The Bill addresses fundamental issues involving electric and automated vehicles that are revolutionising how drivers and we as a society see driving. Do you think that the Bill as it stands will address the issue of public confidence in new technologiesQ ?
It starts to go towards that. I am doing many public appearances to discuss the impact of electric vehicles. It is effectively a disruptive technology, in the same way as cell phones and the internet. It has elements of those disruptive aspects, which are never all positive. There are some positives, but there are definitely some negatives. One of the things that it highlights is the ownership model. That is certainly something that motor manufacturers are very focused on: the way we use cars at the moment.
It is the 90:90 dilemma; I have never heard anyone dispute that. At the moment, 90% of the cars we own are idle 90% of the time. When you look at it from that point of view, any other business or industry that kept 90% of its assets idle for 90% of the time would not be in business. It is a really difficult challenge, and I do not have an answer. One of the answers that is emerging, as you have just been hearing, is autonomous vehicles. There are so many complexities, as you have listed wonderfully in the Bill so far. When I started to read it, I got a bit of a fuzzy brain, but that is the actor side of me; it is not an enormous intellect.
The challenges that it raises are fascinating. I fuel my own cars with my own fuel, which I make in my house. That has never been possible before. It is conceivable that, if I lived in the right part of the world, I could have drilled down, extracted oil, built a small refinery and filled my car, but that is pushing it a bit. This technology allows you to do that, although not all year round and not 100% of the time. How do you legislate that? How do you tax that fuel? All those things are thrown up in the air. It feels a bit wild west at the moment.
That is one aspect of it. The other aspect is the charging infrastructure. Anyone who has an electric car will talk to you about it for a year, because it is such an emerging area. When I first started driving electric cars in 2010, there was one rapid charger in the country. That belonged to Mitsubishi in Cirencester and you had to arrange to go and visit it, so it was like a day out to go down to Cirencester and use a rapid charger. For 90% of the time it did not work; all the instructions were in Japanese; and no one understood Japanese at Mitsubishi, so it was not very reliable.
However, now, if you are stupid enough—I have done it in the winter—you can drive from London to Edinburgh in a Nissan Leaf. It takes a long time, it is a miserable trip, and it is quicker on the train, but it can be done. I have driven all over the country in various electric cars, now relatively easily, so there has been a dramatic change in the infrastructure, but there are very few electric cars on the road. If you doubled the numbers overnight, there would be issues with that. I think 40% of the people in this country do not have somewhere off the street to park their car, so where do they charge them? I will not go on too long.
Sorry, yes, that was your question. There is one crucial thing that I think could be addressed. It has been addressed in other countries. Ireland and California are two places that I know about where there is one system for paying for electricity. Everyone who uses an electric car is happy to pay for the electricity, but the system is so complex. I could get the collection of cards out of my wallet that I need to be able to use all the chargers, and very often I do not have the specific card for that charger. In Ireland there is one system, an app that you have, and you can use any charger. It is operated by many different companies. They all get paid for it, but you just have one thing. A combination of either that or touch to pay should be addressed.
You can buy a bag of crisps with touch to pay, but you cannot buy electricity from a charger. I know there are complexities and legal difficulties and expense, but that would really make a huge difference. The most common complaint I hear is, “I haven’t got a wallet big enough to hold all the cards.” And you need membership and subscriptions. All that needs to go so that you literally go up to a charger, pay for the electricity you are using and move on. You do not have to join a club to use a Shell petrol pump. You just pay for it. That is a really essential thing.
Q You have described very well the problems that we have. I declare an interest as the owner of an electric vehicle. Finding somewhere to charge it is often extremely difficult. One of the other problems is home charging and the requirement for off-street parking. I noticed very recently Hackney Council’s lamppost charging. What do you think about that? Do local authorities need to do more to support councils to provide charging points?
That is a very good system by Ubitricity, a German company. My primary enthusiasm about it is that it is incredibly easy to use. You drive up to it and plug your wire in. The wire has a box that communicates and tells the company how much electricity you use. You plug the other end into your car and it starts charging. You do nothing. We need that frictionless ability to do that.
I cannot remember the figures, but there are many hundreds of thousands of suitable lampposts. One of the aspects of the technological change we are seeing is when a lamppost is converted to LED lights. It has extra juice—electricity—that you can take off it without blowing anything up. It does not need any other infrastructure changes. It is a very simple system. It requires lampposts that are on the kerb side of a pavement, which not all lampposts are, but there are certainly hundreds of thousands of them. They have fitted a great deal of them and they have been very popular.
Q It is, but we have a situation where local authorities are cash-strapped. Not every local authority has a lot of electric vehicles; I think Hull City Council has two charging points. They are hoping to get to the dizzying heights of 70 at some point before 2020, and they are doing their best. Should we not encourage local authorities with incentives—crudely, I mean cash incentives—to ensure that the equipment is available for everybody?
