MOTOR cars are fast. Not just in mph but the speed with which, historically, they developed and evolved. It was just 22 years between what is generally reckoned the first car (made by Karl Benz in 1886) and the launch of the Ford Model T. The next acceleration, Ford’s use of the moving assembly line, came in 1913, by which point a car could be produced in 15 minutes, and one of Ford’s line workers could buy it for the equivalent of four months’ pay.

Even so, the UK Government’s decision that the sale of all new petrol and diesel, and even hybrid, vehicles should end by 2035 is a tall order. More than four out of every five people in the UK have access to a car (77 per cent of households, around 40 million vehicles); worldwide, there are around a billion cars in use, and each year, almost 100 million are manufactured.

Almost all scientists agree this is a major factor in climate change, and even climate sceptics acknowledge that the internal combustion engine is environmentally damaging and a health problem; air pollution, to which motor vehicles are a big contributor, kills seven million people globally each year, and 1.3 million more die in road traffic accidents.

But the alternatives to petrol and diesel are no panacea. Even the best of them, liquid hydrogen engines (which emit only water vapour), have environmental costs in manufacturing the fuel. And there’s the practical problem that you can’t fill up your car unless you live near one of the 140-odd stations, which are all in California or Japan.

The manufacture of battery-powered electric cars has a similar carbon cost to conventional vehicles, while the mining of rare earth elements, and metals such as lithium and cobalt (which there may not even be enough of to replace existing vehicles) has a significant environmental cost. And you don’t do much to reduce the use of fossil fuels if you plug in your electric vehicle and it gets its charge from a coal-fired power station. When it comes to health, battery-powered cars could potentially even increase particulate emissions.

In any case, when it comes to the environment, consumers like talking about it more than they like doing anything. For all the campaigns against drinking straws or carrier bags, there will be huge resistance to greener replacements until they offer comparable benefits to those of existing cars.

People value the freedom and flexibility of cars, and current electric vehicles are technically limited – especially in range. They’re fine for town use, but you probably couldn’t drive one much further than Aberdeen to Glasgow without a lengthy period recharging. Aberdeen to London – a 545-mile, nine-hour drive on one tank of petrol or diesel – would take at least twice as long, since it takes most electric vehicles eight hours fully to recharge, and very few have a range above 300 miles.

Perhaps the electric technology will improve, or perhaps hydrogen cars (which can be filled in the more or less same way and time as conventional vehicles) will catch on. In either case, however, the entire infrastructure of filling stations will have to be converted. There are currently 8,500 of them (it was 40,000 in the 1960s), and many more would be needed, and closer together, for electric charging. It’s hard to see how rural areas like the West Highlands will acquire those new facilities within 15 years.

There is the possibility, then, especially given the rather unexpected revised plan to prohibit new hybrids, that these measures could actually increase the number of cars on the roads, with all the attendant pressures on parking, congestion and so on, if it turns out that those who can afford to keep more than one: an electric run-around for short trips, and an old-fashioned vehicle for longer journeys, or those in remote areas.

This ambitious and high-minded target may be intended to force car manufacturers into change, but it also assumes that they can come up with the goods – which is by no means guaranteed.

It may have the unintended consequence of making the UK resemble Cuba after the revolution, when ancient cars stayed on the road for decades, because replacements were unavailable because of American sanctions.

Cars need to get fast again. If affordable, quickly-charged and long-range new vehicles, and the support networks for them, aren’t developed pronto, we could still be in polluting petrol and diesel models long after 2035. Unfortunately, the cars we currently drive don’t look as picturesque as 1940s Buicks, and won’t last as well, either.