Is The Electric Car Ready To Take Over?
Electric vehicles carry a lot of promise, hope, and fun, but are they ready to beat out the combustion engine yet?
The electric car outperforms the internal combustion engine (ICE) in every way imaginable, on paper. It's obviously cleaner, easier to power with renewable energy, quiet, and more environmentally sound than a fossil fuel counterpart. More importantly, it boasts improved acceleration, lower maintenance and an all-round better driving experience.
Why then, is the electric car not dominating the world? Most manufacturers should be able to sell circles around the eco-torque credentials of the electric motor. Try and find a car which doesn't have the word 'eco' written on inside and out to see how important those three letters are to modern car sales.
Some very valid objections to buying an electric vehicle today are undeniably infrastructure driven. There's simply not enough charging points to reasonably expect to hit one where and when you need it. Even if you're lucky enough to have parking outside your home, there's no guarantee of being able to get a charging point at the door.
Without the infrastructure to support them, like-for-like electric sales struggle to compare to ICE vehicles. Without enough cars on the road, there's little incentive to bulk up the number of charging options either. Things are slowly improving, but they need to reach a critical point before the electric car is a viable option from a practical standpoint alone. We don't feel particularly close to being there yet either.
Never Mind The Practical, Can I have One Anyway?
While not up to scratch yet, eventually the opportunities to charge on the go will be abundant and fast enough that owning a solely battery-driven vehicle will be within reason. On that day, assuming it does come before ICEs are legally mothballed, the green little electric machines will have to stand up on merit against like-for-like 'traditional' models.
For cars hitting the market today, the comparisons don't stack up well. Putting aside the high-end Tesla's and luxury brands, which still have to be considered against similarly priced ICE cars, browsing the electric car marketplace can make you feel as if you've gone completely mad.
Nissan came out well ahead of the curve and broke new ground with their Leaf battery driven vehicle. The Leaf is Nissan's claim at a fully electric car from the future. Designed for the average driver, the main body, style, and interior is essentially a retro-fitted Micra with futuristic looking bells and whistles.
They have managed to sell piles of them already to councils, businesses, and corporations looking to spruce up their 'climate aware' image. There are seemingly thousands of sign written models whirring around towns and villages as fleet vehicles and local taxis. In this respect, Nissan has done very well for business and even advancing electric cars and infrastructure on their own terms.
Nissan's Leaf was one of the earliest popular electric vehicles to hit the market. Helping to advance electric driving on a wider scale, they have done some excellent evangelical work, But how well do they stack up as a viable car?
To start with the cost, for this reasonably priced car from the future, is around £30,000. A steep price for an otherwise average car. Even more so when you consider the Micra in its original ICE configuration is well under half the price.
The amount (or lack) of e-car you get for your money is bordering on silly. Regardless of how spirited the acceleration, perky the styling, or low maintenance the parts; £30,000 buys a lot of car. For the money, I'd choose almost any other model over lower fuel bills any day of the week.
Electric Car, One Careful Owner
A significant part of the cost calculations for considering today's electric car is the time spent they've on the market. Most electric vehicles haven't been around long enough to have any significant presence on the second-hand market. This means they haven't had enough time to hit the market with cheap models and sellers looking to quickly move on.
Even when they have been around a good few years, the cost of picking up a second-hand e-car isn't going to be as straight forward as finding a cheap runabout today. Everyone knows current batteries, whether powering phones, torches, or vehicles have a very definite and limited shelf-life. No amount of charging and discharging will breathe life back into a bank of dud batteries once they're gone.
Today, cells kept in average conditions, going through regular cycles of wear, can expect to last at least five good years. Some should stretch to perhaps 7, and occasionally barely beyond. The trouble is, beyond those years, the units are going to be comically expensive to replace.
The Toyota Prius, a hybrid car with electric gubbins alongside its internal combustion engine, has been around for a very long time. The first generation hybrid Prius launched back in the late '90s. The more popular third-generation car (2010-2015) is a current staple of the second-hand market. A 9/10-year-old model with a few trips around the planet on the clock will cost you £5,000-£6,000 with one major drawback.
The battery bank, a scaled-down, part-time version of an electric car's power unit, still needs to be replaced before long. A re-furbished bank of cells for the hybrid motors will set you back a further £3,000 or so without fitting. As a window into where the second-hand electric car market might be in a couple of years time, it's a bleak view.
Other solutions to solve the issue do exist, hire and lease agreements for batteries alone takes ownership of the power source out of your hands and into the dealers. Most solutions involve e-car service plans and battery support agreements for additional servicing and guarantees which protect the battery cells over and above the car itself.
There is another less-explored avenue which, almost a decade ago, I would have lost good money on being a roaring success.
Electric Pit Stop
Very few critical tools and reliable electrical appliances operate on built-in rechargeable batteries. Everything from construction tools to modern vacuum cleaners has a clip-in and go rechargeable pack which can be swapped out in a moment's work.
From one perspective, plugging in a car every night like a mobile phone and unplugging it in the morning to go to work again makes sense. Again, this presumes you have home-adjacent parking with access to an outdoors electrical socket. It also conveniently forgets we do occasionally want to cover hundreds of miles in a single day.
When we need to travel to the furthest reaches of Scotland or shuttle across country for work, the options for viable charging solutions are often even more limited than our daily drive. Being stuck without a viable driving option subtracts most of the convenience out of owning a car. Neither does adding 30-minute charging bites on to a 3-hour drive sound much fun either.
As a convenient and usable middle-ground, a replaceable and rechargeable battery pack was so obvious and so sensible eight years ago, I was utterly convinced it would be commonplace even by now. If construction tools and home-cleaners deserve the importance and convenience of clip-on batteries, why not cars? Of course, a family-sized car doesn't go very far at all on a hand-tool sized battery pack.
The batteries in mind would be around the size of the space between the wheels on your average hatchback. They would sit in the floor of the car between the wheels and under the floor. Most of the pack's space would be batteries, with some reserved for crash structure, electronics, fireproofing, and a second 'false' floor.
The idea would be that the pack would be something which you never personally owned and would never be permanently attached to the vehicle. When looking for more range or a significant top-up, you could drive into a fuel station to swap your current depleted battery for a freshly charged one. Designed to supplement home and work charging, the swappable packs would allow you to 'refuel' in a few minutes whenever and wherever you needed it.
These things would, of course, be well beyond lifting weight. The swap would use something similar to a modified pallet lifter, placing the old battery in a charging apparatus and releasing a new one to attach to the car.
That no-one has done something similar so far is, to me, bizarre. When VHS tapes were too expensive and too limited to own, they were rented out at a fraction of the cost and an entire home-rental entertainment industry boomed. Eventually, something better came along and we all shifted to that instead.
I think the vast majority of people, both regular and petrol-heads, are crying out for electric vehicles. Most would love to at least try one. There is no end of attractive qualities to an e-car: reducing commuting costs, bagfuls of fun, and helping the environment. For a whole host of reasons from outrageous costs to downright impracticality, they quite simply aren't there yet.