That would be ideal. One of the other problems is that the technology is changing so fast. I recently drove over a strip of road just outside Paris that has an induction-charging strip set in it. I do not think that is going to happen, because I cannot imagine the cost of putting that in the M1—it would be in the billions—but these induction plates for static charging, so when you are parked the car starts charging, are quite common now. That technology is getting cheaper.
It is really difficult—I would feel nervous suggesting that anybody invest an enormous amount. There have been failures in public-invested charging points: they are in the wrong place, they break down, they are not maintained or they are not run by the company that set them up. There have been plenty of examples of that. This is a rapidly emerging technology that keeps changing. Take even the wire you use. Finally, a bit like phones, there is a standardised type 2 connector that goes in every socket and goes in every car, but even that was a mystery a while ago. I would have a certain reluctance in saying, “Yes. Make all councils install thousands of chargers,” because they might be the wrong ones in the wrong place.
An organic development is happening with private companies, including supermarkets, that are starting to put them in car parks. Shell is now putting rapid chargers in its forecourts. It is happening, but quite slowly. I think it is probably chicken and egging like that—so there more cars, then more chargers, then more cars, then more chargers. I would not know how to suggest where to put them.
I think that is a really good idea. If there is one group of fuel suppliers that could probably afford it without too much stress, it is the garage chains. They seem quite keen to do it. I think they can sense a change in public attitudes, which is why Shell has gone ahead and has done what it is doing. I know BP is doing the same. I do not know about any other companies, but it makes sense. All I would beg them to do is to put in nice chairs, wi-fi and reasonable coffee, because you tend to be in the garage a bit longer with an electric car than you are with a petrol car.
Before I call the Minister, I have him, Graham Jones, Iain Stewart, Matt Western, Scott Mann and Matt Rodda indicating that they wish to ask questions. Are there any more? No. Well, you can do the maths as well as I can. Will Members be as brief as possible with their questions? And Robert, we really enjoy your eloquence and insight, but if you could be as pithy as possible in responding, that would be helpful.
Q Robert, I will try to be pithy too. Broadly, from what you have told us so far, you welcome the Bill. Your journey to Edinburgh will be helped by the fact that the Bill suggests that fuel retailers should have charging points, because you could access them on the way, but you also say that we need to do more on the spread of charging points. Is that a fair summary?
Q I have one other point—an old chestnut that I make no apology for roasting one more time—about the look and feel of charging points. I am keen that they should have some familiarity, so that people see a charging point and know what it is. Is that a good idea?
Yes, very much so. That has certainly been discussed a lot. If nothing else, like at a garage forecourt, if a row of charging points are under a canopy—say, at a motorway services or at a garage forecourt—with a specific kind of colouring to attract you to it, that would be nice. I do not know whether you can legislate for that, but it would be a great benefit so that you are not standing in the rain when you plug your car in.
Q Robert, you are a great enthusiast for automated and electric vehicles, so the Bill must please you no end. I have just a broad question and then a specific question. Broadly, what is missing from the Bill? We heard from Unite about integrated transport, rather than this just being about the relationship between the driver and the vehicle via the insurance company, as well as some other small matters. So on the bigger issue, what do you think is missing? What would you like to see if you were the Minister in charge?
I want to ask a particular question at the end about vehicle variations. Does the Bill accommodate what we will see in the future? I believe we will see different types of vehicle variation, because there will be electric vehicles instead of just the four-seater saloon car.
There are three things that would be wonderful. I am definitely not an expert, but when you have seen this you can see how popular it is: community electric car sharing/ownership/use. When those little systems organised by local communities appear, they are very popular with the local community. I have seen this in small towns rather than big cities.
Almost, yes. Also, they would have a dedicated place where you would park and charge them, so you would remove that problem. There are a lot of benefits to that.
The thing I have not seen in the Bill, which is a vitally important part of this, is vehicle-to-grid technology, which is appearing rapidly. It has an enormous impact, potentially, not on vehicles but on the grid. Say there were 3 million electric cars plugged in overnight, that would be a staggering amount of electricity—a very large power station’s worth of stored energy. You only need take a small amount from each vehicle. That technology is available now, not much in this country but it is certainly being used. I have been—I am trying to keep this pithy—to an office in Tokyo that is run by 100 Nissan Leafs that are plugged in outside. They do not use electricity from anywhere else. Those cars are discharging and charging all day, with a guaranteed amount for the owner to get home at night. So that technology already exists.
On fast charging, from my experience of driving many hundreds of thousands of miles in electric cars, slow charging is really good. Destination charging is really good. When you go to a car park and you are there for two hours topping up, it is not rapid charging, not “Gotta fill it in 10 seconds”. That, in a way, is a petrol or diesel mentality: “I’m driving a really long way. I need to fill it really fast”. You do do that, but way less than you might expect—way less. I use a rapid charger 15 or 20 times a year.
