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Electric Vehicles: Promotion

Volume 692: debated on Wednesday 21 April 2021

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered promotion of electric vehicle usage.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the Minister for taking time to come and listen to the debate. I first refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Can you hear that? No, you cannot. That is the sound of an electric vehicle. Quiet, isn’t it? Now breathe in through your nose—even those with masks on. Please breathe in, a big sniff. Can you smell anything? No. Again, there is nothing to smell. No nasty gases polluting the air we breathe; no noise polluting the sound of birds singing. Okay; we get the picture. It may be a little dramatic, but none the less it is all very true. That is our future, and it is not far away. In fact, if the Minister and the Government really want to, they can bring this vehicle revolution here within the next five years.

Now there is a stumbling block. Well, it is a few blocks that make a wall, but there really is only one wall now. You see, as time has moved on, so have the cars. Even as little as five years ago, electric cars were being produced but they were very expensive. Many listening to this debate may think that that is still the case. I am not going to tell you that they are cheap, but apparently the cost that makes a car affordable these days is around £36,000 and, thankfully, that is where we are today.

That is the lower end of the market, yes, and £36,000 is still a large amount of money, but it is at least comparable to a diesel or petrol vehicle. Many people buy these vehicles on personal contract purchase, so the actual capital cost is never paid in a lump sum, but rather as a deposit and a monthly figure which usually covers the depreciation. Electric cars tend to hold their money very well, so the monthly payments should be at least as competitive, if not better.

Electric cars are also phenomenally cheap to run. The average cost of a 100-mile journey in a diesel is £12; in an electric vehicle it is £7. Servicing costs are also much lower. With fewer moving parts, there is a lot less to go wrong. Most electric vehicles have fewer than 20 moving parts. Wherever you get moving parts, you get wear through friction. That usually means maintenance or failure, so it is obvious that the fewer the moving parts, the better. Electric vehicles brake through regeneration, too, so brake pad wear is minimal. With no exhaust, no oil to change, no filters—you get the picture.

If cost is not holding us back, what is? Is it distance? Again, that used to be the case. However, most electric vehicles do much more than 200 miles now, and although that can drop in the winter months as batteries and occupants need to be kept warm, most vehicles will easily do 130 miles. As the average journey in the UK is less than 10 miles, range is not the big issue any more.

I should like to take a minute to help everyone to recharge their electric vehicle. Electric vehicles are not like petrol or diesel vehicles, which a person would quite happily drive around with less than half a tank, and would definitely not fill up every day. However, with an electric vehicle, if you can, you should. There are two main reasons for that.

First, unlike with a petrol or diesel car, when your car is parked your EV will lose charge. That is because the batteries look after themselves with a slight amount of warmth, and there are lots of electronics that are always using power, so invariably you will lose around 1% a day. If you have to make an emergency journey or take a spontaneous day out—when we are not in lockdown—unless you are fully charged, you are not going. I think it was Elon Musk who said, ABC—always be charging. That is okay if you have a home charge unit, but if not, we need multiple fast-charging units everywhere.

Secondly, no one wants to wait three to four hours for their car to be charged, so the charging points need to be at least 60 kW, preferably 120 kW. Thirdly, I should mention the reliability of charge points; that is so important. Turning up to an EV station with a faulty or damaged unit is not fun, and unlike running out of fuel, a person cannot just call dad, as I know my daughter would, for a gallon of petrol. An electric vehicle just does not work like that—if you run out of charge, you are stuck—so charging points must be reliable.

Finally, the payment system for the charge points needs to be contactless. People need to be able to drive up, plug in, pay when ready and drive away. Contactless payment must be the way. The Government should work with stakeholders to ensure that contactless facilities are fitted to all new and existing charge points.

Those are the four stumbling blocks—the wall that is getting in the way of increased electric vehicle usage: the lack of charging points, the size of those points, their unreliability and the lack of contactless facilities. How can we overcome that wall?

Let me start by saying that we are trying—that is for sure. The announcement that no more internal combustion engines are to be registered after 2030 has definitely made the industry sit up and look at the issue more seriously. We are currently installing many charging points, but we need many more rapid units now. How can we do that?

We need to remove some of the existing incentives in the automobile sector and reinvest the money into EV charging point infrastructure. Currently, we are discounting cars and the cost of chargers at home and discounting vehicle excise duty and company car tax. Yet the cost of cars is falling, and will fall even more as the big auto companies such as Volkswagen, BMW and Ford start coming on board and producing more of their own electric vehicles.

The current voucher scheme for home charging is too complicated and does not really offer any huge savings to the end customer. Furthermore, as electric vehicles are becoming cheaper and cheaper to run, tax incentives will soon not be needed. If those moneys were redirected to further charging infrastructure projects, the automotive industry, which contributes much of our greenhouse gas emissions, could really lead the way to our net zero target.

