The UK Government has announced that the date from which the sales of all new petrol and diesel cars and vans will be banned is being brought forward by 5 years, from 2040 to 2035.
This is good news, but not particularly surprising, since the government has also committed to being carbon neutral by 2050. Someone had pointed out to them that if it remained at 2040, then a whole load of the vehicles sold in 2040 would still be on the roads in 2050, making the latter target almost impossible to meet.
What was not expected was that the ban would be extended to include hybrid vehicles. This means that the easy backdoor for the vehicle industry to maintain ‘business as usual’ after 2035 has just been removed. From this date all new vehicles must be powered either by batteries or hydrogen. In many other countries it will be 2030.
Just think. Filling stations may continue to exist, but given that the average age of a car or van on UK roads is just 8 years, that means by 2045 (at the latest) the usage of the petrol and diesel pumps on their forecourts will start falling off a cliff. If hydrogen cars do not start selling in large numbers, this is going to lead to a vehicle charging log-jam.
It has not escaped the filling station industry’s attention that if the vast majority of the public charge their vehicles at home, or from their nearest lamp-post, then hardly anyone will visit filling stations. Their hopes are pinned on just two options: fast-charging and hydrogen.
There are various solutions to this problem, and in some ways it has echoes of the old VHS versus Betamax format war for video recorders. That was a damaging experience for the electronics industry, and to the surprise of many, the technically inferior VHS format won. Since that lesson was so painfully learnt, industries have been keen to bash out such conflicts behind closed doors, where they are many orders of magnitude less costly, and then present the public with the end result.
Something similar could happen between batteries and hydrogen, but at the moment the two ends of the world are going in different directions. In the western hemisphere, and under the not inconsequential individual influence of Elon Musk, the lithium battery is king. Never mind its VHS-like inferiority, such problems will be overcome, no matter the cost, complexity or expense. An example of this is the recent announcement by BMW, Siemens and Porsche that they have succeeded in developing a super-fast charging system that can delivery 100km of driving from just a 3-minute charge.
In the eastern hemisphere the steady progress towards hydrogen continues with mind-blowing numbers. Japan has committed to delivering the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games with the largest fleet of hydrogen vehicles ever assembled, plus using it to generate all the electricity and hot-water in the Olympic village, and as a nice touch both the flame relay and the cauldron. South Korea has declared that it will become a hydrogen-powered society, and set a target of producing 6.2 million fuel-cell vehicles by 2040. Meanwhile, the top policy advisor to the Chinese government has declared that hydrogen is the future, in what just happens to be the world’s largest car market.
The fast-charging option for filling stations comes with endless retail opportunities to sell coffee, muffins and other merchandise whilst the vehicle stands idle. But will they really be enough to compensate them for all the people who charge at home? Is there really the space? How will the electricity grid cope? Will green electricity handle the demand peaks? These questions remain active areas of research, but what is certain is that this appears to be a format war that could prove very costly for anyone who loses.