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“Petrol stations are not the ideal place for multiple rapid chargers” Interview with Quentin Willson

Although Quentin Willson, former Top Gear presenter, has always been a fan of big cars – he has a Mustang, a Rolls Royce and a Bentley sitting at home – for the last seven years he has been driving various electric cars to test their functionality. “As an opinion former you have to try things”. He considers electric cars “are fine, they work, but we are not ready for mass electrification.”

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Quentin Willson is an award-winning motoring journalist and presenter of the Classic Car Show. He fronted Top Gear for a decade and writes for numerous national publications, while campaigning tirelessly on behalf of Britain's motorists.

Could you explain to the global audience what is Fairfuel UK? is the country’s most successful single-issue protest group. It has 1.5 million supporters. We have forced the Government to keep fuel duty down for the last 7 years, saving the UK consumers 100 billion pounds ($132bn). We manage this through dialogue and politeness; we don’t do blockades or fuel protests. (In November) we got our members to send 36,000 emails to the treasury and to the Prime Minister. It proves that we don’t need a huge bankroll and lots of money.  

In relation to the fuel industry, how does Theresa May’s administration compare to previous ones?

The previous Labour administration had no transport policies whatsoever – and they still don’t. They wanted to put in a fuel duty escalator, so it would go up by 3 or 4 pence every year, and would be linked to inflation. If it would have carried on like that a litre of diesel would now be at £1.75. *Average price for a litre of diesel in UK is £1.31 as of June 27.

This Administration doesn’t understand that we have a ‘road economy’ in the UK. I told the Treasury that 98% of all the things we buy in shops are transported by road. If you raise the duty on diesel, that causes inflation, a rise in interest rates and it lowers GDP (Gross Domestic Product). If you overtax the fuel industry if affects everything. We are at a stage now where they understand our cause. They know that annoying 34 million British drivers will lose them votes.

In an article you wrote for the APEA Journal you considered that we would need 17,000 giant charging hubs to be able to sustain mass electrification of vehicles. What would an EV hub look like?

An EV giant hub will be a lot like a fuel station.  It will have the equivalent chargers to the number of dispensers in a regular site; some 25 to 30 different charging plugs for people to come in. They need to have a uniformity of plugs - Tesla, Nissan, Toyota – they would all need to use the same plug type. It will be located somewhere with a community because you are looking at a different customer. You’ll have free Wi-Fi, food, etc. There will also be business areas so you can have people coming in and actually going there to do something.  There is also the possibility that you can leave the electric vehicle charging and then take an Uber or a Lyft into London. It becomes a portal to which you arrive by electric vehicle but that offers lots of opportunities.  (The hub) will have a membership, it will have benefits - there will be a huge community.

Tesla opened its first convenience store at the end of 2018. Do you expect a rapid roll out of these kind of formats?

Tesla said they are not interested in restaurants and that they would rather partner up. I think we will see a more bespoke offering for mainstream electric cars. They will be more designery. We will see a raise in electric vehicle hubs. The operator that gets there first and creates an attractive design will win. Customers will not only go there for charging but for an experience.

What are the challenges of assimilating EV charging infrastructure at traditional petrol stations?

There are several problems. One is the safety risk which we are still not fully aware of; all the officers I talk to say they are uncomfortable with 50KW chargers near hazardous areas. That would mean (installing at) a separate space quite far away from the shop and traditional dispensers. It is going to be around 30 minutes for a rapid charge. That’s a long time. If there is only one rapid charge then you will get people queuing and ending up in ‘charging rage’. Due to space and time, liquid fuel forecourts are not the ideal place for multiple rapid chargers. I am sure we are not going to see exponential growth of rapid chargers at traditional sites.

There a number of interesting projects out there such as X and X. Do you see any of these technologies being applied in the near future?

Up until now electric cars have been a compliance thing for manufacturers, they build them because it helps their CO2 reduction. Now that the UK Government and the European Commission have really put pressure on manufacturers to up their game, we see cars like the BMW I3, the new Nissan Leaf… These cars are game changers because manufacturers are spending a lot more in research and innovation while before they were just playing at it. That same research will go into lithium-iron, lithium-sulfur and graphite batteries. We will see step changes where battery range and density increases, and battery weight decreases. That will change that whole landscape.  Inductive charging will exist while you are parked but achieving inductive charging while you drive, that will be the golden ticket. To drive your car while it charges. I don't think that will happen from the ground but from what is above.  Who knows? It is all very interesting. Also with the grid - how to store energy and then sell it back into the grid. It is very exciting time.

Should traditional fuel retailers that operate petrol stations be worried about the electric vehicle revolution?

I don't think we will see major changes in their lifetimes. The UK government says there will be autonomous cars on the streets by 2021, while manufacturers say “we just can’t do that”. Operators are hearing something from environmentalist and politicians, which they are very scared about, but the reality is that the economics behind the policies say that it will be a very long time before liquid fuels are completely replaced.  I see this 2040 target being extended by the Government. We are going to need less diesel than we have ever used and that market is definitely going to decline but we are seeing an increase in petrol demand. So don’t panic, but get ready because the clean EV revolution is coming.

Are there any efforts by the British administration to reduce emissions via other methods, such as biofuels?

I told the treasury that there were other ways to reduce emissions – that would be additives at source. It reduces the particular content and the nitrous oxide. There are aftermarket treatments that you can put on the car – like on the exhaust pipe – that can reduce emissions by 80%. There are things like biodiesel although I’m uncomfortable with burning food. There are things we should be looking at as a society to reduce emissions on cars rather than saying ‘ban the lot of them’. What worries me is that the Government is not looking at older diesel cars when they are the major cause (for vehicle air pollution).

We also have issues with shipping but we don’t even have numbers in the UK. Wood-burning stoves in another factor while 14% of background emissions in London come from ground-based construction machinery. They have targeted this narrow band of consumers - passenger cars - as one of the main polluters but actually that is not true. FairFuel UK will be taking Sadiq Khan, the Major of London, to the high court to challenge against the toxic zones in London because we think they are discriminatory. We have to clean our air, absolutely. And there are links between diesel and certain disorders but lets make sure that we are not terrifying all these people that were convinced by the last government to buy diesel cars.

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