The UK Government’s decision to provide £250M ($360M) of funding, in the form of £5000 grants for customers to buy electric cars looks like big news at first glance. So, is it a really smart move from the UK Government, committed to incentivising change and driving consumer behaviour?
On the face of it, yes, but scratch below the surface and the scheme has more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese. First up, there are currently around 33 Million vehicles on the UK’s roads. If you do the maths, then at £5000 per car, £250M of grants gives you 50,000 cars. To me, that looks like a bit of a drop in the ocean. Hardly world-changing is it?
From a wider transportation futures perspective, what’s more worrying is that the Government has decided to delay the introduction of this scheme until 2011. It’s not clear why, but we aren’t the only ones wondering if it’s got something to do with the fact that none of the mainstream manufacturers will sell you an EV now, but by 2011 many of them will.
The problem with this approach is that it could crush a fledgling market, which in the UK has grown slowly but surely with a mix of small city EVs and some clever, quick marketing thinking from the likes of GoinGreen who import the Reva from India and rebadge it Gwiz. Worse than that, these vehicles – which are classed as quadricycles – won’t be eligible for the £5000 incentives. That’s some way to go about building and opening up new markets, Mr Mandelson.
Equally frustrating is that commercial vehicles – like the Smith Edison and Modec trucks, aren’t included. ‘So what?’ you might argue; they’ll be bought by fleets who can afford the extra cost of EVs, or incorporate the savings into a longer-term business plan. But what about the thousands of sole traders and companies with just a couple of vans who make up the lionshare of the delivery vehicles running around cities? They are one of the critical, potentially most beneficial vehicle groups and users to be moving towards EV platforms.
Even the existing vehicle guys are asking questions. We’re currently in Dearborn, Michigan, looking at Ford’s design and sustainability work. Yesterday I asked the company’s director of Hybrid Platforms and Sustainable Mobility Technologies, Nancy Gioia, about the scheme and the affordability of EVs. You can see what she said in the video below, but let’s just say that she didn’t seem to think the £5000 incentive was a particularly sensible long term measure. She’s arguing for upfront investment in R&D. EVs are expensive to develop and build, and car companies are short of cash. There is another angle, of course – vast sums have been poured into car companies for advanced research, especially in hydrogen fuel cells. And we're still talking about that technology being 10, 20, 30 years away from primetime.
Governments have a key role to play in driving mass market adoption of EVs. Incentivising purchase is one thing, but that’s a fairly blunt, token-like stick in helping to cultivate a new market. The big auto guys have never run fast on this stuff, and they don’t really see a world beyond the car as we recognise it today. Getting electrified versions of the types of vehicles we know and drive now is going to be expensive in the foreseeable future years. The first EVs from recognised manufacturers will be expensive enough to make many still think twice about them, even if there’s a £5000 sweetener on the table.
So if it wants to encourage a sustainable system of mobility, the best role the Government could play is in opening up the data it has on how people move around to allow the innovators to really use it, and by smoothing a path for start-ups, councils, designers and blue-chips to work together, and actually co-create something new. Dare we mention it – providing greater tax breaks and grants for those who are really pushing the boundaries of advanced mobility research and development might be one of the best ways to do this.
The pioneers deserve a break. They were right to invest what they could in EVs and they should not be hung out to dry while the big automakers get breathing space to catch up. The government should be rewarding risk takers who, when others sat on their hands, helped shape a fledgling market. Let the mainstream car companies catch up, but help the small guys find a role in this exciting future.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 21st April 2009.
Disclosure: Ford Motor Company is sponsoring The Movement Design Bureau's Research work in 2009. We have an independent brief, looking at sustainability and design activities in the company. Ford has no control over what we publish - let us know if you don't see it that way.