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What do UK motorists want from the General Election?

ULEZ protest
ULEZ protest

London’s ULEZ extension raised the voice of motorists across the capital

Unless you’re an ever-grinning Ford Escort RS2000 Mk1 owner living somewhere in the hills, it’s highly likely that in 2024 you’re already utterly fed up trying to engage in the simple act of driving from A to B.

On 25 November 2022, day-to-day road use hit rock bottom for many drivers when London mayor Sadiq Khan announced plans to expand the city’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) from 29 August 2023.

In the run-up to the expansion’s introduction, voters choosing an MP to replace Boris Johnson in Uxbridge and South Ruislip on 20 July 2023 severely wounded the prospect of similar plans being implemented across the country after what became a ULEZ protest vote.

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The parliamentary seat was expected to go to Labour, but the Conservatives campaigned heavily against the zone and scraped their way to victory.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer each recognised the significance. Conservative and Labour policy brains, mindful that a general election could be imminent, realised 42 million full driving licence holders was a lot of potentially hacked-off voters.

The perfect storm had been generated: drivers with non-compliant cars were without options because public transport was woefully inadequate; there were issues around road repairs, congestion, parking, EV charging, fuel prices

Road users had had enough: Uxbridge and South Ruislip raised the flag. On 29 September 2023, the government declared the “war on drivers” was over.

New rules restricted impositions of 20mph limits, bus lanes and low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs). Then, on 2 October, it launched its ‘Plan for Drivers’.

“Our Plan for Drivers shows how this government is backing motorists, ensuring they can enjoy smoother journeys, park more easily and no longer face oppressive traffic enforcement measures,” said a spokesperson.

Labour responded on 10 October. Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said the Tories demonstrated how out of touch they were with the reality facing drivers.

“Labour’s plan means action on unfair petrol and car insurance costs, removing barriers so infrastructure improvements are actually delivered, reducing the traffic clogging up our roads and boosting the charge-point roll-out,” she said.

With a general election looming, the political parties are unwilling to really nail their motoring colours to the mast until it’s time to publish their manifestos – so we asked a range of experts what they would like to see made a priority, and how they think the UK’s roads will change in the next five years.

The tech insurance pioneer

Andrew Bennett is an insurance telematics and ‘connected car’ consultant, involved in such technologies for nearly 20 years and an expert in drivers’ behaviour. We asked him what driving in 2029 will look like.

“On the motorway, I expect a procession of cars trying to travel at 70mph, due to average-speed control and adaptive cruise,” he says.

“Lots of flat-fronted electric cars and the start of GPS-enabled road-tolling beyond the Dartford Crossing and the M6. In towns, fewer cars, more on-street charging, with electric charge costs approaching those of ICE vehicles – parking payments being automated in a consolidated app. The proportion of vehicles that are EV and ICE will vary very notably geographically, influenced by affluence.”

What does he want to see? “More autonomous vehicles and fewer ICE vehicles, a better charging infrastructure off-motorway, and reflective rather than profiteering costs for EV charging.

"A more integrated Britain, with subsidies on EV and train use to reduce carbon emissions.”

The motoring champion

Edmund King, president of the AA, has robocops and middle-lane hogs on his future adaptive cruise radar.

“It’s very cold in Hertfordshire at 6.30am on 24 January 2029, but my EV has not defrosted nor charged itself due to overnight power cuts,” he imagines.

“I just make it to the west side of the M25. Unfortunately, this is still a defective motorway without hard shoulders as the failed ‘smart’ motorway experiment continues despite opposition from drivers.

Nobody uses the left-hand lane, and middle-lane hogs are out in abundance. It’s not a smooth ride as the £8.3 billion saved from HS2 meant to be spent on potholes has been diverted to pay for HS3.

I pull into the new Heathrow service area, still under construction, but unfortunately the planned 5000 solar-powered 350kW induction chargers aren’t working. This was meant to be the dawn of a new age but I have to call the trusty AA…”

What King would like instead by 2029 is a far less challenging driving environment: same date, same weather, but his EV has already defrosted and charged itself, allowing him to hit the west side of the M25 on semi-auto drive.

