On my electric car odyssey, I thought I ought to start by sharing some basics with you, in Q&A form. I mean, very basic. I’ve driven a fair few in my time – and this year will be sampling many more. This is a bit of what I’ve learned, imperfectly, thus far.
1 What is an electric car?
It is not, for these purposes, a “hybrid”, like the Toyota Prius or any other vehicle that also has an internal combustion engine on board (with one of two very particular exceptions).
An electric car is a pure thing – it runs completely and solely on its batteries. When they run out, you stop moving.
I like to think of it as a cross between a washing machine, a laptop and, erm, a car. So, your car is driven entirely by electric power – powerful lithium-ion batteries (like in your laptop) sending electricity to an electric motor (like your washing machine) which drives the road wheels (like on your motor car).
The electricity stored in the batteries mostly comes from being plugged into the mains (there are various charging options, most commonly a fast charger attached to the side of your home, if you have the space). Some will be regenerated from the car itself, saving power otherwise wasted when braking, for example.
2 Don’t some electric cars run on hydrogen?
Yes, but they are not much more than prototypes, with only a handful of filling stations currently. Critics say using a hydrogen fuel cell to generate the electricity for the batteries simply adds an additional stage of energy accumulation; and the manufacture of the hydrogen could be problematic, if it requires a disproportionate amount of non-renewable electricity.
3 How far will one go on a charge?
Well, that depends, but you can count on a modern mainstream electric car these days to bae able to take you 200 to 250 miles (conservatively) on a single charge – a Kia e-Niro, say, or Hyundai Kona electric. In the right hands, 300 miles might be possible. This, by the way is two or three times the usual range you’d experience a few years ago.
The most advanced models, such as the famous Tesla range, will go on and on for near enough 400 miles. Some of the smaller more urban-oriented models, such as the new electric Smart cars will be good for about 100 miles.
The rest is down to how you drive and when. Winter means the batteries tend to run down faster and you’ll likely get a shorter range. If you drive hard and fast you’ll use up more energy than otherwise, just like in a petrol or diesel car. Over along time the ability of the batteries to take and store a charge will deteriorate (just like your smartphone or laptop).
4 Are electric cars expensive?
Yes. To buy or lease you’re looking at a premium of some thousands of pounds. So, let’s take an example, the Hyundai Kona, a compact SUV. With a conventional petrol engine you can pick one up at a list price of £17,505. For the hybrid version (petrol plus electric power generated on-board) you’ll need to fork out £22,495. For the BEV Hyundai Kona electric, the price jumps to £35,100, or £32,600 when you take into account the government grant for electric cars of up to £3,500.
Against the usually higher purchase price or monthly PCP or lease fee you need to balance the savings you make compared t petrol or diesel: far cheaper fuel spending on your electricity tariff); lower running costs (fewer moving mechanical parts and consumables eg exhaust pipe, alternator, engine); and a range of lower taxes and congest and parking charges. Electric cars are exempt from road tax, carry lower benefit-in-kind tax liabilities for commercial users, usually form congestion charges and city bans, and can enjoy cheaper parking. There’s also a government subsidy of up to £500 for a home charger.
Whether this makes financial sense really depends your pattern of car usage – the number of miles you do a year, and the type of journeys. With a lot of medium range commuting for example (say 60 miles a day) an electric car could pay for itself within a few years; for sustained long-distance travelling then a diesel might make more sense.
5 What are the advantages of an electric car?
Apart from the financial ones it is of course far better for the environment. There are many debates about, say, the cost (in environmental terms) of mining rare minerals for the batteries, or transporting them vast distances to factories, or the energy used in making them. Also obviously an electric car that runs on electricity generated from soar power is better than one where the electricity happens to be generated by burning coal (ins or far as anyone can know this when they plug in).
However a reasonable assumption is that all electric cars are greener than any internal combustion engined equivalent, and that any public transport (rail or bus) is usually greener than any private alternative.
Don’t forget that electric cars are very refined – being almost silent at any speed, and the acceleration form rest is startlingly fast, though they tend to run out of puff as they approach their top speeds. In other words they can be good to drive and to be driven in.
