Electric cars – are they for you?

Our Government are insisting that over the coming years we will all need to drive electric cars. Yet many people are very apprehensive about this over-reaching directive, with a number of fears being voiced. Are these fears real? Let’s take a look…….

Batteries don’t last very long

Firstly, the big fear of many of us is that electric car batteries don’t last for every – true or false? Provided that they are looked after, this is emphatically not the case. There are now many documented examples of Tesla car batteries lasting for well over 200,000 miles. Yes, it’s true that Tesla are at the top of the car price hierarchy, but this battery life expectation is equally true for the Nissan Leaf and other smaller and cheaper models.

Batteries, such as the pack on this Volvo XC40, can be expensive, but should last the life of the car.
This is data collected from lots of Teslas and shows how little battery degradation is typical, even at high mileages.

As ever, there is a proviso: you do need to treat your car battery with a modicum of sympathy. Never regularly under-or-over charge your battery, as neither of these extremes is appreciated by lithium-ion batteries. Most manufacturers put a lot of effort into fitting sophisticated battery management technology to their cars, to limit the effects of such battery abuse.

Another form of abuse is to continually use rapid chargers (50kW upwards) rather than the more gentle fast chargers which can typically be found in domestic charging points and increasingly in supermarkets. Again, the manufacturer’s battery management systems try to limit the effects of continued rapid charging, with varying degrees of success.

So the key to long battery life is to follow your car manufacturers guidance carefully, as each has different ways of battery management. In the absence of detailed manufacturer guidance, the best guidance is to keep the battery charge level between 20% and 80% and only use rapid chargers occasionally.

They don’t have enough range

This brings us to the next worry of many people – range anxiety! Yes, it is true that very few, if any, electric cars offer the range of a petrol or diesel motor. Also, the inflated ranges quoted by the manufacturers are rarely achievable in practice, if only because of the above-mentioned limits on charging. If, for example, you have a car with a published range of 150 miles, in practical terms the safe range is probably only 60% of this – 90 miles – and probably less in the cold winter months where both batteries are less efficient, and the extra electrical load from lights, heaters and wipers are significant.

In practice, that is rarely a problem, because most electric car drivers quickly change their habits to cope with their car’s range. Rather than the petrol car routine of filling the tank only when needed, they grab a charge whenever the opportunity conveniently arises, for example when they stop for a coffee or a comfort break.

If you have a home charger and get into the habit of plugging in when you get home, you should have that 90 miles of effective range (or whatever the number happens to be for your particular car) available whenever you need to go anywhere. And do you often need more than this? It’s unlikely, as most of our cars do far fewer miles than that every day.

But, I hear you say, what if I can’t charge at home? That makes driving electric a bit more tricky, certainly, but far from impossible. Is there a reasonably-priced public charger near you? Many supermarkets, for example, are installing chargers, and whilst not always the fastest-charging, they could at least provide the regular charge that you need.

Pop-up pavement charging points are just one of the solutions being installed to ensure that EV’s can still be charged in urban streets. Photo: Smart Solar

Whilst it is both unsafe and illegal to drape extension leads from your home and over the pavement to your car sitting at the kerb, many local authorities are investigating methods of providing charge points in urban streets, for example from fitting charge points to street lights.

There aren’t enough chargers

And what about the occasions where a long journey is needed? If this involves exceeding your safe mileage, then of course using public chargers becomes a necessity. As you will no doubt have heard, the public charging system has come in for a great deal of criticism, mostly justified. The criticism ranges from charge points not being in the locations you need, to being busy, to being too hard to use, and too expensive.

All of these can indeed be true. However, the situation is changing rapidly. The ancient and usually solitary Ecotricity chargers at most motorway service areas, for example, are now under new Gridserve ownership, and the existing chargers are very quickly being ripped out and replaced, in many instances with multiple chargers to vastly ease long motorway journeys.

