Carmakers talk a good game. Even the biggest petrolhead automotive executives are now practised at conjuring images of a zero-emissions future, but that future always seems to be just a bit further off. And even while they increase production of electric cars, many insist that there is a stubbornly long line of consumers who will still want the internal combustion engines that also happen to boost their makers’ profits.
There are obvious exceptions, led by Tesla, the US electric car pioneer, as well as a bevy of Chinese imitators. In the UK, Bentley last week became the first to break ranks. On Thursday it announced that its Crewe factory would stop making internal-combustion-engined cars completely by 2030, making it the first large British carmaker to do so.
The decision means Bentley, known for 12-cylinder engines that slurp petrol by the gallon, is now the unlikely trailblazer for the British car industry’s move beyond oil. Yet for the rest of UK automotive, big questions remain over the electric future.
There is no doubt that the change is coming. The British government is nearing a decision on whether to ban internal combustion engines completely as early as 2030, with a formal announcement possible as soon as this week. Meanwhile the nations of the EU – the destination for most UK car exports – are also bringing in bans. The main markets for the UK’s petrol and diesel products are drying up quickly.
However, the only other major British car plant that is close to going all-in on electric car production (at least in public) is Jaguar Land Rover’s Castle Bromwich factory. Industry insiders doubt that many others will be able to match Bentley’s move.
The rest of the British automotive map is pockmarked with gaping investment holes. Among the plants awaiting decisions on their futures are Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port and Nissan in Sunderland. The overseas owners of both have made it clear that the fate of these UK operations will be dependent on a Brexit deal. Even if the UK somehow avoids a no-deal Brexit or the costly tariffs that the car industry fears, the legacy of four years of lost investment has almost certainly slowed the transition.
By 2030 production costs for electrics will be lower than fossil-fuel cars, making it easier for the mass-volume players to change
An alarming proportion of people employed in the British car industry – well over half, or 105,000 people – is still heavily dependent on producing internal combustion engines. At the same time, there is still no fully funded project to build domestic “gigafactories”, as Tesla calls them, capable of churning out hundreds of thousands of batteries every year.
Yet for all the challenges it faces, the UK still has a chance to retain and even grow its automotive industry. The UK has a genuinely strong engineering workforce and a fairly sturdy supply chain, which mean it can make up some of the lost ground on electric vehicles. The most striking evidence of this is the clutch of startups – Arrival, Volta Trucks and the (Coventry-based) London Electric Vehicle Company – which are bringing battery vans to production.
It is easier for a luxury carmaker to go electric than the mass-market plants that have the ability to produce hundreds of thousands of cars a year. Bentleys start at £130,000 and can cost well over £240,000, giving it a lot of leeway to absorb extra battery costs. But by 2030 production costs for electrics will be lower than fossil-fuel cars, making it easier for the mass-volume players to make the change.
Rapidly falling costs are combining with consumers who are becoming increasingly comfortable with electric cars and regulations that are genuinely pushing progress. The reasons to stick with fossil fuels are falling away.
Bentley has got ahead of the curve, helped by being part of Germany’s Volkswagen group, which has the might to spend billions of euros on battery procurement. But other UK car manufacturers have a choice: embrace the transition to electric cars now, or wait until the last moment and risk missing the chance.