6 What are the disadvantages?
Surprisingly few, though it does depend on your circumstances. If you live in a flat or a terraced house, charging from home is obviously impossible or difficult, and the ease of use of an electric vehicle is much reduced. If you imagine that you’ll have to do journeys of more than 400 miles without warning, then an internal combustion engine is a surer way of getting wherever it is you might conceivably wish to go – though you’d need to take a break anyway.
It’s fair to add that some of the public charging infrastructure leaves a bit to be desired – it could usefully be much bigger, more reliable and easier to use.
And of course you do need to balance the financial sums against the clear practical and environmental plusses of being a green driver.
7 Don’t they take ages to charge?
Yes and no. The Tesla is an exception, in many ways, because it has a dedicated network of ultra-fast chargers, as well as being chargeable at home.
Most owners of electric cars have to rely on charging at home – but don’t have much trouble charging because they most likely have a home charging point, which does mean off-street parking for the moment. If you take a mainstream option like the Hyundai Kona electricity home, using a regular 7kW charging point via its own cable a near-full zero to 80 per cent charge takes around 9 hours.
A similar charge with a rapid charger (such as you’d fine at, say, motorway services) takes around an hour and a quarter. 75 minutes. In an emergency, you can also use a domestic three-pin charging lead, plugged into the mains at home like you’d plug in a kettle. However you’d looking at about 24 hours for a full charge – because the batteries are so big and the trickle form the domestic system so modest.
8 Will they get easier to charge and go further in future?
Yes. Much of the progress in the usefulness of the electric car is coming from improvements in battery “density” – the amount of useful power that can be stored in a an ever-more compact way.
The battery pack is usually stored lower in the car, under the floor or the seats, and this can help with keeping the car stable (lower centre of gravity). Given that these units can grow very hot and need ventilation or water cooling for example, and have to be protected from water ingress (if fording a stream say, or just in a heavy downpour) , the progress in engineering in this field is truly impressive.
However, eventually the rate of improvement in range and efficiency will slow, and that might well mark an optimal moment to make a purchase or take on an electric car lease. But we cannot know when this will happen.
9 What about hybrids?
Well, what about hybrids? They are not electric cars. This is because they are, as the name implies, hybrids – a cross between an electric car and a traditional one powered by a petrol or diesel engine. Thus well-known hybrid models such as the Toyota Prius have an internal combustion engine on board, as well as an electric motor and some batteries to boost performance and economy.
In a hybrid the electric power is “self-generated”, which is to say that it comes from the engine regenerating and recycling power that might otherwise be wasted. So for example some of the power usually lost in heavy braking is instead sent back via the electric motor working “backwards” to the batteries, where it is stored for later use.
Most hybrids pair an electric and a petrol engine because the two units tend to complement each other in use; diesel-electric hybrids are rarer. “Mild” hybrids are just that – they have only a small ethic motor and minimal battery storage just to give a slight edge to reduce emissions and improve economy. The green advantage is quite marginal.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) have the additional option of charging from the mains, as with an electric car, but it is not necessary to do so.
The drawback with the hybrid technology is the constant trade-offs that have to made between the energy saved through the battery-electric motor system, set against the additional weight of them, which of course tends to raise fuel consumption. Clever software can minimise these trade-offs to more acceptable levels, but they will always be there, as compared to a BEV. Hybrids, indeed, in their complexity and weight, can represent the e worst of both worlds.
10 Aren’t electric cars all a bit oddball?
They have been, yes, but the next few months year will see the launch of some very well-known models with full-electric versions. These will include: the Vauxhall Corsa-e; Peugeot 208 electric; Volvo XC40 Recharge and the Mini electric. They join an already quiet impressive variety of electric cars on sale or soon to go on sale.
From the tiny Skoda Citi GOe-iV and Smart EQ through the Renault Zoe to the Nissan leaf to MG ZS and the Jaguar iPace there are already options to match your tastes and budget. And there is also a small market in used models such as the Renault Fluence, Mitsubishi IMEV, Vauxhall Ampera or first generation Nissan Leaf that might also suit.
These cars will tend to have shorter ranges, though, while older Renaults may still have their batteries on monthly lease from the company. As always – do your own research, but you can approach an electric car with more positivity than ever before.