Floating toward zero carbon

Steve Gooding, Director of The Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring (RAC)

On the face of it placing so many of our zero carbon hopes for transport on the future development of ultra-efficient, affordable, long-range, long-lived batteries for car and light vehicles would appear a high-risk strategy, which is presumably why the Government has consistently stated that it wishes to be technology neutral, given the possibility that the development of hydrogen-powered alternatives leapfrogs battery development.

But as I write this I have just finished reading a review of the latest Tesla, the Tesla Model S Plaid Plus, which is coming to market with an amazing 500 mile range. Tesla’s Elon Musk is on record saying that a car with a 600 mile range is in development.

Think about that – our research revealed that the average annual mileage for a petrol car in the first three years after registration was around 7,500 miles. A 500 mile range means you might only need to recharge just over once a month. That could sweep away the ongoing anxieties of motorists lacking the off-street parking to be able to charge their cars at home.

This article is from our Local Path to Net Zero series.

All well and good if you have deep pockets. The Tesla Model S range starts at £75,000 which sets it well outside most motorists’ reach. But Tesla have long made the point that they are following well established automotive practice – the cutting edge tech goes into the top-of-the-range vehicles first, with the expectation that it will gradually trickle down, in this case to the Model 3 family saloon, and probably beyond, with further models reported to be on the Tesla drawing board. And where Tesla has led, so other auto companies have followed, both established giants such as Volkswagen and Nissan, as well as enterprising start-ups, like Chinese companies Nio and Byton, all of whom are funnelling investment into battery-electric drivetrain solutions. United State giant General Motors has just committed to an all-electric line-up for 2035, with, it seems, Will Ferrell’s encouragement.

The problem the battery builders have yet to tackle is the cost (financial, economic and social) of sourcing raw materials and then developing at-scale production that should see costs to the end-user fall. The technological breakthrough needed is to find alternatives to lithium, nickel and cobalt, because if that can’t be done not only will prices stay high but on some counts supply will simply be insufficient to meet demand.

But necessity, as they say, is the mother of all invention. Ever tightening regulation, here and overseas, gives the automotive world a tremendous incentive to focus the millions ploughed into tech development. Companies that can’t meet the zero tailpipe challenge are in for a very hard time by the end of this decade, when our own government’s ending of the sale of internal combustion engined cars kicks in.

Finding zero tailpipe solutions for heavy trucks remains a conundrum for which there appears to be no clear answer. Various solutions are being explored, from a switch to hydrogen power through to stringing up overhead wires to deliver electricity, like those above many of our rail lines. It would be a brave writer who chose to predict which solution would win the commercial race, but it is a race that offers a considerable prize.

So, from a policy perspective there are reasons to be, if not cheerful, then at least hopeful – optimistic, even: never underestimate human ingenuity especially when it is coupled to an existential crisis like global warming. Look at the phenomenal pace at which vaccines have been developed to tackle the COVID pandemic.

Before leaving the issue it is probably worth our looking at the other side of the zero-carbon coin for road transport – we can ‘green’ the vehicles we use but there is also the scope to ‘green’ our use of the roads too. A sure-fire way to reduce vehicle emissions would be for us to do less driving. Which doesn’t necessarily mean stopping altogether. Rather, it means encouraging us to think more about the pattern of trips that we make and then to choose the right mode for the right trip.

2020 turned out to be the year of staying at home, particularly for office staff whose employers found that enabling them to work from home wasn’t at all a bad idea. Not a solution that works for everyone, and certainly not all the time. Many of us are craving some return to face-to-face contact with our colleagues - just not for five days-a-week.

Quite how this will play out is, again, uncertain. In particular the world of retail is in turmoil, with as yet uncertain consequences for the traditional high-street.

All of which creates some knotty challenges for local authorities, hit by the COVID crisis, assailed by the burdens of social care, desperately short of cash and people, yet urged to promote active travel and support the switch to electric by installing more on-street chargepoints by a seemingly endless series of bidding opportunities for money from the Department for Transport and the Office of Zero Emission Vehicles. If only all the time that went into bidding could be spent doing things…

If, though, we’re all going to embrace on-line shopping and home delivery then maybe we should revisit the electric vehicle that, perhaps unknowingly, showed us one version of what ‘good’ could look like? And by that I mean the humble, electric milk float, familiar to anyone who was around in – golly – the last century.

What the old school milk float needed was an extended range and just a bit more oomph (not necessarily to go faster, but to carry larger loads), both of which now seem to be on the cards.

I wonder whether Elon Musk ever saw one. If he saw one now, who knows what might happen next?