The promising growth of low- and zero-emission vehicles
These are unsettling times for the UK car market. Figures released every month by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) chart a steady decline in registrations as both consumer and business confidence declines and new car sales follow suit. Look a little closer at the figures and a different picture emerges, however – the registration of low- and zero-emission vehicles is on a steady upswing. The numbers are better than good: hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV) and battery-electric vehicle (BEV) sales are booming.
November’s year-to-date figures show overall car registrations down 2.7% from the same period in 2018 (itself a five-year low). Against that backdrop, HEV sales have risen 16%, and BEVs by 136%. A low base makes these numbers possible, but the trend is unmistakable: for the month of November itself, more than one in 10 cars registered in the UK was either an HEV, plug-in hybrid (PHEV) or BEV.
Patrik Ponec is senior manager for advanced planning at Honda’s R&D centre in Offenbach, Germany. Having worked in the research lab for more than two decades, he’s witnessed the gradual transformation of low-emission vehicles from novelty niche curios produced in the hundreds to a mainstream proposition selling in the millions.
Climate concern is clearly the catalyst for the take-up of these vehicles that, despite spurious claims to the contrary, are more efficient and feature a lower overall environmental impact than their petrol or diesel equivalents. An Ipsos Mori poll found that 85% of Britons are concerned about climate change, with 52% “very concerned”. The decision to make a more environmentally responsible choice is being eased by the growing options on the market, and swiftly improving technology makes the distinction between battery power and traditional internal combustion less distinct.
“In the late 1990s, when Honda first launched the Insight model,” says Ponec, “the hybrid concept was focused mainly on improving the efficiency of the internal combustion engine (ICE), downsizing it through the use of electrification. We called that integrated motor assist (IMA). We’ve learned a lot during the intervening 20 years: battery performance has improved considerably and the latest hybrid technology, which we call i-MMD (intelligent multi-mode drive), is rather focused on optimising the electric drive performance. The ICE is, more or less, used as the complementary energy source and the hybrid is much closer to a real electric vehicle.”
Hybrids are widely viewed as a bridge to the ultimate destination of full electrification. Low-emission vehicles – mild hybrids, HEVs and PHEVs – could perhaps be seen as a series of waypoints, helping to wean consumers off carbon dependency. Of 350-plus models on the UK forecourt, approximately 80 are classified in the low-emission bracket, of which only 21 are BEVs. Competition is fierce front-of-house but behind the scenes there’s a high rate of technology transfer between the different models and methods of propulsion.
“One of the core ideas behind the i-MMD system is to provide maximum flexibility, switching between different electrification concepts,” says Ponec. “We use the same architecture to create hybrid, plug-in hybrid, electric, even fuel cell vehicles.”
While not lashed quite so tightly to the global outlook as their ICE counterparts, low- and zero-emission vehicles are still subject to overarching economic trends. Although there’s a significant margin of error in projecting future market growth, most studies suggest the graph is going to continue its uptick in the near future before we see a surge, largely driven by BEVs in the second half of the 2020s. Deloitte’s analysis, from a 2018 base of 2m electric vehicles sold, calculates EV sales (comprising both BEV and PHEV) doubling by 2020, rising to 12m by 2025 and 21m by 2030, of which 70% will be BEVs. Part of this growth, it estimates, will be based on a tipping point being reached by 2022, when the cost of ownership for a BEV drops to parity with an ICE equivalent, removing a considerable barrier to ownership. Much of this is reliant on the cost of batteries. As demand grows, economies of scale are seeing prices fall.
There’s a great deal riding on forecasts like this being accurate – or, ideally, pessimistic. The next decade is critical: the take-up of low-emission vehicles has to rise swiftly if the UK is to meet its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and while the long-term future is expected to be dominated by BEVs, the timescale is dependent on an immediate outlook with far more variety in the mix.
“The car industry is expected to reduce average CO2, and each technology will have to play its own role,” says Ponec. “We see that BEVs have the highest individual benefit, but their market penetration is low – delivering their benefit to the customer is difficult and the effect of emission reduction very much depends on the upstream energy source. HEV, on the other hand, offers a technology that comes with the least compromise for the customers – but they are technologically quite complex. PHEV combines benefits from both sides – but they also come with some limitations. I think for the immediate future we’ll see a coexistence of these three systems, and the application will very much depend on the customer and their needs – but also on the sophistication of the vehicle concept.”