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Report on Motoring 2015: 6. The evolving car

Blog post   •   Sep 08, 2015 00:07 BST

The environmental impact of the cars they drive is low on the list of concerns of most motorists. A significant minority of drivers would consider buying some form of low-carbon vehicle as their next car, but this is mainly due to potentially lower running costs.

Motorists are in favour of technology which can improve vehicle safety, but the extent to which they are willing to pay extra for such features is limited.

There are concerns about the safety of driverless cars, the development of which is being strongly supported by the Government, although most drivers recognise the benefits such vehicles could offer older and disabled people.


6.1 Environment

The potential impact of vehicles on the environment appears very low on the list of most motorists’ concerns in the 2015 Report on Motoring.

Only one in every 50 drivers (2%) lists this as their top concern and, like last year, just 7% number the environment among their four greatest concerns. This is not to say, however, that drivers have no interest in low-emission vehicles: but the main factor behind choosing such cars is economic rather than social responsibility.

Almost one in five (19%) motorists say they would consider a hybrid or electric vehicle as their next car. But among this group, half (47%) say this would be because of the potentially low running costs rather than low emission levels.

Figures published in June 2015 by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show that sales of ultra-low-emission vehicles (predominantly pure electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf and plug-in hybrids such as the Mitsubishi Outlander) are increasing significantly. In the first five months of this year, purchases were four times higher than in the same period of 2014 – but nonetheless this sector represents little more than 1% of the total market.

Figures from the Department for Transport show that between the start of 2010 and the end of March 2015, more than 36,000 ultra-low emission vehicles had been registered in the UK.

Overall, combined hybrid and electric car sales add up to less than 3% of the UK new car market.

Among all motorists, running costs are the most significant factor when it comes to choosing a new car: 40% say this has the greatest impact on their buying decision, compared with 28% who pay more attention to the purchase price.

Changes to the Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) system announced by the Government in its summer 2015 Budget will reduce incentives to buy low-emission vehicles.

However, from 2017, only new cars which produce zero emissions will be exempt from VED in the first and subsequent years. Lower-emission models (up to 100g/km) will pay between £10 and £100 in first-year VED; after year one, all vehicles other than those with zero emissions will face a flat £140 annual charge. At present, cars which produce 100g/km or less in carbon dioxide permanently avoid VED. While falling tax revenues from the current VED system need to be addressed, the RAC has some concerns that this new regime may slow the significant progress that has been made in reducing carbon dioxide emissions from passenger cars and light commercial vehicles in the UK. As annual running costs play a significant part in the choice of new vehicle, the new regime from 2017 carries some risk of slowing the sales of low-emission vehicles.

“We recognise the current VED system needs to be reformed and SMMT highlighted this in a recent report. The Chancellor’s Budget announcement on the regime came as a surprise and is of considerable concern. While we are pleased that zero-emission cars will, on the whole, remain exempt from VED, the new regime will disincentivise take up of low-emission vehicles. As it stands, new technologies such as plug-in hybrid, the fastest growing ultra-low emission vehicle segment, will not benefit from the long-term VED incentive, threatening the ability of the UK and the UK automotive sector to meet ever stricter CO2 targets.”

Mike Hawes, Chief Executive, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders


6.2 Technology drives safety improvements

The vast majority of motorists (86%) believe that cars are safer today than at any point in the past and almost two-thirds (63%) say that in-car technology plays an important role. The extent to which drivers are willing to pay for additional safety measures is limited.

However, the likes of parking sensors (92%), automatic emergency braking (74%), dashcams (73%) and automatic self-parking (67%) are considered useful by a majority of motorists. But less than a third of drivers would be willing to pay more than £100 to have any of these features added, whether by manufacturers or after buying their car.

Telematics insurance policies are becoming more popular, particularly among younger drivers: these involve a unit being installed in a car to record factors such as speed, braking and cornering, and are designed to give motorists the chance to demonstrate to insurers that they are responsible, low-risk drivers and therefore deserving of lower premiums. Research from Consumer Intelligence published in June 2015 found that take-up of telematics insurance was highest among drivers aged between 18 and 24, with 22% of men in this group and 14% of women using such policies.

