COVID-19: fuelling the switch to electric vehicles

3rd June 2020
Alex Lynn

This is an extraordinary period in modern history. We’re faced, as a species, with a global-level event that is stretching our knowledge and our resources to their limits. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone and its impacts will continue well into the foreseeable future.

By Ritchie Webb, Managing Director of adi Automotive

The human cost is horrific and businesses of all shapes and sizes are being shaken to their foundations. In just the last 20 years, we’ve been through 9/11, the wars it spawned and then the financial crisis of 2008-09. Each of those was huge but COVID-19 will be truly era-defining in its reach.

Human ingenuity

I don’t think anyone believes there won’t be a significant paradigm shift in the aftermath, as we try to mitigate future risks and safeguard the population against future threats on this scale. And addressing climate change must be very much part of that agenda.

We’ve already seen how versatile and responsive businesses have been in altering, often quite drastically, their working practices to continue to operate effectively.

There has – and there will continue to be – big economic effects but I take solace in how well businesses up and down the country have adapted and shown how successful remote working can be.

Had they not, our problems would be significantly worse, of course, but in my opinion, instead of emerging into the much-trailed ‘new normal’, we are already in it and many of the changes we are just getting used to will be with us for the long-term.

In many respects, that’s no bad thing. If humans hadn’t been so adaptable to our evolving environment, we wouldn’t have come this far but there is no escaping the sense that this will change the way we work.

Business sense

Under normal circumstances, I do about 50,000 miles a year, commuting and visiting customer sites, stopping to fill up two or three times a week. But, in recent times, that’s all changed. I no longer go to the office every day, site access has been curtailed and I’ve only driven on to one petrol forecourt in a month.

And I’m not the only one. There are hundreds of thousands of people like me throughout the UK doing exactly the same thing and each of us its demonstrating that it works. For sure, things aren’t how they were but we can take this forward in a way that benefits us all.

There will be businesses asking themselves whether, after all this, they really need quite the same expensive office space just to have people sitting in one place - particularly when another pandemic might well be just around the corner.

I firmly believe that many of them will conclude that it makes more commercial sense to have staff working from home, when it has been shown that you can see what they’re doing and easily monitor their outputs.

The benefits for employees will be another push factor towards continued remote working. If staff are saving sometimes hundreds of pounds each month in fuel, along with several hours on frustrating commutes, why would they want to go back?

Looking ahead, embracing remote working could even come to be the smart move in recruitment terms, as you’re effectively offering potential employees more money and less hassle in traffic.

Embracing tech

So, how does that relate to electric vehicles? Well, if there’s going to be more remote working and fewer cars on the road, I believe new technologies can help us lead more convenient lives, with a few added benefits, not least to the environment.

And the key lies in greater collaboration between the automotive industry, the government and the energy companies.

Now, a lot of people argue that EVs won’t succeed because the infrastructure isn’t sufficiently widespread and vehicle prices are prohibitively expensive to support the switch.

But the government’s OLEV grants can and should continue to be part of the solution, the network will have greater capacity because people won’t be using their vehicles so much and emerging technological advances will, I believe, allay people’s fears.

It’ll all be smartphone-based and, like with solar panels, you’ll be able to derive some value by putting back into the grid. There’s no reason why that 60 or 70 kilowatt battery can’t be used to supplement grid capacity, when required and when it suits you.

You could do it all easily from an app, sacrificing power from your battery back into the network and potentially enjoying a better rate of return for generating electricity than for drawing it.

Changing our ways

You look at your diary, for example. You know you’re not going on a significant journey for the next two days, as the world has changed. You can work from home and won’t need the car.

A generous estimate says you’ll only need 60 miles in the battery. Your vehicle has a capacity of 270 miles, so you can easily sacrifice, for example, 150 miles back into the network with plenty to spare and a few less pennies on your electricity bill.

If the network doesn’t need it, you won’t get any benefit. But, if it does, you get up in the morning, put the kettle on and your car’s busily supplementing the grid to take some of the load off. We all get some network security.

I think the way we use our cars will change. At present, if you’re like me, you’ll let your tank go down to a quarter or less before filling up. In future, you won’t do that. Instead, you’ll plug it in when you can, depending on your needs, and you won’t recharge from empty every time.

Once the infrastructure is in place - and that’s what the OLEV grants will help deliver – it will be a series of remote charges, wherever you’re based. You’ll even be able to turn up at work and top up from there.

I really think it’ll be a step-change in how you manage your vehicle. You’ll do it conveniently through an app, topping up when you need it and putting energy back into the grid, when you don’t require it.

You won’t go to a petrol station and stick it on a charger for 20 minutes unless you’re driving to Cornwall on holiday but it will all depend on a smart network that only draws electricity back from your vehicle, when it is needed for capacity.

A call to action

Happily, there are a lot of very clever people out there that can create the solutions that will make it happen. I would simply urge industry, the utilities and government to collaborate actively to deliver change.

The pandemic has been a disaster at the human, social and economic levels. But it has also shown us our resourcefulness, our resilience and our adaptability. And, I believe, it is time we harness those essential human qualities to build a better future.

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