Although I think the Government should change course slightly, I also thank the Minister for what they have done so far, and what they have already set out to do. The Government are investing £1.3 billion; £950 million of that is going directly into rapid charging projects. I know from my many meetings with stakeholders that the investment is more than welcome. The Government are investing a further £90 million into local EV charging schemes, which local councils can apply for. The financing scheme is also a massive help and I hope that many businesses use it.

Some currently say that battery technology will get even better, while others stress that, while it will take time to get the charging points installed, they will come along eventually. I cannot stress how important it is that Ministers do not adopt that attitude, and instead move much more quickly. Why? It is obvious that fewer customers are buying electric vehicles due to that anxiety and the distance between charge points. That range anxiety is what is really stopping people buying these fantastic vehicles. The answer is to have high-powered rapid charging stations everywhere.

A 300-mile-range vehicle with a high-powered charging can take as little as 20 minutes to give in excess of 150 miles’ charge. That is 75 miles in less than 10 minutes. That is obviously what we need—for EV charging points to be installed with the same frequency as petrol stations, well-lit and ideally under cover.

A perfect example is Gridserve in Essex. Its charging forecourt is clean, safe and has a lounge—not that it is really needed—shopping and a Costa Coffee. It has easy payment methods, too. Existing forecourt operators need to be taking this revolution seriously. With the Government’s backing in the initial stage, it could be great for the customer and also profitable enough for the private sector to get involved and really push it forward.

I believe that the Government should taper off grants for home charging grant schemes by the end of the year, and do the same with electric car grants. Furthermore, we should look at the slow removal of company car tax benefits and vehicle excise duty benefits. With the savings made on removing those incentives, we should redirect the moneys into furthering the rapid charging network, so that anxiety is a thing of the past.

I also urge the Government to consider a proposal from Policy Exchange for a California-style zero-emission-vehicle mandate, which would require manufacturers to sell more electric or hydrogen vehicles each year. There should also be fines for companies that poorly maintain their charging points, and contactless payment must be mandatory. If we do that, the take-up of such vehicles will be huge.

I want to mention a final issue, on which I hope to secure a debate later in the year: artificial intelligence. With electric vehicles, the public are seeing the power of artificial intelligence. I am talking about self-driving cars. This is the first real step into the future, and none of us really understands it, so I make one further ask: will the Minister discuss the effects of AI with all her colleagues as a matter of urgency? I believe that there will be many benefits from AI over the years to come, but unless it is regulated now, the positive effects might be far outweighed by the negative effects that AI has on society.

One final time: can you hear that, Sir Edward? No. Well, that is an electric vehicle.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing the debate, and thank him for allowing me to contribute as well.

This is an important and timely debate, given the Government’s recent climate change commitments and the transport decarbonisation plan that is expected later this spring. In the EV conversation we rightly focus on battery electric, as my hon. Friend already has, but as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on hydrogen, I say that we must not forget the role that fuel-cell electric can play in supporting our net zero targets. Such technology is powered by hydrogen and rapidly improves air quality, as it produces no carbon emissions. Indeed, the only waste from a hydrogen electric vehicle is water.

Hyundai anticipates that 10,000 NEXOs on the road would have a carbon reduction effect equivalent to planting 60,000 trees. The key benefit of hydrogen electric, compared with battery electric, is the consumer continuity by way of shorter recharging times and extended range, ending the road rage that my hon. Friend spoke about. On a five-minute charge, these types of cars can travel more than 400 miles, which is equivalent to any petrol or diesel car. However, the biggest barrier to these vehicles, and to those that are battery electric, is cost. We need to provide an answer to that. How can someone on a low income who drives a five or 10 year-old petrol car be convinced to switch to a zero-carbon vehicle? Net zero can be achieved only if it is accessible for everyone, so those of us who want to see a reduction in our emissions will need to answer that.

Beyond hydrogen electric cars, the most important role that fuel cells will play is in helping decarbonise our larger road transport, particularly buses and heavy goods vehicles. In 2015, the Government backed the groundbreaking Aberdeen bus project, introducing 10 hydrogen buses in Aberdeen. At the time it was the largest hydrogen bus fleet in Europe. Fast-forward five years and, according to the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, there are over 7,000 fuel cell buses and commercial vehicles already operating globally, including almost 100 fuel-cell buses in the UK. That will be further boosted by the Government’s recent announcement of more than £10 million investment in hydrogen bus manufacturing in Northern Ireland. We are investing in greener trains, with hydrogen trains coming to Teesside tracks in the not-too-distant future; in greener shipping, with £20 million for clean maritime competition; and in greener flying, with the Jet Zero Council. I know that fuel cells will play an important part in all of that.