It is widely believed that telematics policies can improve driver behaviour not only by providing a financial incentive to drive sensibly, but also by giving customers the chance to analyse data about their own driving habits and providing suggestions on how they can improve. The Report on Motoring found that 75% of drivers say a telematics unit would be a useful feature on their vehicle. But a significant minority – 30% – say they would be opposed to new technology which recorded how well they were driving. The level of opposition is even higher – 40% – among drivers aged between 17 and 24.

It may therefore be the case that younger motorists are adopting telematics policies in greater numbers not because the concept appeals to them, but because it is often the only way of obtaining affordable insurance.

In the March 2015 Budget, the coalition government announced £100 million of funding for research into driverless vehicle technology over the next five years.

The Report on Motoring has found that a majority of motorists (52%) believe that driverless cars will benefit older and disabled drivers. But only a quarter (27%) expect driverless vehicles to make road travel safer than it is at present. Clearly, we are at a relatively early stage in the journey towards driverless cars and in future editions of the Report on Motoring it will be interesting to see how motorists’ views have changed as their understanding of driverless cars develops.


6.3 Mixed messages on diesel

Around half of all new cars sold in the UK run on diesel. Figures published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show that in the first half of 2015, diesels accounted for 48.3% of the market against 48.9% for petrol.

But there is growing awareness that the levels of nitrogen dioxide emitted by diesel cars manufactured over the past decade have been significantly higher than were predicted by the EU standard tests used to approve vehicle emissions. As a result, there has been a greater than forecasted impact on local air quality.

There is significant variation in the way that local authorities are dealing with air quality issues and the Report on Motoring found some support among motorists for measures designed to tackle such problems. More than half (54%) support the introduction of penalty charges for more polluting vehicles which enter their local area while 43% think that stronger action needs to be taken locally to reduce pollution (only 19% oppose such action). Views on penalties that specifically target diesel vehicles are more mixed: 39% say they back charges for diesel cars which do not comply with the latest emission standards but 34% are against them.

“Today’s diesel engines are the cleanest ever, and the culmination of billions of pounds of investment by manufacturers to improve air quality. Indiscriminate and inconsistent bans and parking taxes on diesel vehicles will undermine the take up of these newer, cleaner vehicles. We need to avoid penalising one vehicle technology over another and instead encourage the uptake of the latest low-emission vehicles which best suit consumers’ needs.”

Mike Hawes, Chief Executive, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders

However, the RAC believes that the rapid introduction of severe penalties for owners of all diesel vehicles, is unjust. Many motorists have bought small fuel-efficient diesel vehicles over the last ten years because of their high fuel economy and low carbon dioxide emissions. The Government’s taxation regime has incentivised this and it is therefore unfair to punish these people because the scientists and officials got the test cycles wrong.

Nevertheless, local action is required to deal with local air quality issues. These are best addressed through programmes like the London Ultra Low Emission Zone, which gives time for adjustment and targets the most polluting vehicles. The RAC recognises that decisions over local air quality are down to local authorities, but central government needs to show leadership by encouraging best practice and discouraging the demonising of diesel and the retroactive punishment of diesel owners.

“Because we are increasingly worried about air quality, we are on the verge of demonising the diesel engine – it feels like a simple solution. But this is a complex issue, and this country is at the forefront of developing clean diesel technology – it would be a pity to find a knee-jerk reaction threw that international commercial advantage away.”

Steve Gooding, Director, RAC Foundation


Local action to tackle air quality

Good practice: London Ultra Low Emission Zone

From 2020, the area of central London currently covered by the Congestion Charging zone will become an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). All cars, motorcycles, vans, minibuses and HGVs will need to meet specific exhaust emission standards or pay an additional daily charge to travel within the zone.

This scheme is an example of good practice in addressing local air quality issues because:


Bad practice: London Borough of Islington residents’ parking charges

In June 2015, Islington council in North London introduced a £96 annual surcharge on residents’ parking permits for owners of diesel vehicles. The council said this was intended to ‘protect residents from the health risks associated with diesel emissions’.

This is an example of bad practice in addressing local air quality issues because:

  • The surcharge is being applied across the whole borough rather than solely in the areas where air quality is worst
  • The measure was announced less than six months before it was introduced, giving motorists little opportunity to avoid it
  • Residents with diesel vehicles can easily end up paying more than twice as much for parking as petrol owners, despite the fact they are likely to be producing lower carbon dioxide emissions and may in some cases use their vehicles very little
  • It punishes owners of diesel vehicles who believed they were making a sound environmental choice by purchasing low carbon dioxide-emitting vehicles