Feature: Road pricing could impact EV adoption in the UK

Tanya Sinclair, policy director UK & Ireland at ChargePoint tells Air Quality News how a pay-per-mile charge scheme could replace fuel duty and help to accelerate electric vehicle uptake.

The long-promised electrification of transport is finally here. Earlier this year, the UK surpassed France as Europe’s second-largest electric car market. In October, battery electric vehicle (BEV) sales were up 73% year-over-year, representing more than 15% of new car registrations.

That caused the trade group The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) to forecast that more BEVs will have been added to UK roads in 2021 than from 2010-2019 combined. That’s reassuring news, especially if the Government is to meet its target of 100% zero-emissions sales in the country by 2035.

Electric vehicles for people and the planet

Leaders from government, technology and science, such as the Climate Change Committee, recognise the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) is crucial toward preventing climate catastrophe. Currently, surface transport is responsible for 27% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK.

But it isn’t only the planet that is feeling the effects.

According to a recent Government report, road transport is responsible for other types of emissions that have ‘significant health consequences’ for people, including 34% of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and nearly a quarter of all particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) emissions.

Air pollution is linked to 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year and costs society more than £20bn annually, according to The Royal College of Physicians. The mass uptake of EVs would dramatically reduce both the environmental and human toll.

aerial photography of highway road

Road pricing: why now?

Government plans to phase out sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 will do a lot to achieve much-needed emissions reductions and reap the accompanying health benefits but it will have other consequences as well.

By the end of this decade, the significant reduction of the fuel duty — that 58p per litre tax, drivers pay at the pump for fossil fuels — is expected to leave a £30 billion hole in Government tax revenues.

That’s why there’s been a lot more talk about road pricing recently. For those as-yet unfamiliar with the term, road pricing is a pay-per-mile tax scheme meant to replace fuel duty and other motoring taxes. Road pricing is just one of the options being considered to plug that annual gap in tax revenue by 2030.

Government leaders have offered numerous suggestions to make road pricing more palatable to drivers, including offering up to one-third off the purchase price of an electric vehicle.

Whilst incentivising drivers with generous grants is certainly one way to get them to go along with a new tax, offering discounts with one hand and taking them back with the other is not exactly the clear signal necessary to drive consumer demand. To compete with traditional cars, it is vital the design of road pricing is such that no EV driver will ever pay more than an internal combustion engine (ICE) driver, regardless of miles driven.

Keeping the momentum alive

In recent years, dozens of companies have entered the EV charging sector. These fast-growing, mostly privately funded start-ups, include technology providers and network operators, among others, and they are thriving — especially since the phase-out of ICE vehicle sales was announced.

These companies provide much-needed jobs, many of which are highly skilled and high paying, including engineers and installers that will meet the needs of a future that, in large part, will revolve around electric mobility. These companies need a clear signal from Government so that they are able to accurately forecast future demand for charging infrastructure.

From a driver’s perspective too, several other considerations should take precedent today over managing any projected future revenue shortfalls. The electrification of transport is too important — and the stakes too high — to risk derailing the current momentum. First:

Increase electric vehicle availability with a ZEV mandate

One of the main barriers to EV uptake is a lack of available models. Many people are eager to transition to electric mobility but there simply aren’t enough vehicles on the market today to accommodate every lifestyle. That’s why the recently announced zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate is crucial.

Although consultation continues, any ZEV mandate should be based on the proven Californian model, which requires automakers to sell a set percentage of ZEVs in the country annually, rising each year to coincide with the 100% ban on new diesel and petrol sales in 2030.

Compliant manufacturers would receive credits for each EV sold based on the vehicle’s range. Once the company has achieved its required share of annual credits, it would be free to hold them for the following year’s compliance or to sell or trade them to competitors.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) states that ZEVs should account for nearly 50% of new car sales in 2025. That means if the government is to achieve the 2030 targets, a ZEV mandate must be introduced no later than July of next year instead of the 2024 timeline in the current proposal. Without an earlier deadline, automakers have little incentive to act with the speed required to effect the necessary change today.

Support infrastructure and driver choice

Most EV drivers charge their vehicles either at home or in the workplace. For those times they don’t, however, there needs to be robust public smart charging infrastructure to alleviate potential EV drivers’ range anxiety, whether real or perceived. Clear leadership and transparency from Government and industry is a must. Charging providers must have the foresight to anticipate demand in order to fill it. That includes Government projections on the number of EVs expected on UK roadways.

But having enough charge points isn’t enough — fuelling an electric vehicle must be as easy, or easier, than filling up at the forecourt. There are currently efforts to make paying for charging prescriptive, such as mandating credit card readers on public EV chargers. Not only are such devices prone to damage and data theft, by the time you read this they may also be as outdated as the fax machine.

Ad hoc payment methods, such as contactless functionality from mobile devices, charging network or fleet cards, and from the vehicle’s in-dash infotainment system, should be encouraged as the industry evolves. Most major charging networks understand the importance of convenience and choice, having already entered into robust roaming agreements within the UK and across countries throughout Europe.

Whilst nearly everyone agrees the money to replace the fuel duty eventually needs to come from somewhere (currently 38% of UK citizens support road pricing), any such scheme must not unduly burden EV drivers at the same time the mass adoption of zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) is most critical toward meeting the Government’s ambitious climate goals. A holistic approach to revenue generation must be considered that doesn’t inadvertently derail efforts to reduce emissions in the country. Coming up solutions to the projected revenue shortfall is undoubtedly important but, in the interest of walking and chewing gum at the same time, filling UK roadways with clean, quiet zero-emission vehicles must be a priority.


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