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Commercial Question

The future of non-conventionally powered vehicles

updated on 11 May 2021

Question

Is the UK ready to switch to non-conventionally powered vehicles?

Answer

The automotive sector is in the midst of a revolution. We are now seeing meaningful investment into electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles as a replacement for the internal combustion engine. This change represents the biggest shift in the sector since the commercial production of cars began more than a century ago. The pace of change is a direct reflection of the ambitious decarbonisation agenda of the UK government and more carbon-conscious consumer behaviour. Such a monumental shift, however, is not without its challenges. This article looks at some of these challenges, and the different roles played by the government, auto manufacturers, and others in the decarbonisation supply chain

Laying the foundations

In late 2020, the government published a Ten Point Plan setting out its agenda for a green industrial revolution. The highlights from an automotive perspective include:

  • the ban on conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans being brought forward to 2030 (previously 2035);
  • the introduction of additional incentives to buy electric – for example, the introduction of ‘green number plates’, giving drivers of electric vehicles access to cheaper parking and unrestricted free of charge entry into zero-emission zones;
  • direct investment into electric vehicle charging infrastructure; and
  • direct and indirect investment into hydrogen production, to support the expansion of hydrogen fuel cell uptake across freight transport.

There is also significant investment in battery production in the UK with Britishvolt proposing a £2.6 billion investment into a ‘Gigafactory’ site in Northumberland. The reason for this is twofold. First, the government has recognised that sourcing most batteries from Asia creates an unsustainable reliance which can be impacted by various external factors. The second reason is a direct result of Brexit, as hefty tariffs will be imposed on all vehicles exported from the UK to the EU if fewer than 50% of electric vehicle battery are made up of UK or EU-sourced materials by 2023. The increasing investment in not only infrastructure but also manufacturing within the UK is a sign of a significant shift and commitment to alternatively powered vehicles.

Electric dreams

In the UK, electric vehicles are becoming increasingly commonplace, with notable investment from leading car brands bringing competition to the market by expanding the available models and an associated increase in marketing to encourage consumers to make the switch.

The most commonly cited downsides of electric vehicles are that the charging infrastructure is still developing, the worry about a vehicle’s mileage range and vehicle charging requirements. Consumers also note that electric vehicles are usually more expensive, and the range of model options is still far more limited than their conventionally powered counterparts.

According to a recent government poll, the biggest barrier to drivers making the move to non-conventionally powered vehicles remains the lack of charging and refuelling infrastructure. While more stations and rapid chargers are popping up by the day, the issue of overnight charging at home remains a problem with no turnkey solution.

Electric vehicles have also struggled with uniformity:

  • Some vehicle models are charged on alternating currents, some on direct currents.
  • Some vehicle models are compatible with Type 2 connectors, some with CHAdeMO and some with CCS.
  • Some models can charge at a rate of up to 150kW per hour (or even faster), some up to only 22kW per hour.

All of this variation results in some charging stations being compatible with only certain models, meaning there can be ‘droughts’ in certain places where charging stations are plentiful yet compatibility issues with certain vehicles mean that drivers are left without a viable charging option. There is also the issue of charging station speeds, with so-called ‘rapid’ chargers few and far between; the 3kW and 7kW ‘slow’ charging stations can leave drivers stranded at the location for hours in some cases. As if all of these problems were not enough, there are lots of different charging providers, meaning subscriptions, key fobs, cards and/or smartphone apps for all the different providers are required so that the whole network is available to the road user – which is not efficient or cheap.

High hopes for hydrogen

Although electric vehicles have taken the limelight with manufacturers such as Tesla, hydrogen is also a promising green alternative. Hydrogen fuel cell technology converts hydrogen into electricity to power an electric motor. The only output of this conversion process is water.

One of the biggest criticisms of electric vehicles is that they’re only as ‘green’ as the fuel used to make the electricity to charge them. Meanwhile, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and can be produced cheaply and cleanly from a variety of common resources and processes. While Asian automotive manufacturers have been investing in hydrogen for years, it has only recently gained traction amongst (traditionally Diesel-heavy) European manufacturers. At present, hydrogen fuel cells are most regularly used in heavy goods vehicles and public transport, where electric alternatives otherwise struggle to cope with range and refuelling demands.

Nevertheless, hydrogen-powered vehicles are subject to some of the same criticisms as electric vehicles. Namely, although the refuelling time is much quicker than in an electric vehicle, the infrastructure is not there and there are concerns regarding the lack of economies of scale and the resulting high component prices. In addition, there are some safety concerns regarding hydrogen which, when stored under high pressure, could be a combustion hazard.

There are also refuelling infrastructure concerns for hydrogen with only about 12 refuelling stations in England and Scotland, only two available in Wales and none available in Northern Ireland. It is easy to see why hydrogen-powered vehicles are not currently a sufficiently viable option for many road users, freight or otherwise.

The technology is still very much in an experimental phase and once it becomes more ubiquitous, some of these concerns may be addressed by investment into safety and infrastructure to support the fuelling method, as well as competition in the market to bring down costs.

Is it sustainable? 

There is also the question of what happens with the components once they become obsolete. While electric vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions during their lifespan, there is increasing concern over what will happen to all the batteries once they come to the end of their life and need to be replaced. There is already a recycling infrastructure in place for conventional lead-acid batteries, but this does not extend to the lithium-ion versions in electric vehicles, with only 5% currently being recycled. The individual lithium-ion cells need to be dismantled carefully as they contain hazardous materials and can explode if dismantled incorrectly. Some vehicle manufacturers are already addressing the issue by reusing old batteries in the automated guided vehicles that deliver parts to workers in vehicle factories. Some are going a step further, for example, Volkswagen has recently opened its first recycling plant in Germany and plans to recycle up to 3,600 battery systems per year. It is worth noting that recycling is not just an environmental issue but also a necessity given the scarcity of some of the raw materials that make up many electric vehicle batteries.

This is not so much of a problem with hydrogen fuel cells, with power stacks being refurbishable and 95% recyclable. The fuel cell stack is the heart of the fuel cell, where hydrogen and oxygen found in the atmosphere electrochemically react in order to generate electricity. Hydrogen could therefore perhaps be considered the more environmentally friendly option of the two, however, unless significant investment is made into the refuelling infrastructure, an increase in availability and a decrease in prices, it is unlikely to be the alternative fuel vehicle of choice. However, it is worth bearing in mind that in the long run, sustainability might become the deciding factor between alternative fuel vehicles.

Significant investment will be needed before 2030 to ensure that there is enough government support and private investment across the spectrum of electric vehicles and hydrogen to ensure that travel in a climate-conscious way is not prohibitively expensive and therefore only a luxury. Otherwise, it is likely that we will merely see a boom in the second-hand internal combustion engine market towards the end of the decade and a corresponding spike in emissions.

Gabbie Leszko is trainee solicitor at Shoosmiths.