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The electric vehicle revolution – is this the calm before the storm?

Advocate Christopher Scholefield of Viberts looks at some of the legal implications of what may be the biggest shake up of transport in Jersey for decades; the electric vehicle.

Head north to England, buy an electric car and the government will give you a £4,500 subsidy. Do the same thing in France and the subsidy is €6,000. In Jersey the best deal on offer has only ever been £300 towards the cost of an e-cycle while in Guernsey a similar scheme remains under investigation. Perhaps that explains why the number of electric vehicles on our roads remains vanishingly small (roughly 200 in a fleet of 125,000 registered vehicles in Jersey and 144 in a fleet of 83,000 in Guernsey) since range anxiety has never been an issue for Channel Island motorists.

However, all that may be about to change. Battery performance figures and manufacturing costs are changing fast. No sooner had the UK government said diesel and petrol car and van sales will have to stop by 2040 than the Scottish government announced it was trumping that deadline with an earlier one of its own, 2032. Another regional authority refusing to wait for a national policy to emerge is Majorca which has announced plans to ban new diesel vehicles by 2025. No government these days wants its green credentials to look second rate.

Morgan Stanley are estimating that globally one vehicle in two (that’s one billion vehicles) will be battery powered by 2050. The economic and legal implications for the islands of this sea change are intriguing, even if there are some vested interests who would prefer we did not think too hard about them.

It’s too soon to say what fate awaits internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Surely they will be charged for using, and eventually banned from built up areas, commuter routes and roads near schools. The off road capabilities of the glossy crossover SUV in the dealer’s showroom may soon seem less important than the fact they can’t go where you need to go when you need to go there.

Public opinion changes quickly these days. Will today’s enthusiasm for bulky four by fours dissipate in a twitter storm of indignation? Will a 2017 model Bentley Bentayga, which emits 210gms of Co2 per km, one day be derided as irresponsible and, frankly, a bit naff?

Car buying agreements

No legal issues arise there: you are free to buy such a car or not to do so. The dealer makes no promises in the contract of sale about what the future may hold for it either in terms of trade in value or permitted usage. Even scrappage schemes enticing you to trade in a dirty old diesel for a clean new one make no contractually binding promises about how long any vehicle with an exhaust pipe will be welcome on our roads.

Planning

Getting power for your car will no longer involve a visit to one of the islands’ existing filling stations. You will expect to charge up whenever and wherever there is power. For residential areas with predominantly on-street parking, will the future see charging points installed along the whole street? That might be a design challenge in historic and other sensitive areas, such as sea front car parks. Happily work is already being done to investigate adding charging stations to existing lamp standards. Perhaps the States will seek savings by simply outsourcing the whole electric vehicle charging infrastructure challenge to the private sector. Leisure attractions will want to seek permission to install the required charging infrastructure for their visitors. As petrol sales fall, change of use applications from garages to residential are bound to follow. Indeed the smart money may already be on properties currently blighted by an adjacent forecourt which will eventually be making way for a no noise, no fumes, no garish branding residential redevelopment.

Taxation

In 2016 the States of Jersey made £21.8m out of vehicle fuel duty. In Guernsey the figure for 2017 was £19.4m. VRD, a one-off charge calculated according to how much pollution a car causes and which replaced the old annual road tax windscreen disc, is also a nice little earner. Jersey hits the dirtiest cars with a maximum charge of £1,900. Guernsey charges just £690 but paradoxically it’s Guernsey that has a healthy population of efficient, second hand, Japanese domestic market micro cars because it does not insist all Guernsey registered vehicles have EU type approval. Electric vehicles will dry up these revenue streams which will have to be replaced. So far electric vehicle drivers have enjoyed a tax holiday because the islands’ governments, having offered no subsidies, at least avoids taxing them. That can’t last. The authorities may say they wish to encourage green motoring but eventually electric vehicle use will be so widespread the tax holiday will have to end. Taxing electricity used to power up an electric vehicle, as opposed to say running the fridge, does not look practical. We must therefore expect a return to the annual road tax windscreen disc, charged on the grounds of congestion, or perhaps road pricing which GPS technology has made much easier to operate.  

Home buying

Homes with off street parking allowing easy domestic charging will command a premium. If you run a cable from your front door across the pavement to your car how long before someone falls over it in the dark and sues? For blocks of flats the declarations of co ownership or articles of association will need amending to provide a regime for the installation, access to and consumption charges of onsite charging facilities. Some buyers will be put off apartments where this has not been sorted out. Luxury flats may offer one per charging station per unit but further down market a rota could be needed. The EU is already working on regulations to require all new residential units to have access to a charging point so the writing on the wall is pretty clear.

Motor trade employment

The island employs hundreds of trained mechanics who maintain ICE vehicles. Since electric vehicles have so few moving parts this sort of work will either change beyond recognition or simply vanish. Employers will need to update and then scrupulously apply their redundancy policies. Those keen to retain the best staff will want to offer contracts providing generous in work re-training opportunities. When the safety arguments reach critical mass (let’s remember five died in one crash in Leeds in November 2017, six in one crash in Birmingham just weeks later) autonomous vehicles will surely also take off. California has licensed driverless autonomous vehicles on its roads as of April 2018. This can mean just one thing: driving work in the transport sector will evaporate. Astute motor franchisees already know which manufacturers are no longer at the forefront of technological change. Even prestige brands will have to be dropped in favour of more promising ones. Does anyone remember Rover or Saab these days?

Commercial leaseholds and retail

In recent years there has been a coming together of petrol stations and food retail – “en route” so to speak. For some reason the public has not been put off buying food stored and offered for sale right next to the fumes and exhaust gases of a busy forecourt. As demand for petrol reduces so this model will need to be reappraised. Convenient locations offering abundant parking will survive. Those also offering a quick charge for their shoppers’ electric vehicles will be better placed but both will have lost their USP – access to the pumps. Commercial landlords owning properties of this sort will need to prepare to reconfigure them if they want their tenants to stay put and continue trading successfully.

Staying ahead of the game

The smartphone revolution was swift and all-embracing. Because they are a replacement technology not a new one electric vehicles will take longer but, as Nicola Sturgeon said when announcing Scotland’s 2032 changeover, “to succeed Scotland must lead change, not simply trail in its wake.”

There is a lesson in that remark for politicians in all both bailiwicks. Are we using our autonomy constructively or has the blame culture reduced our governments to observing innovations elsewhere and eventually, lamely, copying them? It was the Isle of Man that rushed to re-write its traffic laws so as to become a test bed for Google’s autonomous vehicles, not Jersey or Guernsey, so guess which Crown Dependency is now the talk of the Washington Post and has chums in the Googleplex. Whatever our governments do or don’t do, their private citizens will think through what’s coming and lay their plans accordingly.

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