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SMMT Electrified review: The road to electrification

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This year’s SMMT Electrified, the pre-eminent UK summit on the net zero transition of road transport, brought together more than 600 automotive industry leaders to discuss and debate the key challenges and opportunities as Britain decarbonises its transport.

The event included stakeholders and representatives from government, the energy sector, charge point providers and fleets, and a key theme included the battery electric car market’s emergence from the ‘early adopter’ phase and measures needed to shift the technology to mass market.

Another was the strong call from the industry for government help to boost EV affordability and accessibility and speed up transport decarbonisation.

Secretary of State for Transport, Mark Harper, told attendees that the UK is confidently moving towards a future with zero emission vehicles.

“Government and industry have to work together to realise this next exciting venture. We must work together”, he said.

“Cleaning up cars and vans presents the biggest challenge and the greatest opportunity to reach decarbonisation by 2050.”

Delivering a faster and fairer mass transition, however, is threatened by the absence of support for private buyers, many of whom plan to go electric but are delaying due to concerns over affordability and uncertainty regarding the availability of a nationwide charging network.

Tom Hurst, UK Country Manager, Fastned said:  “In the Netherlands, you can get a grid contract in three to four weeks.

“Here, I’d be amazed if we could get one in three to four months due to paperwork. We need to go quicker as this is a drag on ambition to invest more in infrastructure in the UK.”

Uptake of battery electric vehicles has soared over recent years, with a 21-fold growth in EV uptake since 2018 and fleets and business buyers leading the charge.

This has been boosted by the introduction of government programmes such as the Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas (ZEBRA) scheme.

Dr Robert Best, Director of Engineering at Wrightbus said: “Almost 90% of Wrightbus orders are zero emission this year, reflecting a really fast switch.

“We’ve moved to a new zero emission platform that will enable us to maximise the benefits of electric and hydrogen solutions.”

However, Carlos Rodriguez, Managing Director of Renault Trucks UK and Ireland, told the conference that heavy duty trucks are falling behind the electrification curve compared with cars, buses and vans, and that the government could accelerate the uptake of electric refuse trucks, in a similar way to how it has supported electric bus adoption.

He added that the blockers to electrification in the HGV sector are the investment requirement, including in infrastructure, with the chargers and power supply requirements also much greater than for cars.

“50% of our sales will be electric by 2030”, he said. “BEVs are by far the best when it comes to NOx, CO2 and other emission reductions.

“Government must be braver and help operators see that zero electric trucks are an opportunity, not a challenge.”

Driving up demand is made more urgent by the proposed Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate which will compel the sale of such vans, but has still to be finalised with barely 100 days to go until implementation.

The ZEV Mandate is expected to require vehicle makers to ensure at least 10% of their new van sales are zero emissions in 2024.

This will then rise incrementally each year to 70% for vans in 2030, and 100% by 2035.

Stuart Southgate, director of sustainable, environmental, and safety engineering at Ford Europe, said: “We’re very supportive of the ZEV mandate as it does give us the ability to identify the charging capabilities required.

“But we’re not going to get there alone, it’ll require government support.”

Manufacturers are very committed to delivery, having invested heavily to ensure there is wide-ranging choice in the market, with performance to meet drivers’ needs.

For example, earlier this month, Stellantis opened its Ellesmere Port plant for production of electric vans, following a multi-million pound refit, with the company committed to following a circular approach to the manufacturing process.

This involves extending the life of vehicles and parts, ensuring that they last for as long as possible, and then returning material from sources including production, maintenance scraps and from end-of-life vehicles to the manufacturing loop for new vehicles and parts.

Alison Jones, Senior Vice-President of Circular Economy at Stellantis, said: “For us the circular economy is embedded in all areas of our business.

“It’s a fundamental part of our transition to net zero. We need clarity and making sure customers have the ability to make the transition to an EV.”

However, a survey commissioned by the SMMT has shown that getting consumers to buy sooner depends on financial incentives (said 68% of respondents) and ready access to affordable, reliable public charging (said 67% of respondents).

The success of the business and fleet markets in switching must now be replicated in the private retail market. While manufacturers already provide attractive purchase incentives, these need to be complemented by government-backed incentives.

For example, reducing VAT on EV purchases would mirror existing discounts on other environmental products such as solar panels and heat pumps and improve Exchequer receipts.

Raising the threshold for the Vehicle Excise Duty from its 2017 level to reflect today’s costs – or exempting EVs altogether – would also help. Taxation would also be fairer if VAT on public charging matched home charging at 5%, not 20%.

Furthermore, mandating targets for charge point rollout would help overcome the other issue holding back consumers – insufficient infrastructure.

Such measures would improve the attractiveness of EVs to British consumers and flow through to the second hand market, increasing demand and helping address concerns about the residual value of these new technologies.

Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, said that the automotive industry is embracing the challenge of the 2035 deadline and that ZEV production is ramping up.

He added: “Sales of EVs increase every year. Every part of our industry is gearing up to deliver net zero. From design to aftermarket. It is the most fundamental change in a century.

“We have seized the initiative and have developed tech that moves away from fossil fuels. This was not evolution, it was revolution. The products you see today didn’t appear by magic. Development started many years ago.”

One thing that everybody who attended the conference could agree on is that with a comprehensive package of measures in place it will be possible to encourage buyers across the UK to go electric now, boosting an industry slowly recovering from the pandemic and delivering benefits for the Exchequer, society and the global environment.


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