When Norman Baker delivered his recent statement on the sustainable local transport White Paper, I was surprised he said: “our transport decarbonisation strategy centres around the progressive electrification of the passenger car fleet”.
Of course, I understand why the Government is attempting to promote the use of electric cars and to decarbonise our transport system at taxpayer expense. There's a consensus among certain political elites about what's best for us all but it appears we won't choose to do as others think we ought, so force will be used instead. And we will all pay for its administration. This much is to be expected. However, that particular line of the statement irritated me for two specific reasons.
First, inasmuch as the Government may have a passenger car fleet, it does not own my car, or yours. I feel quite certain that the Minister meant all the passenger cars in the UK, so the phrase chosen indicates a certain frame of mind which ought to give us all pause for thought.
Second, if I wanted an electric car, I would buy one. I enjoy driving and I am glad my car has a 2.3 litre engine with a high-output turbo. It's what I wanted. I like track days and long drives in the mountains. It's a joy and manufacturers like, for example, BMW and Peugeot know it: I am not alone.
I cannot conceive of choosing an electric car. I want one that enables me, for example, to drive to the Alps where I can enjoy roads like the Stelvio Pass (right). I like driving 400+ miles without needing fuel and then filling up in a few minutes, not overnight. I don't share the emerging vision of long-distance travel between city centres by high-speed rail plus local travel by plug-in car. I like the countryside and my liberty and, given recent reports that the drought in the Amazon released as much CO2 as the annual emissions of China and Russia combined, I'm not convinced any of us deserve the birch for choosing a car with a little character.
We already don't have the generating capacity we need, so it's hard to see how electrification of cars will be plausible in the short and medium term.
And as The Times just reported, it's the tax on fuel that makes it is expensive. Fuel itself is cheap and convenient. What's more, while the price of oil is high and volatile priced in dollars, it's low and stable priced in gold:
In other words, it seems fuel is expensive at the pump because of tax and government intervention in money. No wonder the Chancellor is coming under pressure.
So, we are where we are. How can manufacturers deliver low-carbon, affordable and attractive passenger cars in a practical way, especially for those outside cities?
“Progressive electrification of the passenger car fleet” is the wrong approach.
Electric cars are typically capable of no more than 80-100 miles, so two challenges present themselves to rural drivers.
First, driving a car on minor country roads is never going to be efficient. Electric cars in the countryside would need recharging more often – the reverse of what is required.
Second, those living in rural areas, like many in my constituency, do not have easy access to charging points. For the State to give them access to such charging points would require huge sums of taxpayers' money to be poured into charging point programmes to deliver an infrequently-used asset. That wouldn't be financially viable even if it could be justified in principle and I don't think it can be.
Most of us expect our car to be capable of journeys of arbitrary length. Those lucky enough to have two or more probably have them for different purposes or to suit the tastes of different drivers. As the recent BBC experiment of driving an electric car from London to Edinburgh showed, it is just not practical to have an electric car for longer, perhaps multi-leg journies.
Electric cars may be fantastic city-runners, given enough cheap, clean power (which we don't have). Our cities would be cleaner and more pleasant. One can see the attractions for those with little enthusiasm for driving or the countryside.
Hybrids are efficient, clean and have a much greater range than their electric competitors. Both urban and rural drivers could benefit from them. Some might even be fun. However, prices remain high for electric and hybrid vehicles, despite taxpayer subsidies: people will continue to purchase traditional cars.
In the end, it is unrealistic to look away from traditional fuel types. For the foreseeable future, petrol and diesel will continue to play a major role in the motor industry worldwide, despite punitive levels of taxation.
Consequently, the mainstream low-carbon choice for years to come will be a car with a more efficient petrol or diesel engine plus better driving. That could be delivered without taxpayer-funded state coercion and space would remain for a little fun and something to aspire to. Something perhaps even a little light-hearted.
Now, wouldn't that be refreshing?
(Not happy with that Top Gear video? For your ease and convenience, you can complain to the taxpayer-funded BBC here.)