Our experts examine some of the ways driving has changed in the modern world as part of our updated guide to everyday life
The way we drive is changing, and it’s not all about that looming 2030 deadline. Like it or not, motoring is changing rapidly as we transform into a carbon-neutral society.
No one knows how our habits will change in the long term. Right now, the only certainty is that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned in 2030, and then electric vehicles (EVs) are likely to be the chief four-wheel option.
That doesn’t mean the fossil fuel cars we’re driving today will become obsolete in 2030. But there may come a point when their use will be banned or limited, or may become uneconomic and impractical to run through a mix of high taxes and fuel costs, scarcity of filling stations and ultra low emission zones.
Right now, sales of electric cars are booming, with 190,727 new EVs joining the UK’s roads in 2021, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) – more than in the previous five years combined.
Those who argue against them mainly cite cost or an inadequate charging infrastructure. But an EV generally costs as little as a third to run per mile as a petrol or diesel – and the government has announced plans to add up to 145,000 new charge points a year across England until the end of the decade, mandating their addition to new-build homes, workplaces and supermarkets undergoing major renovations.
It’s true that EVs cost more than ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) models, but the gap is narrowing as more of them hit the market. The difference in upfront cost is also narrowing and is much smaller when vehicles are financed via leasing-style plans such as PCP.
Small electric city cars with shorter ranges of 100 miles or so are available for between £20,000–£30,000. Family EVs with a claimed range of 250–300 miles cost from around £35,000, while the premium sector has vehicles capable of 300+ miles, with the Mercedes-Benz EQS nudging 400 miles. Used EVs, such as early examples of the original Nissan Leaf can be bought from £6,500.
While some drivers will probably never accept electric vehicles because they lack the raw feel and engine noise of fossil fuel cars, the instant oomph (or torque) of an electric car is totally addictive, while EVs such as the MINI Electric, Polestar 2 and Porsche Taycan deliver a truly dynamic driving experience. But perhaps the ultimate endorsement is that you’ll never hear an EV driver say they plan to switch back to an ICE car.
Ultimately, there’s no such thing as a 100% ‘green’ car, but EVs are about as close as we can get for now. Running one is emissions-free, but it can take years for its overall carbon footprint to drop below that of a petrol equivalent because producing an EV creates more emissions than making an equivalent size ICE – mainly due to the battery.
Crucially, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), this ‘carbon debt’ can be made up after 7,061 miles of driving an EV. Then there’s the way electricity is produced. Until renewables generate all our power, an EV isn’t truly green.
And finally, there’s the thorny issue of electric car batteries. The good news is that lithium-ion batteries can be reused as storage devices for energy generated from renewable sources, when they’re no longer able to power a vehicle. It is possible to recycle EV batteries, but the process is complicated and expensive, and it’s thought that as few as 5% are currently recycled. In the long term, it’s hoped that easier, more cost-effective ways will be found as more electric cars hit the road, technology advances and economies of scale kick in.
There are also environmental and human rights concerns over the production of lithium-ion batteries, which relies on raw materials such as lithium, cobalt and rare earth elements. The race is on to tackle these issues and the government says, “The UK is part of international efforts to secure a transparent, sustainable and ethical supply of raw materials, protecting the lives and livelihoods of miners.”
New ways to ‘buy’ cars
The traditional car ownership model is already changing. Most new vehicles are ‘bought’ using finance deals such as PCP (Personal Contract Purchase), which is more like leasing. It gives you the option to pay an initial deposit, followed by fixed regular monthly payments. When these are finished, you can either pay a lump sum to own the car, hand it back, or exchange it for a new one, using any equity towards another PCP finance deal.
Other options becoming more popular include ride sharing (just like it sounds: two or more people share a car and travel together towards a common destination) and car-sharing schemes, which give members access to vehicles in return for annual or usage fees.
Technology could also revolutionise the way we travel in one other significant way: self-driving cars could become a reality in the not-so-distant future.
There are five levels of autonomous vehicle, but cars that require no human interaction (Level 5) are a long way off. Maybe 10–15 years. Maybe never.
Many vehicles are already available with Level 2 features, which is where computers take over multiple driving functions and can operate systems such as lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control systems simultaneously.
Level 3 is a big jump, and it’s set to become legal on UK roads this year. It means you can take your eyes off the road and your hands off the steering wheel, but you must be able to take back control immediately if a warning is given.
As well as being greener, because they are driven more efficiently, it’s argued that autonomous vehicles could improve road safety. The SMMT reckons these cars could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade by reducing the single largest cause of road accidents – human error.
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