Electric cars are ready for the big time. Are you?
By Jeremy Laird, Aug 21, 2014
Motoring technology journalist Jeremy Laird argues the case in favour of EVs.
Too expensive. Too little range. Impractical charging. Not enough real-world environmental benefits. Electric cars are a good idea in principle, but the technology isn’t ready for the big time.
That’s the familiar refrain from the anti-EV brigade. And it’s flat wrong. Much of the world, certainly across Europe and the US and, yes, very possibly you are all ready for electric cars. It’s time for an electric car reality check.
Rein in range anxiety
It all starts with the myth of range anxiety or at least the misconceptions that give rise to it. Anxiety about the limited range of electric vehicles is real enough. It’s a fact that many of the very latest EVs still have limited operating range.
Take the pure-electric variant of the new BMW i3. Despite the technological might of BMW and a cutting-edge carbon-aluminium hybrid construction, it’s still only good for the same 100 miles or so of many other EVs.
Even the range-extended i3 with a petrol engine pinched from a motorcycle can’t manage 200 miles. It’s pitiful in comparison to modern turbodiesels, commonly capable of as much 800 miles on a single tank.
Next problem: charging times typically measured in hours. BMW talks of six hours for an 80 per cent charge using its home wall-mounted charging system. Hopeless.
But hang on. All of these worries are built around the assumption that an EV needs to be suitable for any kind of journey, all of the time. And that’s pure nonsense.
Did you know, for instance, that roughly one third of what the car industry calls B-segment hatchbacks (think Renault Clio, Ford Fiesta et al) never do a journey of more than 100 miles in their entire life cycle?
So, they’re manufactured, purchased, driven, resold, driven again and so on until ultimately being scrapped and never breach the 100-mile barrier. Oh, and by the way, the B-segment is the biggest seller in Europe.
The critical point here, then, is that there is a significant chunk of cars being used on the roads that are entirely compatible with the range and charging limitations of the so called 100-mile electric car. In fact, many of those B-segment cars likely very rarely do more than 20 miles at a go. They are runabouts used in urban and suburban areas.
It’s hard to say exactly how many existing car users fall into this category. But according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, in the UK alone, around 900,000 B-segment cars were sold last year. So we’re talking about hundreds of thousands at the very least. And that’s just in one country.
Once you get your head around all that you realise not only is 100 miles plenty. You also don’t need to spend hundreds of millions, maybe even billions, installing a fast charging infrastructure across the nation. 100 miles is sufficient for the daily needs of many, so simply charge the things at home overnight.
In other words, use an EV a little like you do your smartphone. Charge at night, dip in and out during the day. Only if you are a heavy duty user does battery life become an issue. Yup, EVs may not be suitable for long distance travel. But that’s just fine. Because a lot of people never go very far in their cars.
You could argue, of course, the Tesla Model S proves EVs are actually capable of long-distance usage, what with its 300-mile range and Tesla’s supercharger tech. Right now, there’s only a significant supercharger network in the US, so it’s somewhat a moot point. But the main argument against the Model S is that it isn’t a solution to the real problem of emissions, an objection that’s closely linked to arguments against the EV as environmentally friendly.
Clean or compromise?
Electric cars are, of course, zero emission in terms of anything the vehicles themselves kick out locally. It’s the source of the electricity that’s the problem.
The grid mix varies depending on load and time of day. But it’s always predominantly fossil fuelled. So any electric car charging from the grid comes at a significant carbon emission cost. Effectively, you’re merely punting the emission problem down the road, not solving it.
It’s true that some EV users can charge at home using renewable sources such as solar power. But that’s probably unrealistic for most. And yet the EV still has clear environmental benefits.
In urban areas where air quality is an issue, an electric car is an obvious win. But the really exciting thing about EVs is that they simply reflect the renewable capacity of electricity generation. With an installed base of EVs, carbon emissions from cars instantly improve every time electricity production becomes more renewable.
And since EVs are at least as efficient in terms of carbon emissions as combustion cars given the current grid mix, there’s no downside today to getting ready for a better grid mix tomorrow.
The last really major objection to EVs is cost. They’re expensive – at least, the good ones are – that can’t be denied. Actually, not only are they expensive to buy, but with so few already sold, it’s hard to get a good feel for things like long term residuals, too.
What’s more, should a really significant number of people start using EVs, their one big advantage – relatively cheap fuel in the form of lightly-taxed electricity – will almost definitely disappear. Many – if not most – governments depends heavily on fuel duties from combustion vehicles and you can be sure if EVs become popular, they will find a way to tax them. Odds are it will be road pricing, but whatever the method, it will happen.
The harsh truth is that there is no alternative unless we ask our governments to give up a massive chunk of what they spend on our welfare. Fuel duties are just too important.
So, yes, an electric car can look a bit expensive compared to many conventional cars. But ‘a bit expensive’ is a whole lot less of a hill to climb than the chronic range anxiety and the supposedly empty environmental upsides of electric cars. So, electric cars really are ready for the big time. The real question is whether you’re ready to put aside your preconceptions?