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Do hybrids have a future?

Posted June 22, 2016 by Tom

Changes to the London Congestion Charge are just another sign that hybrid cars are on the way out - here's why.

In the last few weeks, we’ve been quietly reminded of a Transport for London strategy that was put in place way back in 2013. As of 24th June 2016, the sunset period for the Green Vehicle Discounts (GVD) for the London Congestion Charge will end, and only the Ultra-Low Emission Discount (ULED) will remain. From that date, only vehicles with CO2 emission of less than 75g/km will be exempt from the daily £11.50 charge to drive through central London.

Now, that all sounds terribly dry, but it’s a massive shift in what it means to drive in our capital city. In short, unless your car has a plug, you won’t be driving for free through the centre of town. Drive the ever-popular Toyota Prius hybrid, at 83g/km, and you’ll have to pay that same £11.50 fee paid by all the gas guzzling 4x4s and noisy supercars that roam the streets. Isn’t that, well, a bit unfair? Aren’t hybrids a step in the right direction?

Well, the trouble with the traditional hybrid is that there’s no way of driving in a pure, zero emission way. The electric motors tend to kick in when starting from a halt or creeping in slow traffic, but the petrol engine remains at the heart of the car’s power and takes over at pretty much every other moment, contributing a fair heap of CO2 to London’s already choked air. So yes, your Prius may be better for the environment, but it’s still not good enough to justify the sizeable incentive that the GVD represented. The 75g/km limit is also important in the ongoing challenge of cleaning up London’s air, as it removes the CC exemption from a whole host of lean diesel cars, which may have relatively low CO2 emissions but pump out huge amounts of nasty particulates instead.

To return to the Prius, however, just think about the last time you got an Uber in the capital - there’s a strong chance you climbed into a Prius or one of its variants. According to a recent Freedom of Information request made by Motoring Research, there are over 12,000 Priuses in use as private hire vehicles in London alone, making it the favourite private hire car by quite some way. Now, private hire drivers may be exempt from paying the Congestion Charge, but this is where things get really interesting. TfL has been consulting on a swathe of changes to the private hire industry, largely due to the rise of Uber, and part of this proposal has been the possibility of enforcing the CC on private hire drivers. A controversial move, of course, but a hugely significant one too.

Let’s assume that the typical cab driver works five days a week, and be generous by saying that they enter the Congestion Charge zone on only four of those days (ignoring any changes in driver behaviour that the charge would inevitably cause). On those terms, TfL would stand to gain £2392 a year from every private hire driver, or a massive £28.7 million from Prius drivers alone. This is a clear disincentive to drive in the very centre of London, and would go some way towards tackling the supposed risks of Uber and its competitors.

More to the point, however, such a charge would go a long way towards the reduction of emissions on London’s roads. There’s nothing like a hefty charge to change a damaging behaviour, and by including hybrids in the CC there’s a clear incentive for drivers to adopt even cleaner vehicles, whether that be a zero emission full electric car or a plug-in hybrid like the Mitsubishi Outlander (42g/km). Even if TfL chooses not to push the charge onto private hire vehicles, by 2020 all new private hire cars will have to be capable of at least 30 miles of zero emission driving if they want to avoid a charge for driving in the new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). The message is clear: traditional hybrids aren’t the future, and the end of the GVD is just one extra reason to switch to a plug-in car. A small change, perhaps, but one that forms part of a bigger and unstoppable shift in the way we drive.

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