But if I can go to a car park where I can just plug the car in while I am in a meeting, or have gone to the movies or to a restaurant, and I add 20, 30 or 40 miles, that is an enormous benefit. Having more places where you can do that, more car parks with chargers fitted—that you ping your card on to pay for the electricity—would be a fantastic change. Those are emerging, and every time I can use one it is an enormous benefit. Two or three hours gives you 20 or 30 miles. You think, “That’s not very much”—well, it is 20 or 30 miles.
Q This is just a supplementary question on your earlier point about Ireland and California having a harmonised payment mechanism. Did that come about just from the industry creating it or was there Government regulation or legislation?
Absolutely from legislation, yes. The system in California, which I am more familiar with, was chaotic. I do not know quite what happened in Ireland, but it was catastrophic. It was a simple bit of Government legislation from the Californian state legislature that insisted that there was one system, that you could use all public chargers. I believe it is a dongle rather than an app. That might have changed—I have not been there for a while—but it certainly was that.
That would be an amazing change, and I think it would ease in a lot of people who have not adopted electric cars: “How do I charge it?” “You just walk up there and it charges.” That would be a big change.
It is great to be in the company of someone so evangelical about EVs. You have probably seen the ambition for the introduction of electric vehicles and the replacement of petrol and diesel by 2040, and an outright ban by 2050. Do you think we are being ambitious enough compared with other nations, and what it is that other nations are doing that perhaps we could learn fromQ ?
I was very pleased when I heard that announcement. Technology might overtake it. There is a strong argument for that among the evangelical electric vehicle users, from whom I try to stand one step back and be a little more objective. But it is such a hard thing to do. I have seen so many graphs to describe the uptake of new technologies and how this will be what happens with electric vehicles—the S-curve of adoption.
Our emotional relationship with cars is really complicated. It is deeper than our emotional relationship was with landline telephones or how television is viewed—all those things. It is more complex than that; I do not think it is quite as simple. I think you could be more ambitious. You could go with 2030, the technology is advancing so much.
The simple fact is that the car I have had the longest—a Nissan Leaf—has a 24kWh battery. There is now the new Nissan Leaf and the battery pack is exactly the same size and it is a 40kWh battery. That more than doubles the range of my very battered dirty old Nissan Leaf that I drove to the train station today. Sorry, no more piffle.
Q I just wanted to ask briefly about your experience of driving in very rural areas. We have a lot of energy generation around the country happening in rural areas, through solar and wind. I just wanted to know whether there are enough charging points in rural areas and whether we could do something to decouple the national grid in some of those areas, so that some of the farmers producing that energy could effectively provide charging points.
There is a whole other area of fascinating stuff going on with micro-grids and local community-owned generation. That is something that I am involved with in my village. I think it is actually in many ways easier to have an electric vehicle in a rural area—I live in one—because you have generally got, even if it is a muddy drive or field entrance, somewhere you can park the car off the road. Far more people in a rural area have that ability.
You also generally have a bit more space to install solar panels or wind turbines. There is certainly a lot of that activity happening on a community level, of people generating their own power—they own the assets that do that—and they also install electric car chargers. A farmer local to me who is putting 20kW of solar on his barn roof wants to open a café with car chargers. You would have to drive miles to go there—I do not know why anyone would—though he has some nice cows.
My question is similar, but from an urban perspective. What would you see as the most effective way to encourage urban residents, particularly those who do not have off-street parking, to convert to electric vehicles? Secondly, how would you incentivise landowners who have car parks, such as large employers, railway stations and supermarkets, to have chargersQ ?
I feel more confident in answering the second part. When people do install destination chargers—the common term for it—they all notice an increase in time spent by individual customers, because they are there a bit longer, and repeat visitors. Convincing supermarkets that, if they put chargers in their car parks, they will get more customers is the argument that I always try to use.
Certainly, hotels and restaurants have noticed a marked increase of a specific type of customer, particularly if it is a high-end electric vehicle. If they put those chargers in, they appear on the map on the satnav and they get more business like that. That is an argument. I do not know whether you could legislate for that but that is certainly an argument in favour of doing it. As more electric vehicles appear, I feel that will kind of roll itself out in a way.
I would hope that there would be. It would be wonderful if there were encouragements and nudging pressure to say, “When you build this new supermarket with a car park, can you put in 40 car chargers? Not two or four down the far end but to have one whole side for electrical vehicle charging.” It is not that expensive to do low-cost top-up charges; that is not a big expense.
Q Past UK Government policy led to an increase in uptake of diesel vehicles, which we now know are huge contributors to problems of air pollution. Therefore, to achieve future deadlines, would it make sense for the UK Government directly to incentivise the purchase of EVs or low-emission vehicles, through scrappage schemes and so on?
I am very uncomfortable about pressuring people in that sense. We should encourage them, certainly, but not pressure them, because of the result of the misinformation that we all suffered from. I had a diesel car, as did a lot of people. I think that is a really difficult area. I feel very unqualified to know how to do that. I work on encouragement and enthusiasm; I would not know how to instigate legislation that would insist on people buying electric cars.