The government is to bring forward a ban on the sale of cars and vans powered entirely by petrol and diesel by five years, from 2035 to 2030. The move comes just nine months after the ban was initially brought forward from 2040 to 2035.
Unlike the previous change, this time new hybrid vehicles that are powered by both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor have been granted a stay of execution, with sales allowed to continue for a further five years. There are currently no plans to curb the sale of second-hand petrol and diesel vehicles, which will remain on the roads for many years, even decades, to come.
Despite not being included in the 2030 ban, the situation for new hybrid vehicles sold after that date isn’t clear. The government has said hybrids that offer “significant” zero-emission range can remain on sale until 2035, but hasn’t clarified what that range is, or if there will be different rules for plug-in hybrids and conventional hybrids, like the popular Toyota Prius.
The UK motor industry had previously described the government’s proposed blanket ban of hybrid cars as an “extremely concerning” move of the goalposts. But, despite admitting an “immense challenge” has been laid down, the SMMT industry body now welcomes the government’s acceptance of the importance of hybrids, which act as a stepping stone from petrol to electric for many buyers.
Edmund King, president of the AA, described the 2030 target as “incredibly ambitious,” but welcomed the switch to electric vehicles. King added that “considerable investment” will be required to lift the current EV pain points of initial cost, perceived range anxiety and charging infrastructure.
Electric cars sales still represent a tiny proportion of new vehicle sales each month, but growth in this sector continues to accelerate. In October 2020, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) had a 6.6 per cent share of the market, with plug-in hybrids at 5.5 per cent, diesel at 14.9 per cent and petrol taking 49.5 per cent. For the first 10 months of 2020, BEVs accounted for 5.5 per cent of sales, up by 168.7 per cent from 2019.
This certainly puts electric cars on a positive trajectory, and more options are available than ever before. But buying an EV in the UK in 2020 is far more complex than stumping up the cash and plugging it in. Range, charging, tax breaks, location, your driving habits and even the weather all come into play. And with the 2030 ban looming, it’s time to help make sense of it all.
Should you buy an electric car now? Environmentally, 100 per cent yes. But, if other concerns are important, it becomes complicated.
When are you buying your next car?
If you’re in the market now and considering the switch to electric, you have more choice than ever. You could pick up a second-hand Renault Twizy for around £5,000 if all you need is a tiny two-seater with a range to match. But if you’re shopping for new, practical wheels you’ll need to budget £25,100 for the 124-mile Mini Electric (after the £3,000 government grant, more on which later), or £26,995 for a 245-mile Renault Zoe. The Tesla Model 3 starts at £37,490 and has an estimated range of 267 miles.
At the other end of the market, well-healed drivers can opt for the 188-mile Porsche Taycan 4S from £83,580, or if you’ve a couple of million burning a crater in your pocket, there’s the Lotus Evija and Pininfarina Battista, both members of the freshly minted 2,000 horsepower club. Yours for £2 million.
There’s plenty of choice out there, but with the market likely to evolve throughout the decade, savvy buyers looking for the best cost-to-value ratio could find themselves stuck in the same paradox as those who endlessly wait for the next iPhone.
And if you do decide to buy this year or next, will your sub-150-mile Mini or Honda e hold its value when range stats edge ever upwards over the coming years? This is largely unknown for now, but with cash buyers increasingly switching to personal contract purchase finance deals, residual value is less of a concern as long as you are comfortable with the deposit and monthly payments, and understand how the balloon payment works.
More pressing, however, is this: does an electric car fit into your lifestyle and will it cater for your driving habits today? Let’s answer some questions.
How often do you drive?
If you rack up a lot of short journeys across town an electric car should suit you well, providing you put some initial groundwork into learning where your local public chargers are, and what charging speeds they offer.
Soon you’ll be an EV native, topping up the battery while doing the weekly supermarket shop, or from outside your favourite cafe. And don’t forget, the silent simplicity of driving an EV also makes them excellent city cars.
If your daily commute is a few dozen miles, you might get away with only charging at work. This is possible in some places now, as business parks begin installing chargers in their parking bays. For example, Fraser Properties is fitting rapid 50kW chargers at its business parks in the south east of England, allowing staff to top up their batteries with the tap of a contactless credit or debit card. If your EV is purely for commuting, this could be all the charge you need.
