The UK Government is encouraging drivers to buy zero emission battery electric vehicles to accelerate the decarbonisation of transport. It will phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, and hybrids by 2035. But are drivers in Northern Ireland (NI) ready for the journey?
This article reports key findings from a public survey carried out by the Assembly Research and Information Service. This is part of the Committee for Infrastructure’s Inquiry into Decarbonising Northern Ireland’s Road Transport, which will be concluded in autumn 2021. A video of the Research and Information Service (RaISe) briefing to the Committee on this issue can be found here, and below:
Survey overview and limitations
The survey sought public attitudes towards ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) – both battery electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrids. It also included attitudes to transport demand policies, and the impacts of COVID-19 on travel behaviour. The survey ran online from Monday 15 March to Friday 16 April 2021 and received 742 completed responses. Respondents self-selected and so the survey was not representative of the whole population. Therefore, findings should not be extrapolated to the NI population in general. For instance, 76% of respondents were male, and 33% of respondents owned, or had previously owned, an EV or ULEV (while just 0.4% of NI vehicles are currently ULEVs):
Attitudes to UK vehicle policy
77% of respondents supported, or strongly supported, the UK Government’s vehicle policy. 18% opposed or strongly opposed it:
Opponents of the policy, and some supporters, expressed fundamental criticisms of the policy including:
- Questions about the wider environmental benefits of EVs
- The need for a wider transport policy that promotes cycling and walking
They also expressed some pragmatic concerns including:
- The currently prohibitive cost of EVs
- Concerns that the policy discriminates against the poor
- The poor quality of current charging infrastructure
- The over ambition of the policy
Attitudes to electric and ultra-low emission vehicles
Benefits of EVs
Respondents selected up to 14 potential benefits of EVs related to the environment, finance and driving experience. Only four of these – three environmental and one financial – were selected by over 50% of respondents:
Disadvantages of EVs
Of 11 possible disadvantages of EVs, driving experience and financial concerns scored highest. Over 90% of respondents selected ‘lack of charging stations’, while 75% identified the high cost of EVs:
EV purchase intentions
EV owners and non-owners differed markedly over their purchase intentions. 85% of EV owners intended their next car to be an EV, compared with just 23% of EV non-owners:
Respondents explained the reasons for their purchase intentions. The majority of EV owners were pleased with their EVs, citing a pleasurable driving experience, lower environment impacts and low running costs. On the other hand, most were dissatisfied with the currently poor state of public charging infrastructure. Some complained about the high purchase price of EVs, and the environmental impacts of batteries.
One previous EV owner, intending to buy an EV next, wrote:
I have had an electric car in the past and loved it. Gave it up due to lack of rapid charging infrastructure. Hopefully by the time I need [my] next car this will be sorted.
Most EV non-owners were concerned about the lack of public chargers and high purchase price. Although many were interested in buying an EV, they were waiting for improvements in EV technology, charging infrastructure and affordability. Some respondents were concerned about the environmental and social impacts of a transition to EVs. Finally, a minority fundamentally disliked battery EV technology, preferring fossil fuel or hydrogen vehicles.
One EV non-owner, undecided about whether to buy an EV next, wrote:
We would love to be able to choose an electric car but they are much too expensive. Both of us are homeowners in full time employment, no kids and no debt so if we can’t afford it, how would other households adapt to the switch without substantial grants being offered? Hopefully by 2030 the vehicles will be affordable to ensure a successful transition!
Considerations for purchasing an EV or ULEV
Participants rated the importance of 12 factors in deciding to purchase an EV or ULEV. The most important factors were purchase price, running cost, range, the ability to charge at home and on the go, and charge time:
Importance of factors in deciding to buy an EV or ULEV. Key: charging infrastructure, environmental, financial and driving experience.
