British motorists were already beginning to shift to EVs, but the pace could accelerate sharply in the wake of an unexpected shortage leaving gas pumps dry across the United Kingdom.
The crisis reflects a challenge that has hit the U.S., albeit to a lesser degree. There’s actually plenty of petrol, as the Brits call it, but a lack of drivers to get it from refineries to service stations. Anywhere from 50% to 90% of pumps have run out of fuel in parts of the U.K., the country’s Petrol Retailers Association reported earlier this week. That’s led to long lines of motorists queuing up, in scenes reminiscent of the U.S. during the twin oil shocks of the 1970s.
Like much of Europe, Britain has seen a rapid increase in demand for battery-electric vehicles during the last several years, and the current shortage appears to be driving even more motorists to consider abandoning the internal combustion engine. There’s been an increase of 1,600% in Google and other online searches for EV information this week.
Problem is not a lack of gas, but drivers
“There is plenty of fuel at UK refineries and terminals, and as an industry we are working closely with the government to help ensure fuel is available to be delivered to stations across the country,” refiners including BP, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell said in a statement earlier this week.
But while those companies expressed hope that the crisis would be end within days, it appears to be dragging on as the weekend approaches.
The primary issue is a lack of tanker truck drivers. It’s a tough job, with greater skill level requirements. Many drivers have retired, but there are signs that the crisis was compounded by the UK’s decision to pull out of the European Union, reducing the number of drivers available from the other side of the English Channel. In a tacit admission, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to offer special visas for as many as 5,000 foreign tank truck drivers to come in during the next few months.
In the meantime, the government is getting ready to mobilize about 150 qualified military drivers. And it will accelerate training programs to line up more civilian drivers.
In the meantime, both government leaders and the fuel industry are facing increasing public concerns.
“We need some calm,” Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Petrol Retailers Association, told the Reuters news service. “Please don’t panic buy. If people drain the network then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Similar scenes in the U.S.
The situation is similar to what the U.S. has been facing. As many as a quarter of America’s tank trucks have been sitting idle, according to the trade group the National Tank Truck Carriers. That led to numerous spot shortages of gasoline around the country during this past spring and early summer. And it exacerbated the crisis caused by the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline.
As in the U.S., interest in electric vehicles has been surging in Britain. Combined sales of BEVs and plug-in hybrids has actually outpaced America. Plug-based models captured 18.3% of overall British vehicle sales in August, more than double the demand a year earlier — and nearly three times higher than the 6.6% for all of 2019.
And the current fuel crisis appears to be motivating still more motorists to consider their EV options. The Auto Trader Group said the number of potential buyers directly searching for information of battery vehicles is currently running about double the pace in August. Broader searches for EV information on Google, meanwhile, have risen about 1,600% since the current fuel crisis began.
“We’ve also seen a huge spike — 94% compared to last week — of people researching EV ownership and reviewing our electric vehicles advice hub, researching the range of vehicles, finding out about home charging, and searching for their local charging points,” said Sepi Arani, director of trade at automotive website Carwow.
Britain’s rising interest in EVs isn’t solely linked to the current fuel crisis. The country is seeing a rapid rise in the number of plug-based models — all-electric BEVs, in particular. And UK’s leaders have set an aggressive target for phasing out vehicles using gas or diesel. By 2030, only plug-in hybrids and pure electric models will be available at new vehicle showrooms. That will be limited to BEVs by 2035.
There has been some speculation phasing out of the internal combustion engine — and the impact that will have on the need for petroleum-based fuels — could make it more difficult to recruit the drivers Britain needs to avert future shortages at the pump.