The shape of things to come – this new motorway service area at Rugby has an impressive 24 charging points

The criticism that there are lots of different charging networks, each with their own way of getting a charge, often by needing to sign up to the network concerned before using it, has almost been eliminated, thanks to the Government dictating that all new charging points should be able to accept contactless card payments. Of course, it may still be a little cheaper to use the networks own access system, often via a smartphone App, but at least it is no longer mandatory.

Finding suitable chargers in your travels is much easier than it used to be as well. Apps such as Zap-Map will show you where public chargers are located, and often whether they are available or in use.

As a final word on public charging, if all else fails and the charger you arrive at is busy or faulty, provided that you have followed our earlier guidance and not dropped below that 20% charge, you should still have enough juice to take you to the next charger location!

Is charging too slow? Again, don’t be misled by the manufacturers claims that, for example, you can add 60% charge in say 20 minutes. These claims only hold good if your battery is nearly flat, as charging rates drop off significantly as your batteries state of charge rises, preventing the battery from becoming too hot, which increases the rate at which it can degrade.

This shows how the charge rate drops off on most EV’s as the battery state of charge increases.

Also, not every charging point can deliver the level of charging current needed. However, this again need not be a drawback, for as we mentioned earlier, we mere mortals also need to stop fairly frequently on our travels for comfort breaks of one sort or another.

Long journeys will take too long

So the key to relaxed long-distance electric car journeys is to do a little bit of pre-planning. How far do you like to travel in one stage? A couple of hours is usually a reasonable time for most of us, so before you set out, investigate charging stops in suitable locations which have whatever facilities you need, such as toilets, coffee shops or restaurants.

If this pre-planning sounds onerous, just think about it this way: most of us plan our petrol car journeys to avoid having to refuel at horrifically expensive motorway service areas? Not so different is it!

With those fears hopefully put to bed, or at least given a sense of proportion, maybe you are thinking about going electric. If you are in the fortunate position of looking at a new car, the choice of models is increasing rapidly and will continue to do so.

And if you are a company car driver, or can persuade your employer to introduce a salary sacrifice scheme, the personal taxation benefits of running an electric car mean that it can often be cheaper than running a second-hand petrol or diesel motor.

I can only afford a second hand car

The choices are more limited if buying second-hand, but there are still plenty of used electric models available. One thing to watch out for, though, is that very low-priced examples of Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe models may have a battery that is leased rather than bought. This was an option offered by manufacturers to overcome drivers fear over unexpectedly needing an expensive battery replacement. However, as experience has demonstrated, batteries do last far longer than the doom-mongers originally feared.

The battery lease costs for these early cars can, however, be substantial, and can make their running costs very unattractive, so make sure that the ownership sums add up if the battery is leased on the car you are thinking of buying. In most cases, it will be more cost-effective to pay a little more to get a car where the battery is “owned” by the car.

Two other specification points to consider are first to try to ensure that your proposed purchase has a DC charger built-in if you plan to do any long journeys with the car. A DC charger allows the car to use the increasingly common 50kW (or greater) rapid chargers when necessary, making public charging much quicker than the AC-only chargers fitted to some cars.

The different charging connections – go for a car with a CCS connector if possible.

Secondly, aim to buy a car with a CCS charging connection. The CCS connector is rapidly becoming the Europe-wide standard, replacing the Chademo system fitted to the Nissan Leaf, and others. As such, the future availability of Chademo and AC connectors at public charging stations is likely to reduce in favour of the wider availability of CCS units.

But how much do they cost to run?

And finally, running costs! To be truthful, we are in something of a honeymoon period for running electric cars, particularly if you can charge at home using one of the cheap overnight rates offered by the likes of Octopus Energy.

The electricity consumed is presently delightfully free of the punitive levels of tax applied by the Government to every litre of petrol or diesel we buy now, and at some point the tax revenue from fossil fuel as we increasingly drive electric cars will dry up. The Government will then need to find another way to recoup the $36bn or so annual tax losses, and this will undoubtedly fall on electric car drivers in some form.

The good news, however, is that developing the necessary systems for this will be time-consuming, so for the next few years, if you take the plunge and go electric now, you can look forward to some potentially extremely cheap motoring, probably saving upwards of £1,000 a year on your present fuel bill.

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