“By ignoring the potential of e-fuels in cars, the UK government is choosing soundbites over sound science”

Andy Palmer thinks the UK is missing a trick by putting all its eggs in the electric car basket and ignoring other technologies

Opinion - efuels

When the EU announced that it will allow the sale of combustion engined vehicles designed to run on e-fuels, despite the 2035 ban on petrol and diesel vehicles, I saw this as a common-sense policy. Perhaps naively, I assumed the UK government would follow suit. I was wrong. 

Instead, the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said “we are not in Europe, we don’t have to do what Europe does”. Not only is this a worryingly myopic approach to the road towards net zero, it is atrociously bad policy-making for our domestic auto industry.

When I worked at Nissan, I was responsible for the launch of the world’s first mass-market electric vehicle, the Leaf. It will therefore come as no surprise that I am a vocal advocate for electric cars and the role they can and will play in helping to achieve a healthier planet. Yet I am a strong believer that battery electric vehicles are only one component of a myriad of options required if we are to move towards a cleaner future.

By following the lead of the EU and classifying e-fuels as a net zero technology, not only would we be enabling engineers and scientists to continue to develop this burgeoning industry, but it would also provide a much-needed boost to the UK’s boutique manufacturers of sports cars, already worried about what the future holds thanks to a lack of strategic direction from the government.

Imagine a world where Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini are permitted to using e-fuels while Aston Martin and McLaren cannot. Shapps’ announcement is a real kick in the teeth for those of us who are passionate about not only British motoring, but also the future prospects of our planet. 

Having spent over forty years in the auto industry, I’ve seen my share of political interference having a negative impact on the industry. Diesel is perhaps the most high-profile example. In the early 2000s, the UK provided incentives to motorists to purchase diesel cars. The reasoning was that they use less fuel than petrol vehicles, therefore they were an environmentally friendly alternative.

Less than a decade later, though, and the truth has proved very different and very damaging. The crux of the diesel saga was that politicians overstepped their mark. Instead of identifying the problem, writing the cheques and leaving much of the rest to scientists and engineers they fatefully dictated what they believed to be the solution. I fear we are repeating the same mistake by pinning all our hopes on battery electric vehicles as the only solution to net zero transport. 

Whilst I accept all technologies inevitably have their unexpected consequences; diesel, its particulates; EVs, the higher Co2 to manufacturer them; Fuel cells, the grey hydrogen as a result of the manufacturing process and with e-fuels, net zero is achieved at the tailpipe - but you have to deal with the NoX and particulates. But on these grounds, we shouldn’t dismiss any of the zero emission/ net zero carbon initiatives as they all further the science and prove the Darwinian philosophy.

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Reaching net zero will not be achieved with an exclusive technology, it needs a plurality of technologies fighting to compete. We need to follow the science, not political dogma and create an industrial strategy to save our industry. This government needs to consult with experts and consider the long-term impact on our industry as it goes through a period of immense change.

What’s more frustrating about this particular mis-step is that Britain has the potential to become an e-fuel leaders, with scientists and engineers at our world-renowned education establishments working hard to reach a new frontier of innovation. Yet, they are being stymied by politicians in Westminster pursuing soundbites rather than sound science. 

We must not let our proud domestic industry become a relic of the past, a piece of nostalgia. We can have a prosperous future, but only if we pursue multiple technologies to reduce the auto industry’s impact on the environment. It’s our only hope.

Do you agree with Andy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section...

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