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Quentin Willson on making EV ownership fair for all
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Hello and welcome back to The Fast Charge, a weekly British EV newsletter.
In today’s edition… I speak to Quentin Willson, the former Top Gear presenter turned motoring activist, about how his new campaign group is working to make EV ownership fair for all.
Elsewhere and further down… JustPark will pay you £1,000 to install a charger at home, MG releases pricing for its hatchback, and sign up for an EV Association in Wales.
As ever, if you have any thoughts or feedback, please do drop me a line at email@example.com or simply reply to this email.
Interview with FairCharge founder Quentin Willson
Despite roaring sales and increasing popularity, to talk positively today about liking an EV can still induce spitting hatred by combustion evangelists. But what must it have been like ten years ago? Or even further back, before the turn of the millennium? You’d have needed a very thick skin.
Enter Quentin Willson, who in 1997 while hosting Top Gear began his electric transition by testing General Motors’ EV1 – the first mass-produced EV in the world.
“It was like nothing I'd ever felt before,” Quentin describes to me of his encounter with the EV1. “There was this moment when somebody in a Volvo T5 estate, some smug bloke in wraparound Oakley glasses, looked at me with this undisguised contempt at the traffic lights. I thought, okay, and the light's changed and I just completely smoked him.”
This skit was captured in the review that aired on Top Gear in the late 90s. Quentin says it was his ‘damascene’ moment where he believed internal combustion’s days were numbered. Even though at the time, as is still the case today, batteries were derided as lacking range and being slow to recharge.
“I was the object of huge ridicule,” he recounts on the reaction to his interest in EVs, “not least from Clarkson who would point, laugh and say I’d turned into a tofu-eating, sandal-wearing, Guardian reader. He was really disappointed in me and said, ‘don’t bring these things anywhere near me’.”
He wasn’t put off and bought several early EV models, such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Citroen C-Zero. It wasn’t always plain sailing, though. “They were just totally horrible little metal things with 50-mile ranges,” Quentin says, noting that his wife wouldn’t even take them to the next town along.
In the present day, as battery tech has vastly improved since he first sat in the EV1, Quentin drives a Tesla Model 3 and has a Model Y on order. “That journey of 12 years driving electric cars every single day was important for me as a journalist to do that, to test this technology and to sort of say, look, it works.”
Creation of FairCharge
Using all his experience, Quentin recently founded a new campaign, FairCharge, which aims to make sure the benefits of EVs – from cheap running costs to reliability – are felt by all. He founded the group after quitting FairFuelUK last year.
FairFuelUK is a lobbying effort Quentin co-founded to keep fuel costs low for road users. He was its spokesperson and, since 2010, it’s estimated to have saved drivers up to £160bn in planned tax hikes.
It’s one of the most successful political campaigns there’s ever been. Arguably, perhaps so successful that it helped keep people in fossil fuel cars for longer. This is a point several voices in the auto industry have made to me on Quentin’s reincarnation as an EV campaigner.
“Was this a hypocritical volte-face on my part?” Quentin reflects plainly. He doesn’t believe so, pointing out that his involvement in FairFuelUK, acting as its spokesperson, prevented “cataclysmic” rises through difficult economic times. “I make no apologies,” he says adding, “the aims of both campaigns is to reduce people's fuel costs. I think there's a consistency in that.”
Quentin left FairFuel just after the government outlined its plan to end the sale of ICE vehicles from 2030. As EV technology had improved, he felt it was time to encourage people to get one seriously, while FairFuel disagreed. “[They] didn’t have the environmental sensibilities that I have,” he explains. “They’ve gone very right-wing now.”
At the time of our conversation, the Tories are electing a new leader to become Prime Minister. If the polls are to be believed, Liz Truss is the standout favourite. I sense Quentin is disappointed it has come to this, saying the demise of Boris was a “silly” assassination.
