Why Britain must speed up to stay in the electric car race

Whether Britain will have enough “depends on how quickly we can scale up the supply chain here in the UK,” says Matt Windle, managing director of sports car maker Lotus, owned by Geely – one of China’s largest automobile companies.

Roughly three quarters of lithium car batteries are made in China, to Lotus’ advantage, although tariff rules make importing batteries an expensive option, as does their weight.

“To support the vital UK automotive sector and maintain our all-important Britishness, our preference will be to source in the UK,” says Windle.

Smaller companies will probably need a similarly larger parent or sponsor to be able to make the leap to electric and scale up enough to meet demand, according to Palmer.

While the likes of Mini and Rolls-Royce can rely on the buying and borrowing power of owner BMW, independent firms such as McLaren and Aston Martin might struggle to raise the billions of pounds necessary for a battery plant, despite the wealth of their backers. 

Other nations have had the same predicament, Palmer says, and can offer a blueprint of success.

“Fifteen years ago, China said we can’t beat the West in internal combustion technology, so let’s put everything on black and we’ll go for being a leader in electrification,” he says. “It has allowed them to essentially leapfrog the West.”

China surged from being the 14th largest car producer in 2000 – where Britain currently languishes – to first place today, having ramped up output from 600,000 vehicles to nearly 20m last year. 

For the UK to accelerate ahead and attract investment from large companies, experts argue it will need a start-up culture similar to California’s, which has helped companies like Tesla flourish.

Its advantages, however, include world-class research at universities, the potential for plentiful cheap wind power and the skills to develop hydrogen-based zero-carbon cars.

A BEIS spokesman said: “The UK continues to be one of the best locations in the world for auto manufacturing through a major £850m Government investment programme to electrify our supply chain, create jobs and secure a competitive future for the sector.”

“If you are worried about an industrial segment in the UK, then you need to support it, and you need to support it properly,” argues Palmer.

Britain’s success, however, to move up the production ranks and become a leader in making environmentally friendly cars ultimately depends on how much manufacturers and the Government are willing to invest.

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