Enda Mullen looks at the slow progress being made to bring electric cars to the masses
With warnings about everything from global warming to dwindling oil supplies, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s only a matter of time before we’re all driving around in electric cars.
Certainly as car manufacturers are working overtime to offer more environmentally-friendly alternatives to the gas guzzlers of old, all the talk is of electric vehicles.
And when a company like Rolls-Royce is getting in on the act with a prototype electric version of its Phantom, you know it’s not just a flash in the pan.
Though you can already buy or lease electric cars, in reality the market is still very much in its infancy but the CABLED project, being run from Arup’s office at the Blythe Valley Business Park in Solihull, is paving the way for this revolution.
It’s spearheaded by Neil Butcher, who’s in charge of a fleet of 110 vehicles currently being driven by a range of private and business users.
The fleet consists of a mixture of Mitsubishis, Smarts, Tatas and Citroens, with a couple of Range Rover plug-in hybrids thrown in for good measure.
One of the objectives is to help with the development of vehicles locally, particularly as regards Tata and Jaguar Land Rover, and another is to let the public know ultra low carbon vehicles have arrived.
The aim is to evaluate how people taking part in the project are using electric vehicles.
“We are recording journey data to see how long people’s journeys are, also how people are charging them and when they are charging them,” said Mr Butcher, who added the information gathered will be used to develop an infrastructure of charging points.
One of the interesting things to emerge so far is that users are not really taking advantage of the limited number of existing public charging points – locally there are 18 in Birmingham city centre and the same number in Coventry.
“The charging data shows that the public charging points aren’t being used that much, though we’re not sure why that is yet,” said Mr Butcher.
“Maybe it’s because there are so few out there or maybe it’s because they’re in places our users don’t want to drive to.
“Evidence from around the world is that users are keen to know that charging points are out there – maybe they see them as a bit of an insurance policy.
“People won’t buy the cars until they see that the charging points are out there.”
Of course, the development of greener vehicles is about more than just the electric option, according to Mr Butcher, with both plug-in hybrids and standard hybrids having a part to play as well as more fuel-efficient petrol and diesel engines too.
But the electric route is currently in vogue, in large part because they have no exhaust emissions.
As well as the zero-carbon tag, there’s also something essentially appealing about a vehicle that you plug in to charge and which makes no noise whatsoever when on the move.
Of course there’s nothing new about electric vehicles, milk floats having operated on this principle for decades. But with a flurry of models launched over the last couple of years and many more on the way, the electric car business is most definitely in the spotlight.
Perhaps their biggest drawback is a limited range, most being able to cover a distance between 80 and 100 miles on a single charge.
“Until battery prices start dropping and battery technology advances they are essentially urban vehicles,” said Mr Butcher. “They’re city runabouts but very very good at it.”
However when you take a look at the data on how people are using them they start to make a lot of sense.
“The average daily mileage of a UK driver is 25 miles, so having a range of 80-100 miles is ample for the majority,” said Mr Butcher.
“And the first data indicates vehicles are being used similarly to conventional vehicles.”
Cost is still an issue though and until they become more affordable the take-up is likely to be limited. At the moment, for example, the soon to be launched Nissan Leaf will cost £25,000 – and that includes a Government subsidy.
“If you were an accountant you wouldn’t do it,” said Mr Butcher. “They are more expensive to buy and are a lot cheaper to run but the total cost of ownership is more expensive than a conventional vehicle, which is why the Government are putting lots of incentives in place to encourage early adoption.” Business use is still at an early stage too, though a number of energy companies are trialling some of the CABLED fleet as company cars.
“The businesses doing it at present are doing it to learn how fleets might do it in the future, said Mr Butcher.
“I guess it’s also good from a marketing and publicity point of view to have a few on the fleet.
“And importantly it also helps to reduce their C02 emissions overall.
“For companies trying to promote a green image, because that is what their business is all about, they’re perfect. Equally they fit the bill if the business is the other way so to speak and they want to promote a greener image.”
Of course there is still C02 to factor in to the equation, with it being a by product of electricity generated in power stations but even so the carbon footprint of an electric car is minimal compared to that of a vehicle with an internal combustion engine.
With renewable energy factored into the equation the environmental case for electric cars becomes stronger still.
Even so there’s still a long way to go before they become commonplace.
As is often the case, London is likely to set the trend as far as both business and private users go, in large part because electric vehicles are exempt from the congestion charge.
“These are still extremely early days – we have a few thousand electric vehicles out of almost 30 million vehicles in the UK,” added Mr Butcher.
“There are businesses in London that are using them already and quite a few probably see it as a marketing thing but the effect of the congestion charge means it is worthwhile and some of the car clubs are starting to pick up on the idea too.
“The industry is looking to get a million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2020, which is around 500 times the current number.
“At this point it’s a case of trying to demonstrate that they are practical, so when the business case becomes more viable in the next few years people will have seen them, be aware of them and see them as a real practical alternative.”
Even at this early stage, work is taking place as regards the next phase of the process. Arup have two vehicles that operate by wireless or induction charging – you park over a special pad, flick a switch and the car starts charging.
One advantage of this method is it dispels with the cables health and safety officers have nightmares about.
On top of that, there has been research into dynamic charging systems that could see electric vehicles charged as you drive along a main road.
It might seem light years away but it could be with us sooner than you think and according to Mr Butcher would accelerate electric vehicle usage.
“The advantage would be that you could have a small battery, do a long journey down the motorway and be fully charged through induction charging loops.
“In terms of where it might go in the future it is a really interesting idea.”