“I think history will write him up as somebody who really did change the environmental sensibilities of the UK and started to move us towards zero emission transport,” he says on Johnson’s legacy. “It wasn’t just a tick box exercise, he passionately believed that this is what we had to do.”
“There's a real and present danger that right-wing politicians will start to chip away at those green targets,” says Quentin of the next few months, pointing out that some businesses will jump on the low political capital a future leader has to wear deadlines down. Only last week, Quentin notes Toyota has threatened to leave the UK if hybrids are rolled out by 2030 rather than 2035.
So who does Quentin want to see in No10 that might help deliver on FairCharge’s ambitions?
He claims to have no preference. “Neither of them have any real environmental policies underneath their belts,” he notes. Though adds that “on balance, probably Liz Truss will be more interested in the concept of environmentalism as an abstract than Sunak will, because it's going to cost money, and he's going to worry about short-term cost to the economy by net zero.”
One person I sense he will miss, should they exit government in Autumn, is Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. They have a good relationship and Shapps has recently taken hold of his second EV, a Tesla Model Y, having previously owned a Model 3. “It’s so, so important to have people in politics who drive, understand and are really passionate about electrification,” says Quentin. “You can't do it unless you've driven them.”
But what about the other side of Parliament? Given the state of the Conservative Party, it’s entirely possible that in the next 12 months we may have an election and the possibility of a Labourt Prime Minister.
FairCharge has already been engaging Labour and has, according to Quentin, received “extremely warm responses” from the party who support it “150%”.
“They are if anything more committed to zero-emission motoring for all than the conservatives,” he observes on Labour, though adds that he wishes the debate to be a “cross-party thing.”
I ask him if he’d lobby to see the return of a plug-in car grant, which was scrapped a few months ago. Much like EVA England told me recently, Quentin wants to see EVs “more affordable to more people” but asks “why can't we think about a fiscal mechanic that makes it easier for people to lease, rent or borrow.”
The immediate mission of FairCharge is to change the “morally wrong” VAT rate on charging publicly (20%) so it’s in-line for people who charge at home (5%).
It’s an important topic. Charging publicly, which an estimated third of households may have to do, is nearly 10 times more expensive before VAT. Over 80,000 people have signed a FairCharge petition to change the rules.
“Let’s not create this culture where it’s them and us,” he pleads, saying “Number 11 is torpedoing the policies of Number 10.”
The government has had an open ear to FairCharge on this challenge, albeit it’s not been productive so far. When he last met the Treasury, they provided a “boilerplate” response, but he’s hoping to soon see Nadhim Zahawi, the current Chancellor, to “have a conversation about how we can sort out this unfair VAT legislation.”
Keeping prices down is one ambition for FairCharge, but another is creating a fair and reliable experience at charging stations, which for him means “easy contactless, no-nonsense, no apps just straight in, boom.”
Quentin believes this is important for those thinking about an EV and is surprised how some operators get it so wrong. “If I was the guy running the charging system of one of the largest oil companies, who shall be nameless, I would be shocked by the stuff I read on Twitter about the failure rate and the unreliability,” he says.
“You don't have to be Carol Vorderman to work out that if an EV charging operator was to adopt the same kind of evangelical zeal [as Tesla] and gathered this passionate congregation up and let them be your ambassadors and your followers, then whoa, we're off.”
Quentin acknowledges it’s a difficult business and does believe that “charging operators deserve a profit”. However, he thinks “there has to be some control mechanism” when it comes to charging costs, suggesting “we need to have a look at some form of price cap”. Quentin notes, though, that it “needs to be an open conversation” and invites operators to sit with him and the government to discuss rather than conversations being “splintered”.
Looking through Quentin’s CV, all I could wonder before our chat is why he hadn’t decided to hang up his coat after such a great career to let someone else pick up the baton.
He disagrees. “People like me, in the public eye, have a degree of influence and have a platform. We're almost morally beholden to do this. I mean, yes, you can relax and vanish into affluence, but it's about putting something back and doing something important,” he explains.