If I could ask the Minister to look at one area further, it would be how we can use hydrogen fuel cells in emergency service vehicles. Police stations, fire stations and hospitals often have a lot of associated land that would be perfect for the production and storage of hydrogen, converting our ambulances and fire engines to low carbon, with the added benefit of shorter refuelling times and extended range. The market is growing, and this provides an exciting opportunity to potentially support thousands of green jobs in the UK. Hydrogen will be one of the key ways that we level up the whole of the United Kingdom, and I am grateful to the Government for recognising the role that Redcar and Cleveland can play in that. I am proud that Teesside is building the UK’s first hydrogen transport hub.

If we are to meet our climate target and scale up demand for electric vehicles, we must also ensure that we realise the full potential of fuel-cell electric vehicles. That requires ensuring that the right infrastructure is in place to provide long-term certainty in order to attract investment opportunities. From speaking to businesses operating in the sector, I know that they are ready to scale up and meet the demand going forward. We can achieve that by including hydrogen refuelling station infrastructure in future funding schemes, supporting hydrogen refuelling stations and further incentivising the public to take up these zero-emission vehicles. My hope is that we continue to lead the way as a global frontrunner in clean energy and net zero transport. With the right infrastructure, investment in place and support for those who need it, I am certain that our transport system will build back not only better, but greener too.

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this important debate on the promotion of electric vehicle usage. Like him, I am a passionate and keen electric vehicle driver and enjoy the peace and quiet and the clean experience it brings me. I very much welcome the opportunity to set out what the Government are doing on this important agenda.

The transition to zero-emission vehicles is critical, as my hon. Friend said, in helping us to meet our climate change obligations and in improving air quality in our towns and cities. That is why we are going further and faster to decarbonise transport by phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030; from 2035, all new cars and vans must be zero-emission at the tailpipe, putting us on course to be the fastest nation in the G7 to decarbonise cars and vans. On the back of the further announcement from the Prime Minister yesterday about our accelerated carbon targets, it is clear that we are playing a world-leading role in the fight against climate change under this Conservative Government.

I thank my hon. Friend for rightly pointing out all the positives of owning an electric vehicle. It is right that, overall, they are cheaper to run than the equivalent petrol and diesel car. He is also correct that range anxiety should be, and in most cases is, a concern of the past: in fact, 99% of car trips are less than 100 miles, and many of the latest electric vehicles can travel more than 200 miles on a single charge. For example, the Volkswagen ID.3 Pro has a 263-mile range, enough to drive from Westminster to my hon. Friend’s constituency, Don Valley, with 100 miles to spare—maybe stopping off in Gainsborough as well, Sir Edward.

My hon. Friend is also right to point to the stumbling blocks. I will start with the lack of rapid chargers. He pointed out that the Government are providing £1.3 billion to accelerate the roll-out of charge points on motorways and major A roads, in homes and businesses and on streets. That is part of an overall package of £2.8 billion to support industry as a whole and consumers to make the switch to electric vehicle motoring.

The UK is already a global front-runner in supporting provision of charging infrastructure. Government and industry have supported the installation of nearly 20,800 public charging devices, including nearly 3,900 rapid devices—one of the largest networks in Europe. In my hon. Friend’s own region of Yorkshire and the Humber, there are more than 1,000 publicly available charging devices, 311 of which are rapid devices. In England, a driver is never more than 25 miles away from a rapid charge point anywhere along England’s motorways and major A roads. However, I totally agree with my hon. Friend that there is much more to do, and we will come forward with a number of plans and announcements on our infrastructure strategy to deliver the charge points that we need to underpin this transition.

I agree furthermore with my hon. Friend that rapid charging is key to increasing the confidence in electric vehicles. Thanks to the Government and private sector working together, there are rapid and ultra-rapid charge points across 97% of motorway service areas in England, but we are ramping up this provision. We expect all motorway service stations to have at least six 150kW chargers by 2023, backed by investment from this Conservative Government, which means that someone should be able to charge their rapid charging-enabled car in the time it takes to get a cup of coffee, just as we would now with an internal-combustion-engine car.

It is important to recognise that slower forms of charging are important as well. Customers value the choice and flexibility to charge their vehicles at different speeds in different locations, such as overnight at home, at work or when they go shopping. I love the fact that I can go to sleep while my vehicle is charging and it is fully charged and ready to go when I wake up in the morning.

We have a comprehensive strategy to support the roll-out of charging. In addition to the £50 million we have made available this year for home and workplace charging schemes, we are proposing a number of important changes. We are refocusing our electric vehicle home charge scheme to support people living in rented and leasehold accommodation, which will level up our infrastructure roll-out. Our workplace charging scheme will be opened up to small and medium-sized enterprises and the charity sector.

