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Can the UK lead the charge on electric vehicles?

"One response to address the current problems is to think about how to increase the use of EVs but not necessarily the numbers of EVs owned."  



Local Government ChronicleDavid Rees11 May 2012


As petrol and diesel prices continue to rise, electric vehicles (EV) should be looking increasingly attractive but they have, so far, failed to appear in any numbers on our roads.

Politicians at national and local level have put in place a number of policies to support EVs but with limited success. The London Mayor set a goal of getting 100,000 electric vehicles in use on London streets as soon as possible but only 2,313 EVs have been registered as at Spring 2012. On a national level, the Department for Transport established a £30m matched funding ‘Plugged-in Places’ (PiP) programme to support the implementation of EV. The PiPs have been successful in offering unique insights into how EV demand can be stimulated but have failed to become a catalyst for the EV market.

So what is the problem? The main barriers to EV take up are well documented with much blog and column space dedicated to issues such as range anxiety, cost of ownership and lack of infrastructure.

With respect to concerns about range, the average car journey length in the UK has been approximately 8.5 miles for the last 15 years, so for many the range of EVs would not be a major issue. However, those who routinely drive over 100 miles, or those that have only one car that is used for occasional long trips will struggle to fit an EV into their lifestyle. Others are resistant because they want to be able to travel long distances if need be.

The cost issues are more complex because, while it is clear that some people are prepared to buy high-cost cars, cost does seem to deter EV buyers. Even where running costs are moderated, such as in Denmark, where EV owners do not have to pay the 180% of sale price registration tax, fewer than 400 EVs have been registered so far. Equally, the fact that rising fuel prices seem to have little impact on EV registrations indicates that the much lower on-going costs are failing to provide an incentive to go electric.

The worry about a lack of infrastructure has a number of different aspects. The PiP programme suggested that a charging infrastructure is necessary to stimulate EV take up, but will rarely be used, because most charging will take place at home and work. However, there are real challenges in installing enough charging points either at home or at workplaces. A high proportion of city dwellers do not have a drive and rely on on-street parking and the high cost of installing a charge point in a garage just adds to the already significant cost of the vehicle. Workplace charging should be more feasible but the scale of investment required may be too high for most businesses at present.

Research conducted by PA Consulting Group has provided some different insights into how to overcome these barriers either individually or collectively. One response to address the current problems is to think about how to increase the use of EVs but not necessarily the numbers of EVs owned. This could go some way to address concerns on costs for both vehicle purchase and on-going maintenance, together with the anxieties expressed by city dwellers regarding charging points.

For the UK, this could include public sector investment in EV sharing schemes similar to Paris’s Autolib programme or London’s ‘Boris Bikes’.  It could also be supplemented by greater private sector investment in innovative and scalable mobility solutions such as traditional car sharing schemes like Zipcar and more radical approaches such as Peugeot’s Mu EV leasing service. These need to be nurtured to become truly viable.

A further practical solution relates to incentives such as free or reduced parking and congestion charges or free use of bus lanes. This appears to have been effective in Oslo, the only city in Europe where EV drivers are allowed to use bus lanes. This can save commuters up to an hour every working day. This experience, evidenced by the fact that Norway has the highest level of EV market share (1.5%) in Europe, seems to suggest that users will be more willing to accept the cost and limitations of EVs if they can see tangible benefits in ease of access.

This still leaves many with apprehensions regarding vehicle range and the extent to which EVs are practical day–to-day alternatives to current combustion engine options. The UK is benefiting from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), which supports research and development of technology and innovation for UK business enhancement, and is sponsoring six development projects to advance EV development through £52m of funding. We should see practical solutions emerging on a number of fronts including UK manufacturing and academia.

Although EV uptake is clearly complex and challenging, we have the opportunity to build upon our current PiP and TSB investments with other interventions to ensure the UK is not falling behind our European counterparts. At this stage, the UK is very much still in the race to lead the charge.

David Rees is head of local government services at PA Consulting Group

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