Government can draw public towards electric cars, says Hyundai chief

EXCLUSIVE: Hyundai's UK chief executive Tony Whitehorn believes the Government can ignite a surge of public interest in electric and low-carbon vehicles by developing more infrastructure and implementing effective policy incentives that spark widespread behaviour change.

Speaking to edie on the sidelines of an automotive innovation event in London late last week, Whitehorn suggested that the introduction of new financial incentives would enable the number of low-carbon vehicles on Britain’s roads to grow significantly, while also shaping the types of vehicles that carmakers produce.

And financial incentives and penalties such as the Plug-In grant extension and the congestion charges in central London have already begun to change the views of the general public in regards to conventional diesel vehicles, Whitehorn said at the ‘House of Hyundai’ event.

“The Government can change consumer behaviour,” he said. “At the end of the day, we as consumers are driven by incentives or disincentives. There are a number of people who are understandably worried about the environment, but when it becomes financially penal for us to drive a high-emission vehicle, then that is what changes behaviour.

“The consumers’ pockets determine the behaviour. The Government is key, not only for consumer behaviour, but for [the manufacturer’s] behaviour.”

Hyundai is one of the only car manufacturers to have a vested interest in the production and commercialisation of hydrogen vehicles alongside an electric vehicle (EV) portfolio. Having already introduced hydrogen-based vehicles to Europe, the South Korean carmaker has set a 2020 target to rollout 28 new near-zero-emission vehicles across its Hyundai, Genesis and Kia brands.

The new portfolio is expected to lead to the introduction of 10 traditional hybrid vehicles, eight plug-in hybrids, eight battery EVs and two fuel cell models.

Stumbling blocks

Whitehorn noted that there is a sense of imbalance between manufacturers that are producing low-emission vehicles to comply with regulations, and the uptake of these vehicles amongst the British public.

With the European Commission (EC) calling on car manufacturers to introduce vehicles that have average emissions lower than 95g/kg by 2020, Whitehorn suggested that policies are dictating the type of vehicles that are being introduced, but that more would have to be created to support the costs for consumers.

Whitehorn suggested that manufacturers needed “deep pockets” to be able to produce an expansive range of low-emission vehicles. The stumbling block for manufacturers is the cost of production, which inevitably transfers onto the customer.

“Plug-in and hybrid vehicles are expensive to produce and buy,” Whitehorn added. “But with EVs – and especially if you can get free charge points at work – you can save on fuel and money. There’s also grants to lower the initial costs as well as a lack of congestion charges. These kind of Government introductions are helping change views.

“For us, building an EV is expensive, mainly because we don’t sell enough. The way that any manufacturer works is that, when you sell a lot, the cost per unit reduces. If EVs take off, the cost of EVs and hydrogen vehicles fall dramatically – it’s as simple as that.”

The UK is gradually becoming a more enabling environment for low-emission vehicles. Alongside the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s plans to extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in the capital, the Government has extended a £4,500 grant for individuals looking to purchase low-emission vehicles. Recent research from the Institute of the Motor Industry has suggested that the EV industry could be worth £51bn to the UK economy.

The global outlook for EVs also looks promising. Analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance has suggested that, by 2040, EVs will represent 35% of all new car sales. In the same week that Hyundai announced plans to electrify its portfolio, global sales of EVs coincidentally passed the one million mark.

Individualism evolved

As sales of low-emission vehicles continue to rise, Whitehorn believes that manufacturers should introduce a “sense of individualism” to a market that ultimately hinges its success on the ability to mass produce.

Last week’s House of Hyundai event examined what kind of innovations – from 3D-printed food to wearable tech that monitored stress levels – could be introduced to interact with the software of the car, to make journeys a more personalised experience as low-emission vehicles continue to gain market share.

However, Whitehorn said that, for the time being, the sense of individualism would also have to account for the type of vehicle that customers drive. For those travelling short distances across cities – where charging infrastructure is more available – EVs will be an ideal choice. For those travelling longer distances, then traditional diesel vehicles may still be likely to appeal, due to unalleviated concerns over battery mileage.

Manufacturers are, however, beginning to make breakthroughs in regards to battery mileage. Tesla believes it will be able to produce 150GWh in battery capabilities in the future as battery prices hit the $100/kWh mark before 2020. Hyundai has also made a breakthrough with its hydrogen vehicle, with one of its hydrogen models travelling 406 miles on a single tank of hydrogen during a recent demonstration in London.

Matt Mace

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