• Transportation is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, both globally and in the UK. To support Net Zero goals, changes are needed to the way we power our key on-road and off-road transport applications.
  • Electric vehicles are an important solution to help decarbonise road transportation, but are not yet a silver bullet for all transportation types.
  • The shift to EVs has already begun for passenger cars and light commercial vehicles, but key obstacles remain that prevent wider adoption of EVs, namely:
      • Limitations with charging infrastructure
      • Limitations of battery electric vehicles for heavy-duty applications
      • Higher upfront costs of Electric Vehicles
      • Awareness and knowledge required to drive change

Transportation plays a substantial role in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions in the United Kingdom. Recent government studies show that around a quarter of the country's total emissions come from transportation, with heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) accounting for 19% of these emissions. To combat climate change and work towards a carbon-free future, it's essential to reduce the carbon impact of transportation.

In 2020, the UK government took a significant step in this direction by announcing a ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans, including vans under 3.5 tonnes, starting in 2030. The goal was to speed up the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) and reduce emissions. Recently, this 2030 deadline was pushed to 2035, aligning the UK government's target with that of other European nations.

While the five-year extension received criticism, it still reflects the government's commitment to shifting towards vehicles with zero emissions at the tailpipe in the near future. The government's Transportation Decarbonisation Plan also outlines the intention to ban the sale of diesel-powered 26t HGVs by 2035 and over 26t HGVs by 2040, as well as phasing out diesel trains from the rail network by 2040.

However, there are several challenges in this energy transition, especially when it comes to larger on-road and off-road fleets. This article delves into some of these challenges that might hinder the broader and quicker adoption of EVs in various forms of land transportation.

UK greenhouse gas emissions by sector, 1990 to 2020 source: BEIS 2022

Electric vehicles are a key technology to decarbonise road transportation – but not yet a silver bullet

Electric vehicles are a critical technology for reducing carbon from road transportation but they're not a one-size-fits-all solution.

One of the most significant advancements in the decarbonisation of transport has been the rise of EVs for cars and light commercial vehicles (LCVs). EVs run on electricity stored in batteries, eliminating the need for traditional fossil fuel engines and reducing carbon emissions.

Electric motors in EVs are more efficient than traditional engines because they directly convert stored electricity into motion. This is in contrast to conventional engines that burn fuel to create heat and then convert it into motion. This difference means that even the most modern diesel engines can only achieve an energy-to-motion efficiency of about 40%, while modern EVs operate at around 85% efficiency. In addition to reducing tailpipe emissions, EVs also help reduce smog and ground-level ozone, which contribute to respiratory issues and other health problems.

There are two main types of electric vehicles available: Plug-in Hybrid EVs (PHEVs) and Battery EVs (BEVs). PHEVs combine an internal combustion engine with an electric motor and battery, allowing for both electric and fuel-powered driving. BEVs, meanwhile, rely solely on electricity and produce no tailpipe emissions.

The adoption of EVs across the world is on the rise, driven by advancements in battery technology and government initiatives promoting sustainable transportation. The shift to electric vehicles is already happening for passenger cars and LCVs. In 2020, one in every 25 cars sold globally was electric. By 2023, it was already one in five. The trend is continuing to rise, as more models become available.

Electric car sales 2016 to 2023 source: IEA

However, despite the progress in electric vehicles for passenger cars and LCVs, there are still challenges that hinder wider adoption.

Limitations with electric vehicle charging infrastructure

One of the key factors is the availability of charging infrastructure. The lack of charging points and the fear of running out of battery, known as "range anxiety," are commonly-listed obstacles to electric vehicle adoption.

To make EVs more dominant on the road, there must be widespread charging infrastructure, especially in urban and suburban areas. Installing fast chargers along highways and major routes will also be crucial to alleviate range anxiety and support long-distance travel.

The UK government has pledged to install 600,000 charging points by 2030. Increasing the prevalence of home chargers will also be crucial, with two-thirds of households having access to off-street parking. Plus, on average, charging at home is significantly cheaper than paying at public chargers.

Limitations of BEVs for heavy-duty applications

Another challenge is the suitability of BEVs for heavy-duty applications, like trucks and buses. These vehicles require large batteries to cover the necessary distances, but larger batteries add weight to the already-heavy vehicles. This can reduce either the payload capacity or the travel distance.

While diesel engines are less efficient than BEVs, diesel is an energy-dense fuel that allows heavy vehicles to cover long distances with relatively few refuelling stops.

