Electric cars only a spark of genius away from acceptanceTuesday 11 February 2014 15.09 By Will Goodbody
By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent
For many years I’ve been fascinated by the concept of electric cars. Full of questions about what they are like to drive, how quiet they are, what it’s like to charge them, is ‘range anxiety’ overblown and do you need to be a bit of tree hugger to want one?
Not so fascinated, I should add, that I was tempted to buy one last year, when I was forced to change my car. While I’m excited by new technology, I wouldn’t consider myself an early adopter when it comes to expensive, important purchases. And despite what manufacturers and backers might say electric vehicles (EVs), and the infrastructure that must accompany them, are in their infancy.
So when the ESB offered me an opportunity to drive an EV for a week, I jumped at the chance. I picked up the vehicle (I’m not going to talk about makes and models because this is not a car review, but a concept review) last Monday. I was offered and took the opportunity to change it for a different car during the middle of last week.
Watch video of our e-car experience here.
At first it all felt terribly alien – like I had strolled into a scene from the Jetsons. It seemed like there were more buttons and electronic displays to monitor than in the cockpit of a Boeing 737. But I soon got the hang of it, and bar a few problems grew to quite like it.
The first thing you notice when you drive an electric vehicle is the silence. There is next to no noise from the car itself, bar the artificial hum at low speeds designed to alert unsuspecting pedestrians that you are about to float by.
The cars I drove were both pure electric, as opposed to hybrids. One had regenerative braking – i.e. the battery could recharge itself a little as the car slowed down. They both had the option of “Eco” mode, which is a setting that involves a more conservative use of power. That conservation does have a noticeable bearing on acceleration and performance, and in the case of one of the cars, inhibited top speed to 97kmh. All fine if you are pottering around town, doing short hops.
Turn off Eco mode and the experience is altogether more ‘normal’. In fact such is the efficiency of the transmission in an electric compared to a combustion engine powered car, with all its moving parts, that the acceleration was really pretty impressive. Though there is a noticeable impact on battery life – more on that later.
EVs are undoubtedly clean to run, with zero emissions from the cars themselves – though you can’t realistically forget the coal, oil, peat or gas that was probably burned in making the electricity. The economic argument too seems compelling. The cost of buying the cars has come down considerably recently, thanks to technology improvements, a zero VRT rate and government grants (for as long as they last). The maintenance costs are apparently lower, as there are fewer mechanical parts to go wrong (though it would be a fair assumption that with all those electrics, when they do go wrong it isn’t going to be cheap). Plus the fuelling costs (1-2c per km) are much lower than the cost of petrol and diesel vehicles (10-12c per km). So far, so good then.
But here’s the rub. In two words. Battery life.
I live in Co Wicklow, 45km from where I primarily work – a considerable commute. I also use my car to travel for work, occasionally for longer journeys. And when I’m at work I’m usually under fair to severe time pressure. So part of my fascination with electric vehicles has been the quandary of whether it really would be practical for me to be travelling 100km or more every day in one, without having to stop to recharge the battery? Could I carry out my normal current usage patterns without having to massively alter my behaviour?
The answer, I’m afraid is no. Each time I sat into the cars after a full night’s charge, the rangeometer (or whatever it’s called) read no more than around 130km. Drive on a motorway and that comes down considerably. Turn on the heat, it comes down further, turn on the radio, lights, wipers, Bluetooth, and you get…..range anxiety. Yes it does really exist. I experienced it.
I never ran out of power. And undoubtedly if you drive sensibly and a little slower than you might otherwise (which is probably no harm), and don’t run all the electric gadgets and gizmos at the same time and unnecessarily, you can conserve battery. But for me that was too big an ask. I don’t enjoy being cold on long journeys. I like to listen to the radio.
Of course you can always stop and recharge. That is, as I found, not a huge amount of hassle. You simply scan a smart card over the charging station which uncovers the socket. Using the charging cable that comes with the car, you then plug the vehicle into the station and charging begins. The time it takes depends greatly on the type of charging point, and the make and model of the vehicle. Slow charges take roughly three hours. The most modern of EVs plugged into fast points can take as little as 20 minutes to fill up. That’s longer than it takes to fill with petrol or diesel, but not excessive.
The problem, however, is that there are far fewer fast charging (a few dozen) points than slow public stations (over 700). There are websites and apps to point you towards the nearest, while many of the most modern cars with in-built sat-nav have the charging stations marked on the maps. Plus, the ESB says the network of charging points is growing all the time.
However, the reality is that at present there are simply not enough motorway or rural based stations to make longer or remote journeys hugely feasible. And because there are no enforced rules to stop non-EVs parking in public charging point spaces, even if you can find one, you may not even be able to access it.
What is really needed to transform the EV market is better battery technology. Huge amounts of research is being carried out here in Ireland and around the world, in an attempt to make that fundamental and exceptionally lucrative breakthrough, and progress is being made. But so far the spark of genius needed to ignite the EV market here and elsewhere remains elusive.
That said, for anyone who does low mileage and very rarely longer journeys, the option is certainly there now. Range anxiety aside electric vehicles are comfortable, efficient and come with the happy glow of knowing you are doing something to help the environment. And it seems highly likely that within a decade, once the battery issue is solved, the new car purchase of choice will be an EV.
Indeed, if Google gets its way, we won’t even have to drive them!