Amid ambitious targets to remove combustion engine cars from the road, drivers tend to increasingly cling to their dirty vehicles for longer.
The main issue is that as the lifetime of fossil fuel cars grows, it might become harder to convince owners to trade their less environmentally friendly vehicles early for greener ones.
A trend towards longer ICE (internal combustion engine) car-usage applies to Britain and to other large western economies like the US, as well as many countries across the rest of Europe (especially in the east and south of Europe, see map).
The average age of cars in the UK increased from 6.7 years in 1994 to 8.3 years in 2019, Department for Transport figures suggest. In 1994 6.3 per cent of vehicles were older than 13 years. Only a quarter of a century later, the same category accounted for 18.3 per cent.
As more automakers switch to building electric vehicles, the growing longevity of ICE vehicles might become a problem, especially in the coming decade when the UK government and now also many automobile makers lured by incentives want to boost the share of adoption in the hybrid and EV categories.
Experts argue that “the UK is currently not on track to switch all new vehicles to fully battery-electric by 2030,” according to a report by the Climate Change Committee, a UK independent statutory body.
Older ICE cars might not serve their entire lifetime in the UK, either. Like the US, British-built cars or those initially used in the UK may be sold off to other countries, serving a growing second-hand market.
Data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), a UK trade association, says the age of the average vehicle increased from 6.8 years in 2003 to 7.8 in 2015.
In the US, petrol drivers are also clinging to cars for longer. 12 years today compared to 9.6 in 2002, according to HIS Markit figures.
Data suggests that UK petrol and diesel car owners drive less mileage per period. Also, the dirtier fossil fuel types, notably diesel-powered vehicles, tend to count more mileage on the odometer – around 208,000 km, 25 per cent more than petrol cars, data from 2012/2013 found.
Despite some recent blips in car trade during the pandemic, longer lifespans benefit a generally thriving second-hand car market.
Analysts at SMMT think that growing longevity of petrol vehicles can dampen sales of more environmentally-friendly options. Slower fleet renewal is the result.
For transitioning to greener transport solutions as soon as possible, that’s a problem. Replacing older vehicles on UK roads with the latest, cleanest and ultimately zero-emission technologies is the fastest way to deliver improvements in air quality and tackle climate change, Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive wrote in an email to us.
How to make sure that drivers give up their petrol cars? Terri Wills for TheCCC writes about the importance of “linking incentives to targets [that] will also ensure that funding is focussed on the necessary preconditions for petrol and diesel vehicle phase-out, and will allow funding to shift to the next priority once particular targets are met”.
Whether incentives work to shore up demand is uncertain. It seems there is some trial-and-error. The plug-in car grant (PiCG), which is one way to get more people to switch, was cut in March to extend its range.
Chart: Alternatively Fuelled Vehicles (AFV) registrations, defined by SMMT as battery electric vehicles (BEVs), plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), increased significantly in the past two years (see above).
Hawes at SMMT advises the sector to adopt more consistent, and long-term fiscal incentives, significant investment in infrastructure, importantly charging points in residential areas, and a strategy to decarbonise commercial and heavy goods vehicles that are predominantly diesel-powered and for which there is no equivalent, commercially viable technology yet.
Last year, the UK government announced moves the ban on the sale of internal combustion engine cars forward, to 2030 from 2040. It will allow the sales of hybrids until 2035.