“As the person who has loved and talked about combustion engine cars for all his career to suddenly have this volte-face, this surely is the unimpeachable testimony of somebody who does believe the time has come to make this change.”
From what I’ve seen, Quentin certainly isn’t short of drive to make this campaign succeed – perhaps best illustrated by the fact we’re speaking while he’s meant to be on holiday. “This is the most important thing I've done all week.”
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Elsewhere in the last week…
JUST PARK: One option to bridge the charging gap for those without a driveway, or potentially lacking public infrastructure, is for people to share driveway chargepoints. In many ways, it’s entirely logical. While there are 30,000 public points in the UK, there are at least 300,000 home chargers (if not a lot more). One business that’s trying to lead this trend is JustPark, which also runs a service called JustCharge – where you can book a parking space with an EV charger. In a new effort to build their network, JustPark has emailed users offering driveway owners a guaranteed £1,000 to allow 24/7 access to their space. JustPark will also install a charger if you don’t have one (valued at £900) and let you keep it once a 12-month contract has ended. Wowsers.
FOLDED PAGE: The founder of Brompton bikes, Will Butler-Adams, has a new book coming out (The Brompton: Engineering for Change). An extract of it where the CEO talks about his vision for transport has been placed in The Times and there’s also a lengthy interview in the FT. Across both, it’s quite clear that Will sees the electric bike as being the best vehicle of the future. He also suggests that cars are too big and too mineral intensive for just city use. I agree, but there are challenges for e-bikes too, not least the price, weather and theft. Read the extract.
CHIP SHORTAGE: Cars are already vastly delayed because of semiconductor shortages, and there is a feeling that this situation could get worse given the ongoing tension between China and Taiwan - the latter self-governing state produces over 50% of the world’s computer chips, which I’m sure is why China is keen on it. The solution is to build conductor capacity outside Asia, much like with batteries too. This is easier said than done, as it requires billions to set these factories up. Intel has called on the UK to do more in this regard and to create a microchip strategy - as the company is spending €33 billion in mainland Europe with support from the EU. Read more.
EVA CYMRU: Are you interested in an EV Association for Wales? A chap called Paul is collating names of those interested to try to get one going. Thus far, there’s an association for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
NEW PRICING: MG, the brand that used to be an ick but which now arouses groin parts, has revealed pricing for its upcoming hatchback – the MG4. There will be three specs: the SE Standard Range (£26k), the SE Long Range (£28.5k) and the Trophy Long Range (£31.5k). The standard range will be 218 miles and go up to 281 miles for the long range model – similar to the ID.3. But, as it looks more like an SUV than a hatchback, the range doesn’t seem to fit. Although given it looks like the lovechild of Kia EV6 and Lamborghini Urus, it could do no miles and hold its own. Read more.
NEW MONEY (P1): Gridserve has secured £200m of new investment by Infracapital to continue its work in the UK. The new investment will enable Gridserve to deliver beyond its planned 5,000 high-power chargers by 2025. Read more.
NEW MONEY (P2): Zap-Map, the essential service for EV owners, has raised £9m in funding to grow its development team and to go international. The app has been downloaded by 420,000 people since it was founded in 2014. Read more.
CUTTING BACK: Arrival, the British EV start-up, has put its bus and car projects on hold as it seeks to slash costs by a third in the wake of economic uncertainty. The main product of Arrival is its van, though it had been seeking to build electric buses and a car for Uber drivers. According to the FT, this decision will allow Arrival to focus on the van’s production – of which UPS alone have placed an order for 20,000. Read more.
COLD VIEWS: In a recent report for think tank Policy Exchange, the former Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost, has suggested that the government is ‘hectoring’ people to use renewable technology like EVs. In the same report, he described wind farms as “medieval.” He is supporting Liz Truss to be PM. See the report here, should you fancy a laugh then a cry.
By Tom Riley