The world is about to undergo another major transport revolution. Just as steam replaced horsepower and oil has replaced steam, 21st century transportation will be revolutionised by low carbon and low emission technologies. Unlike previous revolutions, this one has been widely predicted because we have no choice. Climate change and air pollution, allied with the need to reduce the chronic congestion clogging up our cities necessitates radical transport solutions.

The UK government has announced a ban on the sale of all new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040. A few years ago, this would have been a radical step, unthinkable, especially from a government with such stock in the automotive sector. Yet the response from many in the industry has been positive, while critics have instead called upon government to be even more ambitious. Even Shell, in its latest forward thinking ‘Sky Scenario’, has begun to countenance the future dominance of electric vehicles (EVs) as a necessary outcome to meet the Paris climate agreement commitments.

So, is this the end of the internal combustion engine? Probably yes; certainly as the powertrain of the ubiquitous and iconic motorcar that we have grown to love. History may well identify the ‘dieselgate’ scandal as the watershed moment when the world began the process of weaning itself off vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

Exponential growth?

Is the future electric? It certainly seems that way for cars and light goods vehicles, judging by the number of manufacturers developing new EV models. There will, however, be a case for (sustainable) bio-energy, and hydrogen, for larger goods vehicles and public transport. There is still a big question, however, about the speed of transition. Regen’s recent report on the transport sector: Harnessing the Electric Vehicle Revolution identified three potential growth scenarios.

  • Exponential growth – the most commonly forecasted scenario for a new technology: following a slow start, electric vehicle adoption accelerates from the mid-2020s, reaching 80–90% of new car registrations by 2035.
  • Explosive growth – a disruptive scenario as several factors, including EV cost reduction, new models, consumer choice and low emission zone restrictions, come together to create a very sudden and rapid market uptake.
  • Stagnated growth – slower growth persists as cost reductions fail to materialise, manufacturers do not seize the initiative, consumer uncertainty persists and policies designed to reduce pollution and climate change impacts are rolled back.

Strikingly, feedback from our industry engagement which informed the paper suggested that the most likely scenario is one of explosive growth. There is enough global momentum behind EVs to make a stagnated outcome unlikely, especially when one considers the tremendous investment in new vehicle technology being made by both established manufactures and by new-entrants in countries such as China.

The next few years will be critical but as cities and regions continue to implement clean air policies and manufacturers introduce new models offering greater range at lower costs, then the question becomes not: ‘Why choose an electric car?’ but: ‘Why not?’ Under an Explosive growth scenario the end game for diesel and petrol could be quite dramatic, with a collapse in demand for new fossil fuel cars and the breakdown of the wider petrol/diesel supply chain.

Meeting demand

One factor that could slow growth is the supply of low carbon electricity to meet this new demand for power. By 2035, it is estimated that additional EV electricity demand could reach 25–30 TWh per year. At an energy system level, this raises the question: how can EV charging be integrated with overall energy demand and supply to ensure a secure and balanced system? At a local level, the question is: how can multiple vehicles charging be supported by a distribution network which has been developed to provide low voltage electricity to meet diversified demand?

Two big issues, to which the answer is to be smarter both in how we manage our electricity network and how we optimise and manage vehicle charging. Clearly, investment will be required in new energy infrastructure and smart technology, but National Grid and others in the energy sector have responded with a bullish assessment that these challenges can be overcome, and that the grid could support a faster market uptake of EVs.

Far from being a barrier, smart and flexible solutions that provide power for transport will also help make optimum use of renewable energy sources. The goals of clean energy and clean transport are therefore complementary. The prize could be massive – a cleaner, healthier environment, a new industry and new commercial opportunities for transport supported by a transformed and decarbonised energy system.

There is a clear message here for policy makers at national and local levels who want to seize the opportunity. Get the right infrastructure in place to support low emission vehicles; develop an integrated transport plan that makes best use of public and private networks – including the use of public transport, cycling and walking schemes; support innovation and help industry embrace technological change; and provide leadership through policy, strategy and direct action to accelerate transport transformation.

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