There’s something strange going on with the electric vehicle market. They’re cheaper to run, easier to insure and increasingly available and it’s becoming clearer and clearer, via legislative force if nothing else, that they’re going to be the only option for road vehicles in the short-to-medium term.
Take the Netherlands, for instance - in 2030 they ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles so, unless hydrogen fuel cell cars make a vast availability step forward in the next half-decade, electric vehicles will be basically your only new car purchase option. The country’s car dealerships, garages and retail outlets are going to have to adapt immediately to selling and maintaining more electric vehicles than ever before. And like it or not, the nation’s new vehicle purchasers (over 414,000 of them in 2017) are going to have to accept that if they want to buy a car without having to drive to a different country then they’re going to need to consider an EV or buy a secondhand car.
Maybe it’s that inevitability that stops people taking them up now. Because we’re not. We are not buying electric vehicles and our reasons for not doing so are mostly nonsense given we’re all still happily buying into imminently obsolete technology.
Three protests come up most often - range anxiety, the fear that the car will just somehow run out, is one that comes up the most and is the easiest to debunk. We know, statistically, that most cars run less than 10 miles per day, often at extremely low speeds - electric vehicles have been able to manage that for decades and it certainly makes a mockery of the concept that we’re waiting for that 400 mile mark to be passed before we’ll consider plugging in.
Investment anxiety is the follow-up, with many people believing the time is ‘not quite right’ to buy into an electric vehicle. Without apparently considering whether the time is right for buying into a petrol or diesel vehicle despite their technological development slowly stalling and indeed, actual fuel source running out. We seem totally happy to say we’re worried about investing in a car with an eight-year guarantee, as new Nissan Leafs come with, while in no way concerned about whether buying a new Micra would give you anything like that lifetime.
Not to mention that as soon as you get an electric vehicle home and plug it in, you’re recovering the cost of that investment in refuelling whereas if you take a petrol or diesel vehicle home you better stop off at the petrol station on the way and commence the process of feeding it your wages at a highly taxed rate.
And then there’s just the idea that electric cars are not proper vehicles. People who have absolutely no engineering qualifications suddenly become F1 pit crew when confronted with the idea of electrification because the idea of all that AC/DC running around makes us come over all concerned like you’re actually going to let little Angus and his shorts sit in the passenger seat playing ukulele versions of Back In Black during every ride.
Which is all very well but it still doesn’t explain why we’re buying more petrol cars than ever. The automotive industry in Britain is one of the areas that has actually slipped backwards on carbon emission reduction, going up 4% from 2012 to 2017 while power production has slashed its emissions by 60% over the same period. The UK’s move away from coal-fired power stations has been so successful, in fact, that it’s impossible for charging a car in the UK to ever come close to the emissions cost of a tank of petrol.
The infrastructure for electric cars is (almost all) already here - it’s exactly the same place that you charge your petrol car, except that you probably can’t do that overnight at home. Fast charging points are being rolled out across the UK by both the National Grid and fuel giants like Shell because the demand is slowly increasing - and it’s only going to get greater.
Taking our cars off the road could be a solution also but most of us don’t, with even 38% of Londoners saying they’d rather keep hold of their cars, even with access to public transport and car pooling. 64% of London car owners use their cars to commute and our emotional attachment to them is extremely real as both investments and symbols of freedom to move.
Which is maybe where the other reason people aren’t buying EVs comes in. Gareth Dunsmore, of Nissan, has said that one of the main obstacles to getting people to buy into an electric car is getting them to climb in it in the first place; “Once you’ve experienced it you realise that electric vehicles aren’t milk floats.
“It’s silent of course but you’re smelling then the tyre rubber on the floor, you’re listening to the screeching of the wheels.”
I know that, I’m a Formula E journalist. I’m all for electric vehicles. On the other hand I’m also a millennial so my ability to go and drop a six-figure sum on a Tesla is pretty limited and even if I’ll be ripping myself off with micropayments to the petrol station rather than nice cheap electric, the initial payment up front for a petrol car would simply be a lot less.
For now. With so few electric cars on the road, it’s a numbers game to say that more petrol vehicles are available, especially second-hand. And that I’m incapable of making the sort of good life choices that would leave me five years from now with a perfectly running Nismo Leaf that’s literally electrically thrilling to take all the torque of to a track day instead of my fourth second-hand Clio that’s missing half the glove box and started mysteriously drinking brake fluid.
It ultimately comes down to courage - and who blinks first. Us or the manufacturers or the suppliers. And it seems two of those have made the choice.
Car makers are storming out electric vehicles and advances are constantly being made. If you want luxury, you can soup up an Audi e-tron or a Jaguar I-Pace and if you want something great for banging down the dual carriageway to IKEA then Nissan and Renault have absolutely got you. If you want a new car and you want it cutting edge then any time spent wasting on paying more for fuel is time you’re only charging yourself for when you could be powering your vehicle for much less.
And infrastructure is there too - the National Grid is investing in 50 charging points spaced strategically around the country that will fill a battery in five minutes. And even petrol suppliers are converting their products to give you that lovely, lovely lightning juice on the go - just in case you go further than 10 miles in a single journey. Jo Coleman of Shell explained to me that in terms of their commitment, the investment has already been made despite business risk, in order to create reassurance for the consumer. “When you make a decision to invest in infrastructure for something like this, you have to do it not to make a quick buck. You have to fundamentally believe in why you’re doing it - we’re doing it because the environment needs us to do it, because the consumer needs us to.”
And yet, with manufacturers, governments and gigantic energy suppliers taking on all the risks for us, we are not buying electric vehicles for those essential single-figure-length distances that the most strident of us probably can’t pretend are great automotive endeavours needing a passionate engagement of technology.
Coleman said the stats on EV sales, even in countries where sale of new petrol vehicles is relatively imminent, remain low: “Only 2% of new car sales today are EVs. We believe that will grow enormously, we’re not sure how fast - so you have to be in it for the long term. So that does mean that the some charge stations, maybe even the majority of charge stations will not be making a profit today.
“Which is why I’m so encouraged by companies like Shell building charging infrastructure because we know that will be maintained - whereas where people get funding or a grant to build a charge point it can easily fall into disuse if a vehicle owner moves away and there’s nothing more frustrating than making it to a potential stop and then realising it’s broken.”
So: no petitioning your local authority for a charge point, pick it up quickly whenever you like, no one will even know you’ve bought an EV - not least because they won’t hear you coming and yet still, we won’t buy in.
It can’t be that they’re not sexy enough. You have a look at a Nismo Leaf and tell me it doesn’t get you a little bit excited to take it to a local car park late at night and have absolutely no one know you’re running donuts. And with hundreds of thousands of new vehicles being bought each year we can’t all plead my snowflake millennialism about not wanting to punt up the cash.
The truth is, most of us don’t have a good reason not to buy electric vehicles over petrol anymore. The arguments against EVs are getting weaker in every practical sense whereas the risk of continuing to invest in petrol or diesel grows. And if I’m sitting here trying to think of reasons why I can’t afford a car I actually want, then the nonsense has reached a high level.
Time to calm down. Your vehicle is not going to run out - at least, it’s no less likely to than a petrol car - and your car is not going to mysteriously break down and be left uncovered. It’s getting embarrassing that we’re willing to cling to risks when even massive multinationals with demanding shareholders are ready to expose themselves to them on our behalves.
Right then, off to book that test drive.
Hazel was sponsored by Shell to attend the Powering Progress Together event, which contributed to the content of this article