What about longer journeys?
Again, an element of planning is required. Electric cars have charging stations plumbed into their navigation systems, so it’s relatively straightforward to include charge stops on longer journeys. Some systems, as in a Tesla, tell you exactly how many minutes to charge for at each station, and how much range you’ll have left when you arrive at your destination. They also show how many chargers are offered, and how many are currently available or occupied.
Today’s longest range cars are still all Teslas, with the flagship Long Range version of the Model S giving you a claimed 405 miles using the WLTP test cycle. This equates to around 350 miles in the real world, but as with all EVs this can reduce in cold weather and also depends on traffic, elevation change and driving style.
While die-hards will invariably scoff at an EV’s inability to romp across entire continents on a charge, the vast majority of drivers will want to take a break after 200 miles of driving, so having to plug in for 30 or 40 minutes shouldn’t really be seen as an inconvenience. And by 2030, you should expect those charge times to be considerably shorter.
But, all that said, if you plan to rely on a smaller capacity EV as your only car, and occasionally have to cover long distances, you might want to hold off or even buy a hybrid for now, although we would wait for clarification on the government’s plans for hybrids from 2030 first.
What tax breaks are available, and will they last?
As of November 2020, a government grant of up to £3,000 is applied to the price of a brand new low-emissions vehicle. More specifically, the grant will pay for 35 per cent of the purchase price of the vehicle, up to a maximum of £3,000.
The grant fell from £4,500 in early 2019 and was due to end shortly after. It was instead extended, but reduced first to £3,500, then to the current £3,000 level in March 2020.
The discount is applied by the dealer, meaning the buyer needn’t do anything to secure the reduced price, and EVs are often advertised with the discount already in place. Only vehicles with a list price under £50,000 and approved by the government are eligible for the grant, and to be considered for the full £3,500 they must be able to drive at least 70 miles on pure electric power. You can view a list of all eligible vehicles here.
A grant of 20 per cent up to a value of £1,500 is applied to electric motorcycles capable of traveling at least 31 miles on a charge, and to mopeds with a range of at least 19 miles.
Hybrid vans capable of at lesst 10 miles of electric range, and which produce CO2 emissions of less than 75g/km, receive a grant of 20 percent of the purchase price, up to £8,000. For taxis the grant is up to £7,500 so long as they have a range of at least 70 miles and CO2 emissions of less than 50g/km.
You can also receive £350 off the cost of a home charger (recently reduced from £500) and, separately, electric cars will be exempt from company car tax from April 2020. This increases to one per cent in April 2021, then two per cent in April 2022. It is hoped this will encourage the use of EVs among company car fleets.
Despite the downward trajectory of these grants, this situation could change. When announcing the proposed 2030 ban on internal combustion, the government said it will set aside £582 million for grants to help drivers switch to electric.
Can you rely on today’s charging network?
This is surely the most important question when it comes to electric car ownership today. Tesla has its own Supercharger network, which covers much of the UK and Europe and is steadily growing with stations located at motorway services, as well as hotels, business parks and shopping centres.
Tesla believes 99 per cent of the European population is covered by its Supercharger network, meaning at least one station is within the reach of a Tesla car from all but one per cent of households. Its latest third-generation Supercharger can fill the battery of a Model 3 at 250kW, which supposedly adds range at a rate of up to 1,000 miles per hour. However, don’t believe the hype – the lithium batteries of electric cars charge more quickly when empty, then slow down as they fill up. So that maximum rate is only possible for a few minutes.
As for everyone else (and Tesla owners plugged into something other than a Supercharger), there is a degree of confusion to overcome. Firstly, a number of different companies run car-charging networks in the UK. But unlike competing BP and Shell petrol stations, they don’t offer an identical means of refuelling or paying.
The first thing to understand is charge rate, most commonly expressed in kilowatts. Tesla Superchargers pump out electrons at up to 250kW, while other chargers are as slow as 3kW, although these are (mercifully) rare. Other charge rates are branded Fast (7kW or 22kW) and Rapid (25kW, 43kW, 50kW, 100KW, 120KW, 150KW and industry-leading 350kW).
Next, you need to be aware of the different types of plug. These are physically different and include Type 2, Commando, Yazaki, CCS, and CHAdeMO.
