The Brainstorm Long Read: is there a suitable electric or hybrid car for everyone in the audience regardless of budget or needs?

Electric vehicle (EV) is a classification that primarily covers three different types of vehicles: battery electric vehicle (BEV), hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). All of these vehicle types feature batteries and electric motors, which can independently propel the vehicle using electricity.

EVs have automatic transmissions, rather than manual, making them easy to drive, especially in stop-and-go city driving. The EV is quiet to drive and can accelerate fast, a characteristic of the electric motor. An amazing feature of an EV is regenerative braking- the electrics can slow down the car and recharge the battery rather than use the brakes!

From RTÉ Ten, RTÉ Motoring Editor Donal Byrne speaks to John Hayes about what choices people should be looking at when it comes to electric cars

The choice is yours

The following manufacturers sell EVs in Ireland: Audi, BMW, Citroen, Ford, Hyundai, Jaguar, Kia, Land Rover, Lexus, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Renault, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.

The BEV is an EV featuring a large battery and no other energy source. Examples of these cars are the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S. BEVs are available from BMW, Citroen, Hyundai, Jaguar, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Renault, Tesla and Volkswagen.

What's under the bonnet?

The kilowatt-hour (kWh) is the unit of measure of battery size. Each unit can result in about three or six km of driving for a typical BEV. The typical BEV on sale in Ireland now comes with a battery pack sized from 28 to 40 kWh, while the luxury cars from Tesla are from 75 to 100 kWh.

I like to use the range values published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States, as these figures provide the best estimate of range. The published range of the 40 kWh Nissan Leaf is about 243 km (151 miles). The typical Irish driver travels about 50 km a day. Thus, the 40 kWh BEV has close to five days’ range in the battery on good driving days.

From RTÉ Archives, Tony Connelly reports for RTÉ News on the arrival of the electric car in 1998

This range will drop by approximately 20 percent as the battery ages over the eight years for which it is guaranteed. A further drop in range of about 30 percent can be expected due to the use of heating, air-conditioning or defrosting on very hot or very cold days. Thus, the range in several years’ time could be as low as 136 km in adverse weather conditions. However, that is close to three days driving for the typical driver. Driving aggressively, driving up and down hills and carrying heavy loads will also reduce the range. So drive less, lighten up and slow down if you want to maximise the range.

The battery is unlikely to last for the full life of the car. The batteries are typically guaranteed for eight years while the typical car can last for 12 to 16 years or more. A relatively expensive battery replacement may be required. On the positive side, the Irish climate is benign to batteries due to the mild temperatures.

The good news

Range aside, the BEV comes with some great benefits. It emits zero pollution at the point of use. It is powered solely by electricity, which has significant indigenous fuel sources such as renewable wind power and Irish peat and natural gas.

The way it used to be: 1970s BP petrol station forecourt. Photo: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Because of these factors, the BEV is highly subsidised and incentivised by the Irish government. The fuel to the driver is relatively cheap as our electricity is taxed far more lightly than petrol and diesel. The cars can carry lower tolls and can have special access to parking spaces for charging. The government recently introduced a zero benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax rate for employees when a company provides an employee with a BEV. This can result in significant savings for the employee.

Plug me in

The car can be recharged at home in around two to three hours after a typical drive. A full recharge will take several hours, while a fast charge will take 30 minutes. Regarding the charging infrastructure in Ireland, I usually caution potential buyers to try and charge at home. It can be very stressful to get to a public charging point and find that the charger is not working or that a car is already parked there. A BEV is problematic for apartment dwellers who do not have access to a dedicated charging facility.

I also only recommend high-power or fast charging on a very limited basis, as regular fast charging is not good for the life of the battery. Some cars will not accept more than one high-power charge in a day as the battery can overheat, making long-distance driving quite challenging.

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A growing phenomenon is that some BEV and PHEV buyers are installing wind and solar electricity generators at home to charge cars using their own renewable energy. The HEV features two energy sources: a battery with an electric motor combining with a high-efficiency petrol engine. Examples are the Toyota Prius, the Lexus RX 450h, the Ford Mondeo and the Hyundai Ioniq.

