At least hybrids WON’T be banned, but WHERE will the Road to Zero lead us?

Image of Alisdair Suttie
Author: | Updated: 13 Jul 2018 03:05

In a political week characterised by chaos, there is one glimmer of clarity in the words of the Road to Zero document. This policy strategy outlines how the government intends to lead us to a country of non-polluting cars and, crucially, it confirmed hybrids will be exempt from the ban on sales of petrol- and diesel-powered cars.

Hybrids will be excluded from the government's 2040 petrol-diesel ban.

For many, this has been a worrying concern since the first rumblings of this document fired up in late 2016. These drivers are the ones who cover large distances and often live in the more remote outcrops of the UK where a diesel, in particular, is the only sensible choice of fuel to cover considerable mileages just to conduct normal life.

Then there are those for whom diesel is the natural choice for work vehicles such as vans and picks-ups. These models will also be exempt from the ban in 2040, though this all comes with a very large caveat that means hybrids are likely to be markedly more expensive than their pure electric counterparts. Also, by 2050, the government wants to see an end to all fossil fuel-engined cars, so the 2040 exemption is more of a reprieve than a full amnesty.

At the moment, 2040 still seems like a very long way off, but bear in mind it’s 21 years since Gordon Brown took residence in Number 11 Downing Street and encouraged many of us to choose a diesel car for its low carbon dioxide emissions. In that light, another 21 years will see us bang up to the end of the road for petrol and diesel cars and the final furlong for hybrids.

Many drivers were encouraged to choose diesel as a less-polluting alternative by successive governments.

Many drivers were encouraged to choose diesel as a less-polluting alternative by successive governments.

Complacency is not a good option, so we need to think long and hard about the cars we’re buying and leasing right now to steer us in the direction of minimising outlay and costs as we move forward. Some of this is just acquiring good habits when it comes to selecting our next car, but there is also the fact that political sands shift.

As a result, we can be almost certain that any target set now for 2040 will change as that deadline approaches, if for no other reason than political expediency.

For the time being, the government is aiming for at least 50% of all vehicles sales to be Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles (ULEV) by 2030 and has set a target of 70% by this date. These are vehicles capable of zero emissions travel for at least 50 miles. Take a look at what cars are on offer just now that meet these criteria and they are thin on the ground; a few EVs and a handful of hybrids, such as the BMW i3 range extender.

The BMW i3 range extender is one of the few hybrids that current meets the government's criteria of being able to travel for at least 50 miles on electric power alone.

The BMW i3 range extender is one of the few hybrids that currently meets the government's criteria of being able to travel for at least 50 miles on electric power alone

Of course, more models are being added by car makers as they ramp up their effort to meet these targets well ahead so they can concentrate on whatever else is over the horizon. How they know what is coming is another matter as the Road to Zero plan fails to back any single form of zero emissions propulsion over another.

Is that simple diplomacy so they government doesn’t back a dead donkey or a mealy-mouthed lack of courage to stake a claim? Well, transport secretary Chris Grayling reckons the zero emissions auto industry will be worth around £7.6 trillion by 2050 and wants the UK to be a leader in the field. Sounds like a good idea but this government and previous ones have not shown great leadership in the field.

Recent pronouncements by the government have seriously harmed diesel sales and automotive jobs in the UK, so it does beg the question of why we should trust them on this going forward. Even with a promise to spend £1.5bn investing in ULEVs by 2020, including £400m on charging infrastructure, who’s to say a successive government will continue with that commitment?

Does Theresa May's government have what it takes to make the Road to Zero strategy a success?

Read more: Plug-in hybrids ranked by all-electric range

It’s also worth considering whether or not the government is being ambitious enough in its goals? Yes, 2040 may seem like a reasonable time frame to phase out fossil fuel-only vehicles and pave the way for the end of internal combustion altogether, but should we bring that date forward? Environmentalists would certainly welcome that approach, while car makers will shake their heads furiously.

There’s no easy answer to this particular poser, so 2040 is perhaps as good a date as any. It also allows for hybrid-powered cars to offer enthusiasts and keen drivers a shaft of hope that cars may still be fun to drive in the future when so much of their character and enjoyment is derived from the sound, feel and power delivery of an internal combustion engine.

That brings us back to the point that just about the only thing you can be sure of with future governments is they will move the goalposts from where they are now. That makes it very difficult for car makers to plan, design, build and sell the cars that will be the right ones for us as drivers and will meet the necessary legislative demands of whatever standards are enforced as we move forward.

Chargie home chargepoint 1

Read more: The Road to Zero plan includes kitting out all new homes and offices with an electric car charge point

We can be sure the Plug In Car Grant will come to an end sooner rather than later, so subsidies for hybrids will cease as a measure to steer drivers more towards pure EVs. Taxation will also favour zero emissions models as another method of forcing us out of cars with any form of fossil fuel propulsion, which means motoring for many in the future is going to get a lot pricier regardless of the fact they may well need a diesel-assisted car. Right now, there are no pure EVs that come anywhere close to offering the fuel range on a full charge of a car on a brimmed tank of diesel.

Don’t get us wrong, we’re enthusiastic about EVs and ULEVs, and we’re also optimistic about the future of the car as an interesting, engaging and fun form of travel.

The Road to Zero is not a threat or the beginning of the end for the car, but it does need to offer much stronger guidance for the sake of drivers and the car industry rather than political hedging. Still, at least it’s not in turmoil.

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