Confused yet? No? Good, because next up we have payment methods. A few years ago, paying meant setting up an account with each charging network and carrying a contactless RFID card or smartphone app for each, which you tap on the charger to pay. Thankfully, the fog is clearing and charge networks are moving towards contactless payments via debit or credit card, with no need for an account.
Car manufacturers are also helping here. As an example, buyers of the Porsche Taycan receive a Porsche-branded charging account, phone app and RFID card, all of which work with pretty much all compatible chargers. That way, it no longer matters who the charging company is; just tap your Porsche card, plug in and your account will be billed accordingly.
Similarly, Polestar has teamed up with Plugsurfing, whose RFID tag works with over 195,000 charging points across Europe.
As for cost, this can vary significantly. Some public chargers located in places like supermarkets are free to use for the duration of your stay (but you may well need to pay for the parking space like everyone else). Faster chargers, often located at service stations, vary in speed and cost. BP’s Chargemaster network is part of Polar Plus, which costs £7.85 per month with free charging at most locations thereafter. For non-members rapid charging starts at 40p per kWh, so roughly £12 to fill a Mini Electric or £30 to fill a Polestar 2.
But there are still challenges to overcome. Even though electric cars represent less than seven per cent of UK vehicle sales, queuing at charging stations can occur. Chargers can also be temperamental, requiring a remote reboot by their operator, and it isn’t uncommon to see non-electric cars parked in the charger’s designated parking bay, rendering it inaccessible.
What about charging at home?
While electric car sales still represent a tiny minority, you may luck out and be the sole user of the handful of chargers to have sprung up in your office car park. But, while this is surely a picture of EV driving nirvana for now, it isn’t sustainable. Once every desk in every office is the workspace of an electric car driver, you’ll have to charge elsewhere.
As an indication of how quickly things could change, EV sales grew by 195 per cent in October 2020 compared to the previous year, according to the The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Petrol sales fell 21 per cent and diesel tumbled 38 per cent.
Home chargers will pick up some of the slack here, and can be bought from around £300 to £1,000, before a government subsidy of up to £350. As with public chargers, home chargers offer different speeds. According to charger manufacturer PodPoint, its 3.6kW home charger will fill a Jaguar I-Pace in “under 25 hours”.
This might sound unfit for purpose, but do you brim your petrol tank every evening? For someone who drives 150 miles a week (7,800 miles annually, just below the 2019 UK average), a nightly top-up could be perfectly adequate. If you need more juice, a 7kW charger will fill the I-Pace in under 13 hours. Still not speedy, but again, how often do you arrive home on an empty tank?
With regard to cost, you are best plugging in at night to take advantage of lower electricity rates. PodPoint says charging an EV can cost from 2p per mile, so potentially just £5 for a car with a range of 250 miles.
For now, private chargers are installed at the side of your property, so you’re going to need off-street parking. For many cities, and anyone living in an apartment, this isn’t possible.
However, progress is being made to install chargers elsewhere. Charging points are being installed in lampposts across some UK cities. Additionally, startups like Urban Electric Networks are developing 7kW chargers that rise out of the pavement like a bollard, then disappear into the ground when not in use.
The government announced in November 2020 plans to spend £1.2bn on chargers for homes, streets and motorways. Although no extra detail was given, you can expect to see chargers appear wherever cars are parked for long periods of time, such as at supermarkets, shopping centres, restaurants and hotels.
Fitting EV chargers to new-build homes sounds like a no-brainer, and the government has plans in place to facilitate this. A proposal made in July 2019, currently still being analysed, asked for all new homes to be fitted with a car charge point. This is certainly a positive move, but it only refers to homes with a dedicated parking space and makes no mention of properties lacking off-street parking.
It’s a complex situation and one which is moving quickly as the benefits of EV ownership grow. As we head further into 2021 there will be more affordable EV options than ever, and the charging networks will continue to expand. But important questions remain, from residential off-street parking, to the size and longevity of government grants, battery recycling, and what will happen to hybrids if the petrol and diesel ban arrives on time in 2030.
Ready to buy your first EV? Read the WIRED Recommends guide to the best electric cars to get you started
More great stories from WIRED
🐧 The mystery of the world’s loneliest penguins
🎲 Forget Monopoly. These are the best board games for adults and families
💻 Take control and stop yourself getting hacked in 2021