Conventional petrol and diesel cars are very inefficient. Only about 20 percent of the energy stored in the petrol or diesel fuel results in motion of the car. Most of the rest of the energy is simply lost as heat. The battery and the electrical system enable the engine to run in the most efficient mode. The car can drive quietly in electric mode for several km when it is inefficient to use the engine. The fuel economy of a HEV is about 50 percent greater than that of a conventional petrol car.

The PHEV is a HEV with a larger battery, with a 20 to 50 km range, and which can be plugged in and recharged like a BEV. Examples are the Mitsubishi Outlander, Toyota Prius Prime and Volvo T90, with other models from Audi, BMW, Hyundai, Kia, Land Rover, Mercedes, Porsche and Volkswagen. The disadvantage of the PHEV is the relative cost.

From RTÉ Radio One's Ryan Tubridy Show, 100 year old John Walsh on buying his first new car., the electric Nissan Leaf

The environmental test

The use of diesel engines with their emissions of particulate matter (soot) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) in our cities and towns can result in increased urban pollution and smog, and serious health issues such as cancers and respiratory illnesses. However, diesel fuel is still incentivised by the government for various reasons making it appear as a cost-effective option despite the environmental impact.

The fuel economy of a HEV is about 50 percent greater than that of a conventional petrol car

While HEVs are powered by petrol, BEVs are indirectly powered by natural gas, coal and peat. Significant environmental concerns additionally remain for batteries related to the energy and carbon intensity of manufacturing, to the recyclability, and to the sourcing of key materials. Thus, in the medium term in Ireland, I view the environmental impacts as being comparable between the BEVs and HEVs. In the long term, we will see more renewable wind and solar supplying the electrical grid, which will benefit BEVs.

One for everyone in the audience

Let's look at some case studies. Remember that smaller cars are better overall for the environment and finances and larger cars can require a lot more energy and generate a lot more carbon both to manufacture and to drive. Please note that while the costs of the cars may be prohibitive for many families, used cars and lower-cost imports are an option.

(1) The two-car family

Deirdre lives in the suburbs and drives 50 km return to work each day. She has access to a second car in case of a long drive.

Deirdre will find the BEV a very attractive option, e.g. the 40 kWh Nissan Leaf retails at about €29,590 after subsidies. There are goodies, such as cheap night-time electricity, reduced toll charges, and special access to parking for charging. Renting a bigger vehicle is also an option for longer drives.

Nissan Leaf

(2) The leisurely pensioners

Maura and Seamus live in the country and typically only drive several kilometres a day. However, once a week, Maura drives to visit her sister 100 km away, while Seamus travels to GAA matches around the county.

Here, I would recommend a HEV and a smaller HEV might suit them. There is no range limitation and it will be quite cost effective. The Toyota Yaris HEV retails for €19,850.

Toyota Yaris

(3) The commuter 

Stephen can spend several hours a day in his car and typically drives a diesel due to fuel economy.

I recommend a HEV or PHEV for Stephen. The Toyota Prius starts at €31,450, the Ford Mondeo HEV at €36,920 and the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV at €39,900.

Toyota Prius

(4) The rural family with young kids whose car is Mam or Dad's Taxi 

Options for people-carrier EVs are very limited at present. The family may want to consider the HEV or the large PHEV if the budget permits. A BEV could even be a first car, while the HEV or PHEV can be the second car.

(5) The emergency driver

Tom drives medical staff as part of a night-time service for urgent medical needs. Given the emergency nature of Tom’s job, I would suggest a HEV or PHEV so that he is not worried about range.

(6) The businessperson

Mary runs a company in the greater Dublin area and is happy to trade in her company car, which is currently a large luxury diesel SUV. She can consider a luxury BEV, such as a Tesla or Jaguar. The zero BIK tax rate will sweeten the drive and have her travel in style! The Tesla Model X 75D retails at €105,940.

Tesla Model X

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