On the 20th of September, Rishi Sunak announced that he would be delaying the ban on petrol and diesel vehicle production until 2035. This will come as little surprise to anyone interested in this issue. Since Michael Gove’s announcement in 2017 that Britain is committed to decommissioning their production, the deadline has swung back and forth like a pendulum.
Between the years 2018 and 2022, the registration of new petrol and diesel cars declined from 93.4% to 47.4%. Certainly an impressive achievement, but not one which is likely to yield any real change, given that as of 2021, petrol and diesel cars still represent an overwhelming 95% of cars on British roads.
The reason for this lack of actual impact is that the policy is rather misguided and unlikely to deliver any tangible change to the types of vehicles seen on British roads. 85% of car sales in the UK are from imports, and we already know that the EU, home to most of our favourite marques, has pledged a ban on diesel and petrol car production from within the bloc after 2035. Given this, the UK ban serves only to seek parity with EU law, and extinguish the post-Brexit opportunity of producing efficient and cheap petrol and diesel cars to be exported to the lesser developed parts of the world where environmental regulations are a long way off.
The British automotive industry brought in £13.3bn in 2022 – with diesel and petrol engines contributing to 70% of the sum. While certainly not an astronomical figure, the automotive industry currently provides approximately 160,000 people with jobs in areas like Crewe and Derbyshire, which the government have been keen to ‘level up’ for quite some time.
With all that being said, the UK is actively trying to position itself as a world leader in EV and hybrid vehicle production and infrastructure. Disappointingly, however, this comes with high costs to the taxpayer. So far, we have £2.5bn earmarked for plug-in vehicle grants, £300 million in grants for sales of electric vans, taxis, and motorcycles, as well as a further ‘propping-up’ investment into the industry of over £2bn.
All the while, the government is also keen to boast of private-sector investments, like those of BMW, Tata, and Nissan all showing interest in providing the British EV industry with £600mn, £4bn, and £1bn, respectively. Why, then, is the government keen to take more of the taxpayers’ money to assist an industry which is competitive, healthy, and optimistic?
Perhaps it is to help fund its deeper contradictory plans, values, and expenditures.
In the meantime of us being fed the imperative of ridding all future diesel and petrol production for the sake of ‘greenifying’ our automotive fleet, the government are also happily handing out tax exemptions elsewhere. Any ‘historic vehicle’ which is more than forty years old (updated on a rolling basis) is excluded from paying vehicle tax, which also includes ULEZ charges.
It is needless to mention that modern cars are generally more fuel-efficient and far less polluting, thanks to innovations like modern catalytic converters and computer-based fuel injectors. While an argument could be made that old cars are technically more environmentally friendly since they are already on the road – while our greener modern counterparts will negatively impact the environment by needing to be made, then the same logic should be true for EVs. Due to the complicated, expensive, and still relatively inefficient manufacturing process of EVs, producing a single Tesla battery has been equated to burning around 1130 litres of petrol. While EVs are undoubtedly an exciting promise for the future, they are not the be-all and end-all of green automotive innovation.
P1 Fuels, a private Germany-based company, made headlines at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. During a segment called ‘Race without Trace’, the company’s sustainable fossil-free fuel was used to power (without any modification to the cars whatsoever) not only the gas-guzzlers of the 1990s but astoundingly, also a pair of 1900-1910 cars. The runs were entirely free of any CO2 emissions, and the cars themselves reported to “[run] smoother, cooler and use less fuel”.
The history of the automotive industry is a tale of continuous striving for innovation, upgrades, and efficiency. From the drivetrain, the power unit, all the way to the tires and fuel, what we use today is categorically unrecognisable from what was used in the preceding decades.
Policymakers are not engineers or mechanics. They do not have the knowledge or expertise necessary to be dictating the course of entire industries. And yet, they continue to arbitrarily decide who wins and who loses – with a whole host of contradictions along the way. My advice? Stay out of the way, and trust the innovators to innovate a green path forward.