Pitched as green, clean and cheap to run, battery-powered vehicles hold out the hope of meeting our mobility needs while weaning us off fossil fuels. So what’s not to like?
Quite a lot, it turns out. Arguments against electric vehicles (EVs) range from the economic (price tags of £20,000-plus are not unusual) through to “range anxiety” (expect to recharge every 100 miles or so) and safety (batteries have been known to catch fire).
You have to give credit to EV advocates, however. Knock them down, and they keep coming back. Erik Fairbairn is one such stalwart. He and his colleagues at Pod Point, the charging services company that he founded, are today embarking on a 2,000-mile electricity-fuelled expedition around the UK.
The idea is to show the driving public that it’s possible to charge EVs here, there and (almost) everywhere. Such optimism is characteristic of the industry. Back in 2011, French car manufacturer Renault predicted UK sales of EVs would hit 100,000 by 2015. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), sales for the first five months of this year were at 2,695 vehicles, so this prediction looks woefully over-ambitious. In the US, however, take-up looks reassuringly brighter, with projections that sales will exceed 514,000 annually in 2023, up from the nearly 100,000 sold in North America in 2013.
In the UK, the EV industry has come a long way.
Take charging infrastructure. Pod Point, with its network of over 10,000 chargers, is not the only provider in town. The likes of Ecotricity and Chargemaster boast their own burgeoning public networks too. Source London, Plugged In Midlands and similar government-backed schemes should see them continue to grow.
The private sector is slowly getting in on the game as well. A small but increasing number of employers now offer charging points in staff parking areas. Retailers too are dabbling with public chargers, the theory being that EV owners will park up to charge and end up buying something. Sainsbury’s and Domino’s Pizza are notable sponsors of Pod Point’s current EV demonstration tour.
What’s more, the cars themselves are getting better. The recent arrival of the super slick Tesla Model S saloon car on UK forecourts shows EVs can be cool as well as clean. Potential buyers now have at least 18 different models to choose from, with the lower end of the market now compatible in price to an average diesel-powered hatchback.
“Three years ago, I’d have been pointing perhaps at the Nissan LEAF as the only sensible plug in vehicle”, says Fairbank. “Now we’re at the start of a serious range of plug-in vehicles to suit a whole suite of different vehicle requirements.”
Battery technology remains the industry’s biggest bugbear. Alex Garland, an EV product manager at Renault, admits there is “not a miracle battery around the corner”. But rapid chargers, which typically deliver between 22kW to 43kW AC power, have put pay to the idea of waiting hours for your car to charge.
For the non-purists, plug-in hybrids and range extenders (ie models equipped with a combustion engine as well as battery), mean motorists can park their fears of flat batteries. An all-electric car may be pushed to go more than 100 miles on a single charge, but low-emission hybrids are capable of six or seven times that distance.
Demand side deficit
What’s chiefly stopping us all jumping into EVs is primarily ourself, the everyday motorist. British car-owners are fundamentally “hesitant”, Garland argues. .
Which is why, the EV industry is tweaking its message. The old sales pitch used to be all about going green. That restricts the market immediately and can raise some tricky questions too. What if your energy source comes from a coal-burning power station, for instance?
So expect to be hearing less about the planet and more about cost – or “total cost of ownership”, as the EV industry prefers. Exemptions on road tax, congestion charges and (very often) parking fees all appeal to our pockets. So does the £5,000 government-backed grant for all new EVs. It’s fuel that’s the clincher, however. You can run an EV for as little as 2p a mile, kicking petrol and diesel into the dust.
Convenience is the nascent sector’s other trump card. Efforts to disabuse drivers over range anxiety have so far had little success. It doesn’t matter that most drivers travel 25 miles or less per day, or that a city like London now has more charging points than petrol stations, says Garland: “Customers are almost wanting a charging point on every street corner before they can take that plunge.”
So instead, drivers are now being encouraged to think about “topping up” as they go. Given that most cars are idle for most of the time, why not have them quietly charging as they sit there?
UK consumers are showing signs of being won over. Year-on-year sales of EVs are up 106% so far this year. Even so, low emission vehicles still comprise less than 1% of the total UK auto market, making mass adoption seem like a world away. It needn’t be. Today, electric transportation is less of a pipedream than an outlying possibility in need of an outstanding propagator.
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