Could the UK really lead the world in electric vehicles?

Vroom, vroom. Image: Getty.

Amidst a gloomy series of announcements pointing to car manufacturers pulling out of the UK, there are still some signs that the future could be bright for the UK’s automotive industry.

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has announced it will invest hundreds of millions of pounds in electric vehicle (EV) production at its Castle Bromwich plant in the Midlands, helping to secure 2,700 jobs. The previous government had been eager to show its support, handing a £500m loan guarantee to JLR, announcing it will make charging points mandatory in new homes and cutting company car tax for EVs from 2020. In his first address to Parliament as new prime minister, Boris Johnson emphasised his vision for the UK as “the home of electric vehicles”.

But how realistic is this grand ambition? The UK still only attracts a small fraction of the new global investment in electric car manufacturing. China, Germany and the US are getting the lion’s share, with car makers’ planned investments in these countries reaching a total of over $240bn. The domestic EV market lags behind other EU countries. And, while Johnson also claims that the UK is “leading the world in battery technology”, there are no plans for large scale domestic battery manufacturing facilities, with production capacity in Europe instead expected to reach 130 GWh by 2025.

Unless this changes, the global auto industry will continue to invest elsewhere and the UK will miss its chance to claim a major stake in this industry – not to mention the benefits of cleaner air and real progress in cutting carbon from the largest emitting sector in the UK.

Government action in the following three areas could change this picture, however.

First, manufacturers need more certainty about the future market before they will invest. While Brexit will inevitably play a role, upping the domestic demand by bringing forward the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles to 2030, and providing incentives for corporate fleets and private individuals to go electric, including by expanding charging infrastructure, would go a long way to strengthening the home market.

In the uncertainty of the post-Brexit world, it could be a great trade proposition too. Demand for electric vehicles in the EU could reach 12 million vehicles by 2030, which means the UK could capitalise on the growing European market for its car exports and help address the UK’s automotive trade deficit at the same time.


Second, manufacturing electric vehicle batteries requires critical raw materials, like cobalt. The considerable environmental and human costs of mining these materials could lead to supply disruptions, potentially creating barriers to the industry’s growth.

Instead, a system for battery reuse and recycling would mean the UK could provide a ready source to meet half of its cobalt demand in 2035 from domestically used batteries. For this to happen, the government needs to put policies in place that encourage domestic battery manufacturing and reprocessing, including revising the producer responsibility system for EV batteries to improve design, reuse and recycling.

Third, firms investing in electric vehicles could make profits in associated services, and particularly those enabled by new digital technology. For example, electric vehicles could be an infrastructure asset to support the energy system: batteries from idle cars can be deployed for balancing on local energy networks, limiting the need for network reinforcement and enabling further integration of renewables in the power system. This would enable UK firms to access new revenue streams beyond car sales, strengthening their profitability, and maximise the benefits of the transition to electric vehicles for UK citizens.

It is estimated that smart charging and vehicle to grid technology (which allows cars to provide power from the battery back into the grid), could save the energy system in Great Britain up to £270m per year by 2030 in avoided distribution network upgrades and reduced peak energy demand. To realise these opportunities, Ofgem should ensure the ongoing network charging and energy retail market reviews enable better use of EV batteries as part of a smart energy system.

China, Norway and EU countries, such as the Netherlands, have already set high ambitions for zero emissions vehicles. If Boris Johnson is serious about making the UK the “home of electric vehicles”, “powered by British-made battery technology”, his new government needs to act quickly, before it misses the chance.

Caterina Brandmayr is senior policy analyst at the Green Alliance.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.