Parvez Akhtar is a Computer Aided Engine Design Specialist at Ford Motor Company and was the Conservative candidate in the 2009 Bedford mayoral by-election. He is currently Conservative Policy Forum coordinator in the Eastern region.
The government's strategy on Plug-In Vehicle Infrastructure published on Thursday has drawn criticisms with some very sensational headlines. On Friday, the Mail described it as "moving the car industry into the slow lane", while yesterday's Independent labelled it as "a U-Turn" on the back of quotes from Labour's transport spokesman. In my view neither of these stories has taken a close enough look at the report, the work the Department of Transport is co-ordinating in the area of low carbon vehicles, or indeed where the auto industry itself is currently heading.
Average new car CO2 emissions have declined by 20.3% since 2000 and fell by 3.5% in 2010 alone. Engine research and development has largely contributed to this significant reduction in CO2 emissions in recent years. Today's vehicles are powered by the most efficient generation of diesel and petrol engines, with direct injection, turbocharging and variable valve timing; they deliver the performance of a larger engine with the fuel economy and CO2 benefits of a smaller one. The clever technology also ensures that the performance is not compromised and performance enthusiasts can enjoy driving pleasure but at lower costs. Further technological improvements, such as automatically shutting down the engine when idling, optimised aerodynamics, improved tyre technology, better transmission, and clever control to adjust to driving behaviour, are all helping to ensure the trend to lower CO2 continues.
The emerging view is that the focus for de-carbonising transport should be first to improve the fuel efficiency of conventional engines, and then gradually introduce alternative technologies. The industry itself is not picking a winner in the technology race, but investing across the board in technologies that can flourish is continuing to encourage innovation in all of them. This view is reflected in the the New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team (NAIGT) roadmap below, which shows that by 2020, internal combustion engines will continue to be in place, but hybrids, electric and hydrogen vehicles will be entering the market.
NAIGT technology roadmap (Source NAIGT)
According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the pace of uptake of these technologies is difficult to forecast, given the infancy, the challenges of developing the technology, the lack of infrastructure and the consumer acceptance of these new technologies. This is why I believe the current strategy from the government is well balanced in providing support in the right way and at the right pace. The most important and telling conclusion in the whole strategy is that the government understand the changing nature of the market and will provide an update to the strategy in 2013.
However, in the meantime, they are not sitting back as some of the reports in the media suggest. Instead, they have made provision for over £300million in car grants to reduce the upfront cost of eligible vehicles; have introduced favourable tax regimes, with plug-in vehicles receiving vehicle excise duty and company car tax exemptions; have made £30m available to eight pilot projects installing and trialing recharging infrastructure in the UK, and there is the potential for the Green Investment Bank to provide targeted financial support for appropriate plug-in vehicle infrastructure projects in the future. They are also working with other key stakeholders, including electricity providers, local authorities and businesses to ensure that the building blocks are in place for uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles, which the Committee on Climate Change suggests could reach 16% or 400,000 vehicles in the UK by 2020, from a current level of 40,000.
But most importantly for me, they are supporting low and ultra-low carbon vehicle research, development and demonstration focusing on priorities identified in conjunction with the UK Automotive Council and The Technology Strategy Board, where relatively small amounts of public money have been used to act as a catalyst for vehicle manufacturers to undertake research and engineering in the UK. This approach will ensure that the UK can be a centre of excellence for the new low-carbon and high value technologies that offer growth potential for our economy. After all, this country is home to seven volume car manufacturers and eight commercial vehicle makers, who between them produce over one million cars and commercial vehicles and over two million engines annually. The automotive sector contributes over 10% of total UK exports and employs over 700,000 people, contributing £8.5bn added value to the economy.
Far from moving into the slow lane, the auto sector is powering full speed ahead, and is playing its part in re-balancing the economy towards manufacturing, but does need continued government focus.