers grew, ‘dumps’ for cars appeared, stripped of useful parts, left to rot and then burnt to leave just metal components for melting down. The contamination from fuel, oil, or battery acid went unconsidered. If anything, it was the visual appearance of the dump that offended people. This situation remained familiar into the 1970s and later, with scrap cars often stacked up two or three deep. The Environmental Protection Act of 1990 and the EU End of Life Directive of 2000 changed all this and the advent of EVs will not alter the situation. However, it does add a further complication, which inevitably is the battery itself. There are going to be a lot of these and already concerns are being raised as to what is going to happen to them. Current designs are comparatively large intricate pieces of machinery, time-consuming and potentially hazardous to strip down to component level. Efforts to address the problem are underway but despite the involvement of bodies such as the ‘Faraday Institute’, the impression at present is that results are inconclusive, with the recycling of battery parts for alternative use currently being a favoured option. Part of the problem is that ‘lithium-ion battery recycling currently produces significant carbon emissions, largely from the energy required, it is expected that in the coming years recycling will lead to avoided emissions compared to manufacturing new batteries’. As reducing carbon emissions is the main purpose of the EV revolution, one can but hope they succeed. In 1922 the journalist and author, Leonard Henslowe, woke from a ‘dream of 1950’ from which he reported: “fuel…was of trifling cost, whether petrol, paraffin, alcohol or electricity…for private vehicles electricity was largely used”. A century later, the electric revolution is finally underway with Government encouragement and his vision may yet come true. The risk is that even with the best intentions, revolutions can produce unexpected consequences.


Written by Frances Rigby

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