Friday, August 01, 2014

Future motorists face diesel bans, hybrids & driverless cars

Drivers in the UK face a very different experience if new government plans come into being. This week London's mayor Boris Johnson put forward proposals that could see all diesel cars banned from city centres or be forced to pay extra charges.

Meanwhile plans have been unveiled that will make driverless cars legal on British roads, something that might leave many drivers cold.

Restrictions on diesel vehicles

In January 2012 thousands of motorists were forced off the road after the so-called Low Emission Zone was extended to include transit vans, mini buses and a range of other vehicles powered by diesel [tvnewswatch: Low emission zone forces thousands off the road].

The move was widely criticised since many people affected by the change could least afford to replace their vehicle or convert it to conform to the new emissions standards. Whilst some bought brand new vehicles, others had little choice than to buy second hand vehicles that complied with the new restrictions.

However, many of these individuals and businesses may once again find themselves with a financial dilemma if Boris Johnson's proposals take effect.

Ultra Low Emission Zone

The London Mayor wants the new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to be introduced by 2020 with diesel vehicles that don't comply being charged £10 a day on top of the current £11.50 congestion charge. In addition he says he will lobby the government to increase vehicle excise duty on diesel cars to encourage motorists to move to cleaner vehicles.

While some environmental groups have called on a total ban on diesel vehicles, the mayor has dismissed such suggestions as unfair.

"It would not be reasonable to say, 'I'm sorry, you have just bought that car but it's now banned,' Boris Johnson said. "People bought them in good faith and it's not fair to clobber them. We think a five-year notice gives enough warning. People who drive in once a month might not buy a newer car whereas somebody who drives in every day probably would do."

It is unclear which diesel vehicles would be affected, though current suggestions point to diesel vehicles that meet the Euro 6 emissions standard would be exempt while petrol cars registered before 2006 would also have to pay and increased levy [BBC / Daily Mail / Telegraph].

Betrayed by previous governments

While there has been a gradual targeting of owners of diesel powered vehicles, at the same time motorists have in the past been encouraged to buy them.

Legislation over the past 15 years, intended to lower carbon emissions, has pushed people towards diesel cars. Government tax incentives, not to mention huge improvements in the driveability of diesel cars, has also led to an explosion of sales [Guardian / Telegraph].

The latest proposal could come into force as early as 2020 and some other cities across the country are already discussing similar measures.

Rather than let older cars die a natural death and ban the manufacturing of new diesel vehicles, the increased charges and taxes are seen as merely a money making scheme rather than a way of curbing pollution.

Whilst motorists might well struggle with financing a deal on another vehicle, the proposed schemes could also be seen as an attempt to boost car manufacturing and vehicle sales.

But with much of the environmental cost wrapped up in the manufacturing of a vehicle, people's ditching of a perfectly good - albeit slightly polluting - vehicle, could be worse for the environment.


The writing is certainly on the wall for anyone using a method of transport that burns fuel. The mayor has even talked of making all newly registered taxis 'emission free' by 2018 [Telegraph].

Hybrid vehicles may well be the way of the future. Purely electric vehicles may also have a place. But infrastructure needs to be rolled out enabling motorists to travel more than a few hundred kilometres before running out of power.

Using an electric car in London might be convenient, and even save money. But try shoving a family of four, plus a tonne of camping gear, into a Renault Twizy and embarking on a European tour. Even a jaunt to Cornwall and back might prove just a little tricky.

Such vehicles are still not cheap. A brand new Twizy costs around £7,000 and that excludes the battery which is leased. And while it may be relatively cheap to run it can carry only two people and has about as much boot space as a small briefcase.

Of course not all electric vehicles are as impractical or dinky as the Twizy. Renault's Zoe and Volvo's V60 are bold attempts to bring a 'zero emission' family car to the road.

Across the EU 50,000 plug-in vehicles were sold in 2013, up from 22,000 in 2012, but electric models are still a tiny fraction of all new cars sold [Guardian].

And while there is no local pollution from such vehicles it must be remembered these are not exactly 'zero emission'. Since they are powered from the national grid there will still be fuel used to generate the electricity, unless of course it is wind, solar or nuclear.

A future without driving

The future may also see us not only possessing an electric vehicle but one that drives itself. the autonomous vehicle once existed only in the imagination of science fiction writers. But today the driverless vehicle is already a reality and may become the norm in less than twenty years. And now the UK government has announced that driverless cars will be allowed on public roads from January 2015.

It has also invited cities to compete to host one of three trials of the technology. In addition, ministers have ordered a review of the UK's road regulations to provide appropriate guidelines.

The Internet company Google has invested heavily in the technology and run extensive trials in California. In fact Google's driverless cars have clocked up more than 500,000 km on the open road without incident. Meanwhile other states including Nevada and Florida have approved tests of the vehicles [BBCTelegraph].

There are concerns about the new technology with some worried about the risks should the onboard computers fail. Earlier this month, the FBI warned that driverless cars could be used as lethal weapons, predicting that the vehicles "will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car" [BBC].

Even if the tech proves itself to be safe, motorists may be less than happy. According to a new study from Churchill Car Insurance around 56% of UK adults say they would not purchase a driverless car and one in four believed that autonomous vehicles would not be safe.

Malfunction is the biggest fear, with 60% of people fearing that the computer may be unreliable in an autonomous vehicle. Insurance companies have also expressed fears with some talking of an "existential threat" [FT].  

Around a third also had concerns that the technology could be open to cyber attacks [FleetNews] .

Freedom of choice may eventually disappear however. The pleasure of driving may be a thing of the past. Indeed, should politicians have their way we will all be automatically conveyed from one location to another in an electric driverless car at speeds and on routes regulated and controlled by government departments.

This week Boris Johnson tried to distance himself from suggestions of making London a testing ground for driverless buses, trains and subway trains. A document released by the Mayor's office had hinted that dramatic changes might be on the horizon. The papers said that driverless technology of the type being developed by Google would provide "large cost savings for buses while delivering a faster more efficient service," and added that it would become possible to provide what it called "taxi like" services "at reduced costs" [Guardian].

Such proposals would not be out of place in London where the fully automated Docklands Light Railway has been running for more than 20 years. 
In the future, the choice concerning the type of vehicle, the route and other motoring decisions may well be dictated by central government. Such a vision may be a few decades away, but the road is already being paved.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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