The British government has bowed to legal pressure and announced a ban on all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040. However, in 23 years most cars will be electric or hybrid anyway.
Not only is the government’s pledge to eventually ban the cars that are powered solely by an internal combustion engine rather meaningless, the fact they have made it at all has been is down in large part to the legal action it has faced over the poor quality of our air. In fact. a judge had said its original plans to tackle air pollution were so poor as to be unlawful.
Air pollution poses a risk to public health that costs the country up to £2.7bn in lost productivity each year it contributes to the premature death of up to 40,000 people.
Plans announced this week include money to subsidise electric cars, low-emission taxis, the retrofitting of buses with clean air filters and £1.2bn for cycling and walking. However, many have recognised that the plans will not have the immediate effect that is so badly needed. Many have called for a nationwide implementation of London’s forthcoming ‘Toxic Charge’ of £10 per day on 10,000 of the oldest, most polluting vehicles entering the city.
Wouldn’t it have been easier with pay-as-you-go road pricing?
The short answer is yes and it’s something the ETA has been advocating for 20 years. If a previous government had had the political will and bravery to implement a road pricing scheme, our air would already be far less polluted, congestion on the roads would already have been eased and, arguably, more of us would already be driving electric cars. However, despite decades of declining air quality, this latest plan has been forced upon the government by the threat of legal action brought by a group of activist lawyers called Client Earth.
There are many ways in which a motorist could be charged for using the roads. A simple method would be a carnet or window sticker which gives the motorist access to certain roads, for example, all cars entering Switzerland have to pay for a carnet either before they enter via the internet or at the border. Tolls to cross bridges or use sections of motorways are commonly found across the world. These methods involve payment at toll booths laid across the road and often apply at any given time of day. Lorry drivers in Austria, Cheskia and Germany are tracked by satellite and charged per mile. Most people imagine a national British system would involve a satellite tracking process with drivers being sent a monthly statement of all their journeys. This is possible but not necessary. The charge in Stockholm is levied as a vehicle passes under a beacon in the road which reads the number plate. Drivers are sent a bill which must be paid within fourteen days.
In Britain we could use a system whereby the car, knowing where it was using its own global positioning device deducts an amount from an allocated mobile phone. This system is the cheapest to introduce and means neither the government nor other members of the household need know where the driver has travelled. Although road user charging is usually thought of as a means of reducing congestion, there is no reason why it could not be used to improve air quality by targetting the most polluting vehicles.
What will cars looks like in 2040?
Change can occur extremely quickly when necessary and incumbent technologies are often taken off guard. Take for instance the protests by London taxi drivers against the mini cab industry and in particular Uber. Blockading roads in an attempt to stop disruptive technologies is as futile as trying to hold back the tide. Autonomous vehicle technology is already advanced enough to have allowed many hundreds of thousands of trouble free motoring on public roads. According to the man behind the Tesla brand, Elon Musk, the introduction of driverless cars is being held back by our legal and political systems rather than any deficiencies in the tech.
Autonomous cars promise cleaner, safer and more efficient roads, but if there is a seeming inevitability about driverless technology, far less clear is how it will change the relationship we have with our cars. Will the current concept of private car ownership give way to networked public service vehicles that can be hailed via an app like an Uber, or will autonomous cars become private luxury retreats on wheels?