Electric cars – your questions answered

Up to now, only a limited number of electric cars have been available, and those that were on sale have been of limited interest to the average family motorist, being either just too short of real-world range to be useful, or just too expensive, like the impressive, but impressively pricey Tesla.

Wide range of cars

The 2020 Kia Soul, which will only be available with electric power
The 2020 Kia Soul, which will only be available with electric power
Hyundai's Kone electric, one of the first mid-priced 200 mile range electric cars to go on sale in the UK
Hyundai’s Kona electric, one of the first mid-priced 200-mile range electric cars to go on sale in the UK

That is the case no longer, for recent months have seen the launch of several more modestly priced cars with batteries of around 60kWh, giving real driving ranges of 200 miles or better.

Nissan, who really started the electric revolution with their Leaf, has a much-improved version which offers well over double the range of the original. Other typical examples are the Hyundai Kona Electric, which we plan to test shortly, and the closely related Kia e-Niro. Both start at around £27,250 inclusive of the £3,500 which the Government currently offer to support sales of electric cars. It’s an indication of just how eagerly these more realistic models have been received that there is already a waiting list of up to a year if you want to buy a Kona, for example..

Not to worry, though, for just about every volume car manufacturer is falling over themselves to announce their electric models which are due for launch in the next twelve months or so. Peugeot, for example, has announced their e-208, Kia their Soul EV, while Volkswagen appears to have a range of electric models in the wings, including their Golf-sized I.D3, the booking list for which opened in early May, the I.D.Buzz which is a retake on their much loved Combi minibus and several others. MG has an electric version of their ZS SUV which is expected to go on sale in September this year.

All these and the many others offer real-world ranges which make them suitable for the vast majority of us. No longer can we expect 80 miles or even less between charges, independent tests are now regularly demonstrating that this latest crop of electric motors is good for at least 200 miles between visits to the charging station.

What about running costs?

And, yes, they may still be a bit more expensive than petrol powered cars to buy, but remember that operating costs are a fraction of that of a conventional vehicle. A typical family car achieving 40mpg costs around 15p per mile in petrol; an electric vehicle is more like 4p per mile if you “fill it up” from your domestic electricity supply. Servicing costs too should be much cheaper, for electric cars have far fewer moving parts.

Savings like these should soon add up, and go a long way to offsetting a slightly higher initial price. I say ‘soon’ because there is indeed an elephant lurking in the corner of the running cost room, however, as much will depend on what interference the Government in their wisdom may make. Why? Because of the 15p a mile you pay for fuel for your petrol or diesel car, only around 5p is the actual cost of the fuel, taxation is responsible for the other 10p. Yes, you read that right: out of the £1.28 we pay for every litre of petrol today, the Government help themselves to almost 80p.

That means the Government rakes in around £30 billion a year from fuel tax; money which they will need to find from elsewhere if we all stop buying petrol and diesel. So where will they claw it back from? That’s the great unknown, although my guess would be some form of road pricing: maybe road tolls but more likely it would be some form of GPS-linked pay-per mile-driven system. So I think we need to accept that the days of cheap running costs for electric cars will sooner or later come to an end, with the cost per mile ending up roughly comparable to that for a petrol car. There are many unknowns, of course: the Government could even escalate the tax level on petrol and diesel to induce us all to go electric.

How long will the battery last?

So what about the other worries many folks have about driving electric? How long do the batteries last, for example? Well, the first thing to appreciate is that electric car batteries do not reach a certain age, then die expensively. Experience has shown that they do reduce in performance – and hence range – over time, but the reduction is both small and gradual. Data I have seen from one high mileage car showed that the battery still had 95% capacity even after 250,000 miles.

Where can I charge up?

Another well-aired worry is whether there will be a charging station available when you need it. The media delight in raising this as a problem, with dramatic headlines such as “80,000 more charging points needed by 2021”. What the media don’t tell you is that the number of charging points is increasing significantly every year. Currently, there are 21,000 around the country, an increase of 25% in the last 12 months alone. And, be honest, when did you see a location where every charging connection was in use? Not very often I would suggest.

