Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Thursday, 10 September 2009 12:11 UK

Ministry push for low-carbon cars

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

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Electric cars on test

The UK must develop the world's leading ultra-low carbon vehicle (LCV) industry, according to Science Minister Lord Drayson.

At the LCV 2009 event, he officially launched the Office for Low-emission Vehicles (OLEV) announced in July.

Rather than a "mere talking shop", Lord Drayson stressed that the office will address both supply and demand concerns that presently limit the industry.

A range of low- and ultra-low carbon vehicles was displayed at the event.

But Lord Drayson made a sharp distinction between the two.

He argued that the UK could gain particular advantage in the development of ultra-low carbon vehicles, such as electric cars, instead of low-carbon cars like combustion/electric hybrids.

He said the UK's focus should be "where [it] has a realistic prospect of being a global leader; and where we possess real competitive advantage".

"In the car industry, I believe that means making a distinction between low-carbon and ultra low-carbon vehicles.

"Our priority must be to make the world's leading ultra-low carbon car industry in the UK."

Funding push

The announcement comes on the heels of several commitments the government has made toward building both the industrial and civil infrastructure to support the proliferation of low-carbon vehicles.

The Low Carbon Vehicle Procurement Programme has seen £20m distributed to four British companies that will supply electric vans to a number of public sector organisations in the coming months.

In April, the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) published their "Ultra-Low Carbon Vehicles in the UK" strategy, and the DfT committed £250m to drive early adoption of electric and hybrid consumer vehicles.

Image from LCV 2009
Electric buses, lorries and motorcycles were on show as well as cars

For instance, its £20m Plugged-in Places scheme would see more widespread distribution of charging points for the vehicles.

The government-backed Technology Strategy Board announced at LCV 2009 a scheme to distribuite £10m in funding to 10 UK businesses toward "ultra efficient electrical systems for electric and hybrid vehicles".

A government subsidy between £2,000 and £5,000 has been outlined earlier in the year for consumers looking to buy a low-carbon vehicle.

However, Julia King - author of the Treasury's 2007 review of low-carbon cars - said in her speech at LCV 2009 that the subsidy would not be enough to stimulate uptake of the vehicles.

Several of the manufacturers exhibiting at the event agreed, presenting a chicken-and-egg question of high retail prices limiting uptake, with the uptake remaining too low to drive production up and thus prices down.

Hands-on

A significant part of the event, however, was showing off the technology that is already in production, or at the prototyping and trialling stage - a sign that experts said is a sure sign that a given manufacturer will roll out production vehicles soon.

For instance, Mitsubishi's i-MiEV was on show as one of the few fully electric cars in production. Unlike many of the other vehicles, the i-MiEV is a full four-seater with a reasonable range of 80 miles (130 km) and charging in about seven hours from a standard plug.

It is on trial in the West Midlands, and the company is looking for people who are willing to drive the vehicles and provide feedback on their performance.

So, too, is the Mini franchise. Their MINI E is available for trial drivers in a section of the southeast around Oxford.

The MINI E's range is higher at 120 miles (km) but takes about 10 hours to charge, but the vehicles on offer are still prototypes, with production some way off yet.

In another class altogether is Tesla Motors' Roadster, an electric car based on the Lotus Elise (and which can beat the Elise in a straight drag race). It has been the environmentally-conscious car of choice for Hollywood's elite for some time, but a few months ago the firm expanded into Europe.

It outperforms in terms of range - the firm quotes 200 miles - but the more notable numbers are its top speed of 125 miles per hour, and a price tag just a shade over £89,000.



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