Car market impacted by air quality ‘confusion’ – SMMT

Uncertainty over plans to tackle air pollution in towns and cities has contributed to a sharp fall in demand for new petrol and diesel cars, the trade body representing motor manufacturers has claimed.

The UK new car market declined for a sixth consecutive month in September, with 426,170 new units registered, according to figures released today (5 October) by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

Registrations of new cars have fallen in 2017 compared to the same period in 2016

Registrations fell by 9.3% during September 2017 compared to 2016, with SMMT citing economic and political uncertainty and “confusion” over air quality plans as fuelling a decline in consumer confidence.

This is despite an increase in demand for alternatively fuelled vehicles, such as battery electric or hydrogen cars, which were up 41.0% with 22,628 new cars having been registered during the month.

However, this failed to compensate for a drop in registrations of petrol cars of 1.2% to 232,810, while registrations of diesel cars dropped 21.7% to 170,732 compared to 2016.

Air quality plan

The government outlined its proposals to bring the UK into compliance with NO2 targets in towns and cities in July, which reiterated its commitment to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel-only cars by 2040 (see airqualitynews.com story).

In the more immediate term the government tasked local authorities with drawing up local plans to address air pollution at a number of hotspots in areas across England, with affected councils having until the end of 2018 to have firm plans in place.

Among the measures local authorities are being asked to consider is the introduction of clean air zones, which would ultimately restrict the movement of more polluting vehicles in areas impacted by poor air quality, and could see drivers paying to use some roads.

‘Confusion’

However, according to SMMT, ‘confusion’ surrounding air quality plans has led to a drop in consumer and business demand for diesel vehicles, which it claims is undermining the roll out of the latest low emissions models and could result in an increase in new car CO2 levels for the first time.

Any local authority measures would only impact older diesel vehicles, but SMMT claims that uncertainty over which models may be targetted is turning some consumers away from new diesel cars altogether.

Potential for charges to be applied in some areas is being considered by some local authorities

Commenting on the figures, Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, said: “September is always a barometer of the health of the UK new car market so this decline will cause considerable concern.”

On the impact of action to tackle air quality, he said: “The confusion surrounding air quality plans has not helped, but consumers should be reassured that all the new diesel and petrol models on the market will not face any bans or additional charges. Manufacturers’ scrappage schemes are proving popular and such schemes are to be encouraged given fleet renewal is the best way to address environmental issues in our towns and cities.”

Some car-makers have expressed concern that diesel vehicles are increasingly being blamed for poor air quality across the UK, which could lead drivers to switch back to buying petrol cars in response (see airqualitynews.com story).

Diesel vehicles are known to emit lower levels of CO2 than petrol vehicles, thus helping to meet climate change targets.

However, diesel cars, in particular those built prior to 2009, also emit higher levels of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, which can worsen air quality and harm human health.

Used-car traders have been issued with guidance in a bid to inform consumers of the relative performance of diesel and petrol cars in relation to emissions, which includes the length of their commute, whether they are a high or low mileage driver and the type of journey they are likely to be taking (see airqualitynews.com story).

Others have argued that newer diesel models continue to meet ever-more stringent emissions standards, and that a shift away from diesel could inhibit further advances in coming years.