Birmingham 2040: The Ban on New Petrol and Diesel Engines, Electric Vehicles and Robotics

While predicting the potential future of any city is fraught with complexity, this is especially so when like Birmingham it is currently undergoing dramatic change. John Bryson, Principal Investigator of the ESRC-funded Urban Living project From Citizen to Co-innovator, from City Council to Facilitator, looks beyond Brexit to the other forces of disruption at work – from urban growth and global trade to robotics and the planned electrification of all vehicles by 2040 – to outline the uncertainties of Birmingham’s development over the next two decades. This article is reposted from the project webpage.

In 1971 Sir Peter Hall speculated about London and the year 2000. Forecasting futures will always result in failure, but perhaps there are some ‘knowns’ about what Birmingham will look like in 2040 and many unknowns. One ‘known’ is that forecasting the future is impossible. Nevertheless, it is worth considering some of the challenges and innovations that will transform Birmingham over the next 23 years. It is worth noting that Birmingham has entered a golden decade, according to Birmingham City Council’s 2017-2020 vision and priorities document, which culminates with the arrival of High Speed Two in 2026. It will be interesting to look back in 2026 on the last ten years and reflect on the ‘golden decade’, but this is a task for the future. In this analysis, I draw upon three on-going research projects funded by RCUK (iBUILD, Urban Living Birmingham and Transforming Birmingham). There are four points to consider.

First, in 2040 Brexit will be a distant memory and Birmingham will have continued to develop trading relationships with the EU and elsewhere. The ‘elsewhere’ is the important point here; exports to, for example, Asia and the US will have continued to grow. Brexit is arguably a minor issue compared to many of the major challenges facing the city. In the context of Brexit, it is worth remembering Birmingham’s diverse population and also that 46% of its population is under the age of 30. Birmingham’s youthful population and diversity are core strategic advantages.

Second, the on-going development of Birmingham is best described using the word ‘intensity’. Birmingham is experiencing a process that combines increased density with an increase in the intensity of urban living. This process of intensification will transform urban living, creating new lifestyles.

Third, Brexit represents a single, once in a lifetime alteration that initially will result in shocks that will reverberate across Birmingham and the UK. Nevertheless, this is a single event. There are much more important transformations underway. One of these is the application of developments in robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) to economic and social activity. Developments in RAS are making it possible to automate tasks that previously could only be undertaken by people. RAS is just another stage in the application of machines to labour that could potentially increase productivity, destroy some firms and employment, but create new forms of work. It might be that RAS increases unemployment, by creating jobs with high barriers to entry based around capabilities in computer programming and mathematics or highly developed social skills. At the moment, any assessment of RAS impacts is based on speculation and prediction. But, there is no question that RAS will revolutionise the world of work. This is happening now. In 2016, Enfield Council began employing Amelia (Earhart), the first public sector RAS assistant. Amelia was developed by Ipsoft to answer routine questions leaving the “more complex” queries to humans. If Amelia cannot answer a question, she calls in a human colleague and learns from them. Her mouth moves as she speaks and she can interpret emotion and react appropriately in terms of dialect and facial expressions. Amelia is also 60% cheaper than using a human worker. Over the next 23 years, Birmingham will acquire a population of RAS ‘employees’ who will be similar, but more sophisticated than Amelia.

Fourth, the recent announcement to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2040 is, perhaps, the most significant policy announcement to be made by the UK government for some considerable time. This may be more disruptive and expensive than Brexit and it will transform Birmingham. The ramifications of this announcement need to be considered systematically. There are at least six impacts to consider:

First, the replacement of all diesel and petrol cars with electric and, maybe, autonomous vehicles will be more disruptive than Brexit and could be more expensive. Unless there is major adaptation and revolutionary innovation then this could destroy the West Midlands automotive industry. Forget EU tariffs and the single market as this will be a much more important threat to the automotive industry.

Second, the national taxation system must alter. Currently, the government raises £27.6 billion from fuel duties per year; this is the largest component of indirect taxation. The removal of diesel and petrol cars and vans will undermine this tax stream and it will need to be replaced. Perhaps the replacement is a tax on electric vehicle charging…

Third, all houses/properties will need to be rewired as the current wiring system will not be able to cope. Charging two cars used for daily commuting would potentially destroy existing domestic wiring systems. Thus, all houses and the grid feeding them will need to be altered and this will be a major cost and disruption. This raises a skills question: Do we have sufficient electricians to deal with these alterations?

Fourth, there has been a major under-investment in electricity generation capacity in the UK for over two decades. This is a well known policy ‘hot potato’. Recharging millions of electric cars would result in blackouts and systemic failure across the grid. This will require hundreds of billions of pounds of investment in additional generation capacity.

Fifth, filling stations will become obsolete and contaminated sites that will need to be repurposed and decontaminated. There will also be a significant employment and economic loss as refineries close.

Sixth, roads and pavements will experience a major upheaval as electric vehicle charging points are installed. The provision of electric charging points to high rise buildings will be interesting as it will to terraced housing. The etiquette of electric changing will have to be developed. Visiting friends or family will result in a request to ‘plug-in’ the car. This is, perhaps, similar to a request to share Wi-Fi passwords, but this will be a request to access a charging point for free or for a fee.

The announcement to ban the sale of petrol and diesel car engines may result in over a trillion pounds of new capital investment in both local and national infrastructure combined with a restructuring of the tax system. Knowing this, it is surprising that the media and politicians have not made more of this announcement. It might mean that the way we use vehicles alters and that many of these capital investments will not be required. But, remember that there are only 23 years for the UK to adjust to what will be the most significant transport, infrastructure and tax revolution since the introduction of personal computing and the internet.

The next 23 years will see Birmingham transformed and this is without taking into consideration anything to do with Brexit.