“The restored hard shoulders from the failed ‘smart’ motorway experiment are in place and traffic is flowing okay as at last drivers have confidence to use the left-hand lane, and AI-driven robocops target the last remaining middle-lane hogs,” he says.

“It’s quite a smooth ride as the £8.3bn from HS2 has been wisely spent to get rid of the potholes. I pull into the Heathrow service area, newly constructed with 5000 solar-powered 350kW induction chargers, just to check out if they’re working. They are. This is the dawn of a new age and I’m off to AA HQ.”

The old-school engineer

Jonathan Douglas is engineering director at modifier JE Motorworks, which is responsible for some thunderous fossil-fuelled vehicles, and he is adamant the future is synthetic and biofuels. People will become disillusioned by EVs, he believes.

“In 2029, the number of electric cars will not have increased much because they’re expensive and recharging methods are letting people down,” says Douglas. “So there will be more people running older conventional vehicles and some won’t be in a very good state.

“This means an ageing, less safe and [less] reliable vehicle fleet. Lower speed limits will be imposed but only succeed in frustrating drivers, which doesn’t improve the likelihood of them driving safely.

“Fuel prices will have increased, but for many the alternatives to a private car are so time-inefficient they buy fuel anyway. Those who drive modern cars will be subject to increasing amounts of abuse from other road users as their cars increasingly do unexpected things due to overzealous ‘driver aids’.”

In 2029, he says, synthetic fuels and biofuels will have been shown to be better solutions than battery power, but politicians won’t understand this and won’t change direction.

“If as much effort had gone into synthetic and biofuels as has gone into batteries, they might be more widely available already,” says Douglas.

Furthermore, he says, technology could have been employed to improve traffic flow – better for the environment than slow-moving vehicles.

The car dealer

Mark Carpenter, CEO of Motorpoint Group, says we will see more hybrids and EVs on his forecourts and on the roads.

Used EV prices will align with traditional petrol and diesel vehicle prices, with the market shifting to most new car options being hybrid.

“More motorists will be open to moving away from petrol and diesel cars as price differences between traditional ICE vehicles and EVs become less pronounced,” he says.

“The used EV market will boom as motorists become able to afford a larger range of electric vehicles.

“It’s unlikely public transport infrastructure will have improved enough in five years to make it a practical alternative for most motorists.”

Carpenter envisions potential EV owners seeking reliable and affordable charging in 2029 will remain disappointed and he hopes for more government leadership and policy support to help motorists hit carbon reduction targets.

The car industry leader

Mike Hawes, head of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, is sceptical that EV sales will take off anything like as much as hoped, due to a lack of incentives.

“There are no carrots for private buyers to purchase EVs, which manufacturers need to sell, not just for regulatory purposes but financial reasons,” he says.

“There’s demand there from business users. With benefit in kind, it makes good sense to buy an EV.

“The two biggest obstacles to EV purchase are affordability and infrastructure. It was a good last quarter for EV roll-out and good charge-point roll-out, but 80% was in London and the south-east because [charge-point providers] will just follow the money.”

The future policy expert

Jack Stilgoe, professor of science and technology policy at UCL, has done extensive work in fields such as AI “and the driverless future”.

Instead of asking him about five years’ time, we wanted him to leap ahead to the perceived road use endgame: driverless vehicles.

He says the question is not really when we will see self-driving vehicles but where and in what forms. For a self-driving vehicle to work, it’s not simply a matter of replacing a human with a computer.

“Roads have been designed for human perception,” he says. “The world is not perfectly machine readable, so self-driving vehicles work better in some places than others – controlled infrastructures with predictable road users. And the robotaxi companies still haven’t worked out the sort of sustainable business model that incentivises rapid growth.

“As a society, our choice is whether we want to upgrade all or parts of the road network to suit the technology, which might mean spending a lot and shepherding other road users out of the way of the tech, or allow self-driving vehicles only on limited parts of the road network.

“Either way, they’re not going to be ubiquitous any time soon.”

By Iain Macauley

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