|5 Very important||4 Important||3 Neutral||2 Not important||1 Not important at all||Don’t know|
|Can charge at home||68%||20%||9%||1%||2%||0%|
|Can charge on the go||60%||23%||12%||3%||2%||1%|
|Time it takes to charge||54%||27%||14%||3%||2%||0%|
|Range of cars/models||29%||30%||26%||9%||4%||1%|
Experiences of EV owners
EV owners expressed low levels of satisfaction with various aspects of the public charging infrastructure. Respondents were ‘not satisfied at all’ with the maintenance, availability and location of charging stations:
EV owner satisfaction with aspects of the public charging infrastructure
|5 Very satisfied||4 Satisfied||3 Neutral||2 Not satisfied||1 Not satisfied at all|
|Maintenance/upkeep of charging stations||2%||2%||6%||14%||77%|
|Availability of charging stations||0%||2%||6%||23%||68%|
|Location of charging stations||2%||6%||17%||29%||46%|
|Distance to a charging station||5%||15%||21%||24%||35%|
|Time it takes to charge||2%||11%||31%||24%||33%|
|Information relating to the location of charging stations||11%||23%||29%||12%||25%|
Additionally, many EV owners commented on the lack of working chargers. One respondent articulated a recurring theme:
There are a lot of chargers BUT many are in the wrong place, are the wrong sort, are out of order and not maintained. NI started off well for charging infrastructure but this position has deteriorated rather than improved and the current system is not fit for purpose.
Expectations of EV non-owners
EV non-owners indicated what they would expect from driving an EV. Most would expect easy access to public chargers and rapid (under 30 minutes) charging from EVs. The majority would expect to be able to travel up to 300 miles between charges:
EV ranges are improving and the average new EV can now travel up to 200 miles per charge. However, EVs with ranges up to 400 miles remain expensive. This suggests that range remains a barrier to around half of potential EV owners in NI.
Attitudes to transport demand management
The UK Government believes that transport decarbonisation will depend not only on increasing the uptake of ULEVs, but also encouraging a walking, cycling and using public transport.
Respondents gave their attitudes towards nine policies designed to encourage sustainable travel modes. ‘Pull factors’ such as infrastructure investments, subsidies and public sector investments were popular. ‘Push factors’ such as penalties for fossil fuel vehicles were generally unpopular. For example, just 36% of respondents supported a mandatory work place parking levy:
Attitudes towards policies designed to manage demand for travel in favour of sustainable modes. Key: infrastructure investment, subsidy, public sector investments and penalties and incentives.
|Policy||Strongly support||Support||Don’t know||Oppose||Strongly oppose|
|Make it easier to purchase an electric vehicle or other ULEV by reducing VAT or increasing grants||71%||19%||2%||3%||5%|
|Require all filling stations have at least 3 rapid charge points||69%||22%||3%||3%||3%|
|Require councils to install charge points if requested by residents||64%||25%||4%||4%||4%|
|Introduce a grant for the purchase of second hand electric vehicle or other ULEV||56%||30%||3%||5%||6%|
|Require all new vehicles purchased by government, local councils, Translink etc. are electric vehicles or other ULEVs||52%||31%||4%||6%||6%|
|Provide free car parking for electric vehicles or other ULEVs in town centres||42%||26%||4%||13%||14%|
|Restrict access to town/city centres for petrol and diesel cars and vans (known as a low emission zone)||31%||29%||4%||15%||21%|
|Provide priority lanes for electric vehicle or other ULEVs on major roads||22%||23%||7%||25%||23%|
|Require car parking charges at work places for petrol and diesel cars (known as a work place parking levy)||18%||18%||7%||30%||27%|
Current travel behaviour, willingness to change, and COVID-related changes
Attitudes to changing travel modes
Respondents tended to drive for journeys of most lengths, especially those over two miles. Half of respondents would consider changing their mode of travel for journeys under two miles, but less than a third would for journeys over five miles:
Attitudes to changing travel modes for given distances
|Less than 2 miles||36%||16%||48%|
Expected post-COVID work travel changes
COVID-19 and public health restrictions have changed many people’s work patterns and travel behaviour. After the anticipated removal of COVID-19 restrictions, 54% of respondents expected to work from home at least some of the time:
The survey showed that among respondents:
- There was broad support for a transition to EVs, but concerns about how this will be achieved.
- Many drivers would like to switch to an EV, but are discouraged by high purchase prices, range anxiety and inadequate public charging infrastructure.
- EV owners were highly dissatisfied with the public charging infrastructure.
- ‘Pull’ policies to encourage sustainable transport were popular, while ‘push’ policies were less popular.
- There was more willingness to switch away from cars for short journeys than long journeys.