We know that charging for people without off-street parking is a massively important issue. I encourage all parliamentary colleagues listening to this debate to speak to their local authorities and encourage them to apply, if they have not done so already, to our £20 million on-street residential charging fund, which was doubled last year by the Transport Secretary.

My information is that no local authority in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley has applied for this funding, so I encourage him to speak to his colleagues and co-workers at his local authority so they can apply for that funding, which could benefit residents. The money has been made available; it is down to local authorities to work with the Government and get the charging infrastructure where it needs to be.

The purpose of that scheme is to increase the availability of on-street charging points in residential streets, where off-street parking is not available. Many people live in homes and streets of this type. Some 75% of the capital cost of procuring and installing charge points is covered by central Government, and the Government provide free, impartial advice through a number of sources; I am happy to direct my hon. Friend to that.

I move on to the valid point that he raised about contactless payments at charge points. We agree with him that the experience needs to improve. We recently held a consultation to make payments easier, charge points more reliable and pricing more transparent, and to ensure that the data is open and accessible. We will come forward with a response to that and lay regulations on those topics in autumn 2021, parliamentary scheduling permitting.

Let me set out the Government’s position on the vehicle grants that my hon. Friend raised. Many of these matters are for the Treasury, as he knows. As we first signalled in 2018, our intention is to move away from grants as the market matures. We have refocused our vehicle grants to target the more affordable end of the market, where we know most consumers will be looking and where taxpayers’ money will make the most difference. In response to that, many manufacturers have reduced the prices of their vehicles. For example, BMW have dropped the price of their i3S by almost £7,500, which is a great win for consumers.

Our grants are working. In 2020, battery electric vehicles made up 6.6% of the new car market. Since 2011, our plug-in grants have supported 300,000 ultra low emission vehicles. We have committed a further £582 million to support vehicle grants, so we do see our grants having a long-term role to play, alongside other support, although we will continue to keep all these policies under review.

I turn now to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young). I thank him for raising the vital subject of hydrogen and the role of fuel cell vehicles in the transition to zero-emission motoring. As he knows, our ambitions for delivering greener transport are technology neutral. We believe that a range of zero-emission transport technologies will be adopted in the future. He highlighted a number of Government plans and projects that have supported hydrogen vehicles of all types already.

I put on the record my grateful thanks to him for the role he has played in securing the first hydrogen for transport hub, which is in his area of Tees Valley. It has come with £3 million worth of funding, to enable exactly the things that he describes and enable hydrogen for transport to develop alongside its application in the industrial, energy and other sectors of the economy. We are pushing ahead with plans for the hub. It is a world-leading project, and we believe it will set out a vision for the role that hydrogen can play in transport. I am very excited to see that progressing.

In the last couple of moments, Sir Edward, I refer to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar about artificial intelligence and driverless cars. He is right to mention that as we do not get to talk about the subject often enough, so I thank him for bringing it up. He mentions the exciting progress we have made in self-driving vehicles in this country, and the importance of understanding this new technology and its impact on society.

I believe self-driving vehicles have the potential to make journeys greener, safer, easier and more reliable. We have the opportunity to bring vast economic benefits to our country, by creating an industry and building on our existing world-leading expertise in automotive and engineering. The industry could be worth billions of pounds and could generate thousands of well-paid skilled jobs. As my hon. Friend knows very well, this Government’s intention is to build back greener, creating well-paid jobs in the industries of the future, and driving a green industrial recovery.

The introduction of self-driving vehicles to UK roads is closer than many would think. We are currently considering whether vehicles equipped with the new automated lane keeping system technology, which could enter the British market as early as the end of this year, can be legally defined as “self-driving”. [Interruption.] I hope you can hear me, Sir Edward.

Great; I will continue. It is essential that the introduction of self-driving vehicles be supported by appropriate safety and legal frameworks. The UK has published three world-leading consultation papers on a comprehensive safety and regulatory framework for self-driving vehicles, led by the Law Commission. The final recommendations from the Law Commission are due by the end of this year, and I will be discussing them carefully with my colleagues across Government.

That is all part of the Government’s effort to make the UK the best place in the world to deploy and develop self-driving vehicles, which must, of course, be safe. The questions of safety and the role that artificial intelligence can play are at the forefront of my mind as a Minister in the Department for Transport.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley for this excellent opportunity to set out some of the work that we are doing in Government to promote electric vehicle usage across all parts of the UK. I agree that we need to take ambitious steps to scale up this exciting transition, for both electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen in all its forms. I assure him that we are not sitting back and letting this happen; we are actively pushing forward a number of strategies, including the transport decarbonisation plan, which is to be published later this spring and will set out a lot more detail.

With that, Sir Edward, I conclude my remarks and welcome the quiet, which sounds exactly like an electric vehicle driving.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.