Fully-electric HGV models do exist – DAF and Renault are among those manufacturers to HGV truck models available, and there have been high-profile early adopters like Amazon and Tesco – but EV technology and adoption in the HGV space is believed to be around 20 years behind the car market. It will take time and technological advancements before electric heavy-duty vehicles become widespread.

Switching to an electric vehicle requires upfront investment

One more challenge is the higher upfront costs of electric vehicles compared to traditional internal combustion engine vehicles.

Switching to an electric vehicle or fleet requires upfront investment, which can be a barrier for many households and businesses, particularly in the current economic climate. Battery technology is still relatively expensive, making electric vehicles costlier for consumers. However, electric vehicles have a lower total cost of ownership due to reduced running and maintenance costs, along with significantly lower cost per mile. Testing by the RAC at the end of 2021 showed an electric VW ID to have an all-in cost per mile of 4p, compared to a 13p per mile all-in for a petrol-powered VW Golf.

Battery technology is also improving, and the cost of batteries and other components is expected to decrease over time. This, coupled with the increased economies of scale expected as demand for EVs further grows, should make electric vehicles more affordable in the long run.

In the HGV space, it has been predicted that electric heavy-duty vehicles may start to achieve TCO parity with diesel-powered vehicles in the early to mid-2030s, although the capex challenge will still remain.

Awareness and knowledge are still barriers to further driving change

Awareness and knowledge about available technologies, and how to use them, are also barriers to adoption. Many consumers are still unfamiliar with the benefits and capabilities of electric vehicles – recent research from Watson Fuels, in partnership with YouGov, showed that only around half of consumers report to have knowledge of electric vehicles and charge points*. The same is true in the commercial sector. A recent survey conducted by LeasePlan showed that 53% of fleet operators say they lack the necessary expertise to enable a transition to electric vehicle fleets.

More education and awareness are therefore needed to drive change, and governments and the private sector will need to work together to educate businesses and consumers about the benefits and practicalities of electric vehicles.

We will need to harness multiple solutions for transportation to achieve decarbonisation goals

While transitioning to electric vehicles is a crucial step in decarbonising transportation, other alternative methods will be necessary to reach emission reduction goals across all forms of land transportation.  Even when assuming greater uptake and adoption of electric vehicles, a significant proportion of the vehicle fleet in the UK will still be powered by internal combustion engines in 2030 and beyond.

To reduce emissions across all land transportation, electrification will therefore need to be supplemented with additional, alternative ways of powering transport applications in lower carbon ways. The second part of this article explores some of the potential and ready-now solutions that are likely to form part of this longer-term vision.


Key Definitions:

Range anxiety: Refers to the fear or concern that an electric vehicle's battery will run out of charge before reaching its destination or a charging point, leading to an inconvenience or disruption in travel plans.

Payload: Refers to the measurable reduction in carbon emissions achieved through specific actions or initiatives. It signifies the actual environmental impact of measures taken to mitigate climate change.

Decarbonising Transportation: The process of reducing or eliminating carbon emissions and greenhouse gases from the transportation sector to address climate change and achieve a more sustainable and eco-friendly future.

Infrastructure: The physical and organisational structures and facilities required to support the operation of a system, in this context, the charging stations, refuelling stations, and distribution networks necessary for the operation of electric vehicles and other alternative fuels.

LCVs (Light Commercial Vehicles): Vehicles designed for commercial use, such as delivery vans and small trucks, with a relatively light load-carrying capacity.

HGVs (Heavy-Goods Vehicles): Large vehicles designed to carry substantial loads, including trucks and buses.

Plug-in Hybrid EVs (PHEVs): PHEVs combine an internal combustion engine with an electric motor and battery, allowing for both electric and gasoline-powered driving. This flexibility addresses the issue of range anxiety, a concern often associated with fully electric vehicles. PHEVs can be charged from an external power source, or the internal combustion engine can recharge the battery while driving.

Battery EVs (BEVs): BEVs are fully electric vehicles that rely solely on electricity for propulsion. They offer zero tailpipe emissions, making them the ideal choice for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving air quality. However, BEVs have limitations for heavy-duty applications, such as long-haul trucking or construction equipment, due to the current limitations of battery technology.

* Watson Fuels commissioned YouGov to conduct a survey of heating oil consumers to understand their views on kerosene heating oil and carbon neutrality. This study was conducted among 2,009 consumers who reported to use heating oil to fuel their homes, between 30th March – 12th April 2023.

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