Comment

Let’s stop being unrealistic about how quickly electric cars are going to take off

Expectations of a nascent technology as well as high purchase prices and patchy public charging remain limiting factors – for now, at least

4/2/2020 of electric vehicle charging points - uk
The reasons for buyers' hesitance to embrace EVs are predictable Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA

Today is World EV day. Nope – I didn’t know about this, either, and I also have no idea who chose September 9 as the momentous date, or why. 

Even so, apparently it’s a thing. To celebrate, Ford released results from a recent survey of 2,000 British drivers. It found that 46 per cent of respondents “don’t intend” to buy an electric vehicle (EV) in the future, 21 per cent said that they wouldn’t consider one for another five years, and 20 per cent reckoned that they might buy an electric car in the next three to five years.

The reasons for buyers’ hesitance are all eye-rollingly predictable. Range anxiety, concerns over where to charge and comparably expensive purchase prices are all key reasons.

Frankly, who can blame them? The public charging infrastructure is still a scarily shaky place right now, electric cars are expensive to buy and not everyone has a driveway to allow them to install a home wallbox charger, to charge their electric vehicle (EV) safely overnight. These are all issues that most drivers who have had the briefest thought about a battery car will be familiar with.   

So, here’s a thought – maybe we should give the electric car and the charging infrastructure a break from all the whingeing, and just accept that there’s still progress to be made. 

Manufacturers have invested heavily over the past 10 years - and the fruits of their labours are coming on stream. This is VW's line for the ID.3 EV in Germany

Significant investment in viable electric cars and the charging infrastructure has been happening for under a decade. Events including the “dieselgate” VW emissions scandal, escalating environmental pressure and even the current pandemic have seen demand for cars put on fast-forward, and everyone from the car manaufacturers, to the scientists working on battery technology, to the charging providers, are playing catch-up. 

But they are getting there. The new wave of pure electric cars – only just reaching showrooms right now – feel three generations ahead of where the Nissan Leaf was when it became the worthy but rather undesirable champion for the mainstream electric car only 10 years ago. They go further, they charge faster, they’re better to drive, and most of them even look good on your driveway and have justifiable monthly finance deals attached. 

The infrastructure is also improving. Just this week, a new EV forecourt is being launched that can charge 24 EVs (at whatever speed the car can manage) via solar power, and with all the comforts of a normal services. 

According to Zap-Map.com, the number of public charging connectors has more than doubled since 2017; we now have nearly 20,000 charge points and 34,000 connectors. 468 were added just in the last 30 days. 

The original Nissan Leaf of 2010 wasn't that bad - but the latest EVs go further, charge faster and are desirable in their own right

Arguably more important is that most of the big charge providers now offer contactless payment, and the ultra-rapid charging network – while undeniably in its infancy – is also gathering momentum. So, convenience as well as numeracy is improving. Hopefully Ecotricity will finally get (rightfully) hauled up and forced to take responsibility for the woeful reliability of its CCS fast chargers, then we’ll all be a lot happier still.  

So no, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting an EV right now. The day when you can step out of your door and drive an EV in any direction and for any distance across the UK or Europe without exhaustive planning – and almost certainly frustration – is a long way off. We have become used to that remarkable freedom and a lot of us are unwilling to give it up, even if few of use actually use it. 

Is that ease of long-distance use in an electric car as far off as 2030, when it’s rumoured the government will bring forward legislation banning sales of new petrol and diesel cars? I’d say we’ll be there just in time, going by the rate of improvement to both cars and infrastructure. Unless you buy a Tesla, obviously, then you can probably risk it right now – although even the glowing example of the Tesla Supercharging network is far from a guaranteed solution in every corner of our small country, never mind the world at large. 

If you're used to the 600 miles-plus range of a modern diesel-engined car, then of course the range of most EVs will be 'farcical' Credit: Lynne Cameron/PA

Ultimately, the transition to the electric car is going to take a change of mindset as well as a change of propulsion. One person I spoke to described the 127-mile range of the absolutely joyous little Honda e I drove recently as “farcical”. But they were driving a BMW 640d and routinely do high mileage. Of course it’s farcical coming from that sort of existence. 

Similarly, when motoring journalists complain that they can’t leave home in an EV, drive four hours to Anglesey circuit for a day’s photography and then drive home again, suggests a blinding lack of understanding for how a “normal” person actually uses a car. We’re all guilty of expecting unrealistic things here. 

A huge swathe of people in the UK really could live with the Honda e’s range very easily and – provided they have a home charger – would never need to use the public charging network. How many of those people are willing to accept that they don’t need more than the Honda’s seemingly limiting range is another question.  

The Honda e's range is 'only' 127 miles, but in the real world that's more than enough for most people

But if we – and I do mean the media as well as the wider general public and beyond – can stop putting such a negative spin on every bit of data that gets churned out of a transitioning transport system, we might be able to see the positives. Like the fact that the Ford survey also shows that 41 per cent of people would consider an EV in five years or so. 

Given the 5 per cent of UK drivers in EVs already, that could mean that nearly half of new car sales would be pure electric by 2026. I reckon that’s a fast enough growth rate, especially since those who “don’t intend” to buy an EV at all may change their minds. After all, if you’d asked me in the year 2000 whether I’d want to buy a touchscreen phone and spend two hours a day and more on it doing work emails, I’d say that I absolutely “didn’t intend” to do that. Playing Snake II? Well, that’s another question. 

Things change – people and technology more than most.

Twenty years ago, we didn't think we needed smartphones on which we respond to emails and watch videos

Petrol and diesel are still here for now, and many people with perfectly ordinary lifestyles really do need it to be here for a long while yet. That’s absolutely fine and reasonable. Even the most zealous of electric car fans understands that. Some even understand that there are aspects of a combustion engines – the sound, the power delivery, the scope for character in a performance car – that an awful lot of people are never going to want to give up.  

So, rather than constantly fuelling this bizarre and unnecessary antagonism between those who do or don’t like EVs, and instead of taking a survey that shows that around half of motorists may go electric in five years and writing a headline off the back of it insinuating that nobody wants an EV…  Maybe we just need to be up front about the fact that battery cars are still a compromise in many ways for some motorists, but things are getting better very quickly.

Have faith. And happy World EV day. 

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