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Do You Need a Licence to Drive an Electric Car?


Electric cars are hot on the agenda, particularly with ongoing updates about bans on petrol or diesel vehicles – followed by hybrids. The quick licensing answer is that you need a valid UK driving permit to drive any car. However, there may be differences between smaller electric bikes and larger petrol cars.

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This guide looks at the following:

  • Possible introductions of an EV driving test.
  • Current UK driving laws.
  • Potential changes to come.

Driving Tests and Licences for EVs

Electric cars and any other EV with a power production capacity of 250W or more or a maximum speed above 15.5 MPH requires a formal UK driving licence. Few vehicles fall into this category, except for smaller scooters.

Licensing legislation means you must pass a theory exam and practical test before legally operating a vehicle.

There are, at present, no differences between the driving licence you need for an EV and the licence you need for any other vehicle – although automatic cars have become highly preferable over manual vehicles.

Battery-powered EVs always operate through an automatic gearbox, which means it may be unnecessary to sit a practical driving test if you plan to drive an EV or hybrid.

Both manual and automatic driving licences are valid for EVs at the moment, and a manual permit means you can drive either an automatic, EV or manually operated car.

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Choosing the Right Driving Test for an EV

Automatic driving tests have surged in demand over the last few years, with only 4.5% of tests sat in 2011-12 in an automatic car, rising to 11.1% in 2018-19, over double the number of candidates.

Part of the reason is that younger drivers are opting for automatic because they are easier to drive and possibly more widely available, with many car manufacturers focusing on efficiency and ease. EVs are all automatics, which has also contributed towards changing driving test trends.

In 2011 under a quarter of all new vehicles sold were automatic (24%), compared to almost half (49%) just eight years later.

EVs and automatics do require a driving licence, but the test is often considered easier to pass because new drivers don't need to learn clutch control or gear changes. However, manual driving test applicants in 2018-19 passed 45.9% of the time, with only 39.5% of automatic tests passed – indicating that it may need just as much practice!

Prospective licensees can sit a driving test in an EV, running through the automatic version of the test, but that means only being permitted to drive EVs or automatic cars – with combustion engines comprising around 40% of the vehicles on British roads.

Sitting Driving Tests for EVs

There is no separate driving test if you plan to buy an EV once you have passed – for the time being, the practical and theory exams are identical.

However, there is the possibility that this will change in the coming months or years, with the government's ban on sales of new petrol or diesel cars and an expected jump in demand for automatic driving tests.

Potential updates include:

  • Having EV-only or EV-focused driving instructors and examiners.
  • Tweaks to the test criteria to include features or functions on most EVs.
  • Differences in the way driving instructors teach students, including sections on economical driving.

Future testing criteria are expected to examine safe vehicle charging and factors such as regenerative braking systems now common on EVs.

New drivers can opt to learn in an EV and take their test in a similar vehicle – you do not need to learn or attend a test in a fuelled car to have a valid driving licence.

Some research indicates that driving an EV and having a licence valid for only EVs or automatics may be beneficial since the driving process is generally considered easier. It may make eco-friendly driving more accessible for the 2.6 million adults who choose not to drive due to anxiety.

The Case for Buying an EV

If you already have a valid UK driving licence for either automatic or manual cars, you won’t need to re-sit a test or update your licence to drive an EV. There are pros and cons, with one of the drawbacks being that your car will have limited range – although this is increasingly close to the range of a full tank of fuel.

Premium EVs can cover up to 300 miles on a full charge, but more economical models will need recharging more often.

EVs are ideal for short trips and city driving, particularly if you have charging docks available at work, home, or university where you can top up your battery during the day or overnight.

In terms of costs, on a rough basis, you will pay around £4 for the electricity to travel 100 miles compared to £14 for a conventional car, which means an EV saves roughly 70% of the running costs.

Other advantages include:

  • Fewer services, which are also often cheaper
  • Exemptions on road tax
  • Exemption from congestion charges

There is a potentially higher cost in insurance because most providers charge around 20% higher for an EV because the batteries cost a lot to produce or replace.

Savings on Car Tax and Congestion Charges for EVs

Fuel-based cars are increasingly expensive to tax, and the higher the emissions and larger the engine, the more your annual road tax will be. Tax bands range from zero on 100% electric cars up to £2,365 a year for diesel cars producing over 255 g/km of CO2.

Congestion charges in London are normally paid at £15 per day, per vehicle, but you can get a discount if you qualify for the ‘cleaner vehicle’ programme.

It costs £10 to register, and you need to upload your V5C registration document that shows your car has an electric battery or hydrogen fuel cell.

Hybrid or low-emission cars that are not 100% electric also receive a discount if they meet the terms of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone – this exempts drivers from paying the additional £12.50 daily charge.

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