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Posted by Sean Cooper
March 3rd, 2021 at 1:04 pm

In October last year, the UK government launched a consultation process about the possibility of introducing green number plates for electric cars. The consultation period came to an end on 14th January, so it shouldn’t be too long until we hear about the conclusions.

Until then, you may be wondering what exactly are green number plates, what would they be for, and would people actually want them? Those questions and more are answered here.

What are they?

Green number plates would be different from the number plates we see on our cars here in the UK, and that’s their whole point. They would be a completely different design to the number plate’s we’re all used to, so you would know as soon as you saw one that the vehicle it’s on would be what’s being described as an “ultra-low emission” vehicle.

In some respects, these green number plates would be more than just a signal that the car they are attached to is good for the environment. They would also mean the vehicle in question may enjoy some special privileges not afforded to their more polluting brethren. It could mean they are allowed to use things bus lanes or enter low and ultra-low emissions zones where petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles may be banned.

The plates themselves would be a way for the enforcing authorities to easily identify that the vehicle in question is eligible to be somewhere a “normal” vehicle might not be allowed. Of course, modern camera recognition software could do this with a standard number plate by checking the registration number with the DVLA database to see what type of vehicle it was.

What would they actually be for?

We’ve established that although these plates would make it obvious the vehicle it’s attached to is due special privileges, the authorities that would need to know what type of propulsion system a vehicle has under its bonnet would be able to tell without a special plate design. So, what’s the real point behind this interesting proposal?

If you were going to be harsh – possibly even cynical – it would be easy to see green number plates as just another form of virtue signalling. Some people might think we have too much of that in our society already these days, but others might fully embrace the idea.

Whichever way you look at it, signalling really is what this proposal is all about. For some people, having a special green plate would shout to the world about how virtuous they are, how much they care about the environment, and how much better they are than those driving cars with normal plates.

The government’s reason for introducing such a scheme for ultra-low emission vehicles is similar, but a little more practical and perhaps a lot less pompous too. For the authorities, these plates could push others into thinking about their choice of vehicle more carefully and encourage the faster uptake of electric vehicles.

What would they look like?

For the purposes of the consultation, the government has suggested three design options for our consideration. One is a completely green plate with black letters and numbers, the second is what looks like the current design with a green bar on one side where the EU flag is now disappearing from, while the third is the current design with the addition of a green dot or symbol.

If you look at the three designs the Department for Transport has suggested, it’s hard to see the one with the green bar or the green dot having much impact. After all, without looking, do you even know if your current number plate has an EU flag or another symbol on it? The smart money would have to be on the green plate with the black numbers, but that raises some more important questions?

Are they a good idea?

I for one have absolutely nothing against electric cars, and I carry no ill will towards the government for doing what it can to try and encourage more people to go electric. However, I do have reservations about too much government intervention to try and force or shame drivers into going electric.

It’s not that I think we shouldn’t go electric, but I do have issues with what the UK and other governments did with diesel. To begin with, the government decided to offer lots of incentives to encourage drivers to swap their petrol cars for diesels because diesel cars produce lower levels of CO2 emissions. The result was that soon, more than 50 percent of new cars registered each year were diesel.

Of course, then somebody points out to the authorities that although diesels emit less CO2, they also put out a load of much nastier stuff that really can be bad for people’s health and has a direct negative effect on local air pollution.

Then, quicker than you can say “you don’t know what you’re doing,” the incentives to buy diesel engine vehicles are withdrawn. Not only that, the powers that be then start actually penalising people for owning the cars they were encouraging them to buy only a year or two earlier.

It’s unlikely the same thing would happen with the government encouraging drivers to swap to electric, but you wouldn’t be able to blame the public for adopting a healthy dose of cynicism in this matter, given the track record, would you?

Would people want them?

Not only is there a question of whether people would want to adopt a number plate shouting to the world that they’re driving an electric vehicle, but there’s also the question of whether it would be optional or compulsory.

One of many reasons everyone isn’t driving a Nissan Leaf at the moment is because the first-generation looked very different from other cars in its class, and positively screamed to anyone looking at it that it was something different.

A lot of Hollywood celebs ditched their Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces and Maybachs for the Toyota Prius a decade or so ago because everyone knew it was a Prius and that it was a hybrid. It was a mobile billboard for advertising their green credentials, and it couldn’t really be mistaken for anything else.

That’s fine if you want to advertise what you’re driving to the world, but not everyone likes that idea. After all, if everyone wanted to advertise exactly what they were driving, why do the likes of BMW and Mercedes have it as a no-cost option to leave the model badge off the back of their vehicles?

If we look at EVs that are gaining massive plaudits from reviewers and buyers alike, most of them just look like fabulously designed, modern cars and SUVs. Think about the Tesla Model S, Jaguar I-Pace and the Audi E-Tron; none of them looks like anything other than a stunning, modern car or SUV. Would their owners want a sign on the front and back signalling to other road users and pedestrians that they’re driving an EV? Some possibly would, but others certainly wouldn’t.

So, would you have the option to decline a green number plate on your new EV, or would the government’s green agenda mean you would have to wear the sign for the greater good, whether you wanted to or not?

Of course, this could also create additional problems for the police. They already have to spend time pulling over, warning, and sometimes prosecuting drivers who have illegal plates. Although you don’t see them as often as you once did, we still see some who have private plates that have the characters with an illegal font or are spaced incorrectly to try and emphasise what the private plate is supposed to read.

Would the police be obliged to pull you over if your electric car didn’t have the appropriate green plate, or what about people fitting green plates to petrol or diesel vehicles to gain access to low-emission zones?

The government spin

For the government, it really is all about boosting public awareness of the shift to zero-emissions motoring. Elisabeth Costa, who is a senior director at the Behavioural Insights Team, which is part-owned by the Cabinet Office, confirmed this fact.

Costa confirmed: “The number of clean vehicles on our roads is increasing but we don’t notice as it’s difficult to tell clean vehicles apart from more polluting ones. Green number plates make these vehicles and our decision to drive in a more environmentally-friendly way more visible on roads.

She went on to add “We think making the changing social norm noticeable will help encourage more of us to swap our cars for cleaner options.”

So far, it seems the proposals are getting a lukewarm response, at best, with the RAC suggesting the green plates could even “foster resentment” among drivers of conventionally fuelled vehicles.  

Nicholas Lyes, the RAC’s head of roads policy says: “On the face of it, drivers we’ve questioned don’t seem too impressed. Only a fifth think it’s a good idea and the majority said the number plates wouldn’t have the effect of making them any more likely to switch to an electric vehicle.”