The Zap Map App lets you see whether a charging station is in use and what connector types it offers
The Zap Map App lets you see whether a charging station is in use and what connector types it offers

Moreover, the good news is that an increasing number of these charging points are “fast chargers”, able to give your electric car a typical range boost of 100 miles in 30 minutes. We are also seeing car manufacturers teaming up with other companies such as supermarkets to provide charging stations, a prime example of this being the tie-up between Volkswagen and Tesco aimed at installing 2,400 charging stations in Tesco store car parks over the next three years. Even Lidl are rolling out charging points around their stores at quite a rate. And fuel companies are getting in on the act, too, with both Shell and BP installing charging points in their petrol stations.

Charging stations can be found anywhere, like this one in Western Scotland
Charging stations can be found anywhere, like this one in Western Scotland

The speed of charging is increasing, too. Not long ago, a 50kW charge rate was considered good, today increasing numbers of 150kW chargers are being installed. In practical terms, using a 50kW charger for 30 minutes could give at least a 50-mile boost, using a 150kW charger for the same time could provide a 150-mile boost. Just be aware, though, that not every electric car can take a 150kW charge rate: be sure to check this out if superfast charging is crucial to you.

Grants to help with the cost of home chargers are available too. Indeed some electricity suppliers such as Octopus are even offering discounted off-peak electric to charge your car. Home charging is inevitably much slower, charge rates being as low as 3.7 kW from a regular 13 amp supply, meaning that a full charge on a 60kWh battery could take 15-18 hours. Many dedicated home chargers will, however, charge at 7kW, reducing the charge time for the same battery to around 9 hours. Longer charging times at home are generally less of a problem, though, as charging would usually be taking place overnight, possibly taking advantage of cheap-rate electricity.

What about the environment?

Naysayers will also argue that the cost to the environment of producing an electric car is significantly higher than for a conventional petrol or diesel car, given the cost of extracting the rare minerals such as cobalt which are needed to produce batteries and electric motors. They will also argue that while actually driving an electric car may be emissions-free, the emissions created in generating the electricity to run it could be substantial, an argument that, incidentally, conveniently ignores the large amounts of power needed to produce petrol and diesel!

These environmental concerns are praiseworthy. In the last few weeks, however, Volkswagen has published the results of detailed life cycle assessment research which indicates that over the vehicles lifetime, including manufacture, driving for over 120,000 miles, then disposal, the overall CO2 emissions of an electric Golf, for example, are some 30% lower than those for an equivalent diesel Golf. Clearly, most of the electric car’s emissions are related to the manufacturing process, and these emissions are reducing steadily as the manufacturing technology develops. Admittedly, the emissions generated in producing the electricity to run the electric vehicle could be significant if it all came from coal-fired power stations, but we in the UK are now seeing our coal-fired stations shut down for days and even weeks at a time, with an ever-increasing amount of our’ leccy coming from renewable sources. As I write this, at 9am on a May morning, 17% of UK electricity is presently being supplied by renewable sources, 18% from nuclear and the rest from gas, with no contribution from coal. And that’s not untypical, in fact, the contribution from renewables is often much higher.

Any downsides?

But what about the downsides to electric cars? Not many. Although the proliferation of different charging connectors has been a concern, with a somewhat bewildering collection to chose from, including Type 2, Chademo, Supercharger and CCS. However, most new cars have a CCS (Combined Charging System) connection, in fact, Tesla, who have previously always fitted only their unique Supercharger connection, have added a CCS connector to their new Model 3 and are converting their Supercharger charging station network to accommodate CCS connections as well as their Supercharger ones. Similarly, most of the newer fast charger points of 50kW and upwards appearing everywhere have CCS outlets, and it does appear that the CCS system will soon become the standard.

Zap Map can show you which connections are available at your selected charging station, and whether they are in use
Zap Map can show you which connections are available at your selected charging station, and whether they are in use

What are they like to drive?

What’s an electric car like to drive? Most folk who try them never want to go back to a regular car, they are so smooth and responsive, particularly in traffic. Even those with the lowest capacity battery packs are more than capable of spritely performance around town, while the performance of the bigger-batteried Teslas, in particular, is well-named by them as “Ludicrous”, being not just supercar-matching but supercar-beating!

In short, electric cars are now a real option. Try one, and be prepared to be impressed!

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