The electric dream

Renault-Twizy-Sport-F1-concept-front-three-quarterThe other day a relative asked if they should consider an electric car. If they had noticed the recent RAC Foundation report into low-carbon vehicles they probably wouldn’t have bothered. It pointed out that just 3600 plug-in electric vehicles have been registered in the UK despite a government incentive introduced over two years ago to stump up £5000 towards the cost. And that take-up by 2020 may account for just 2% of the UK market.

The media made much of this report but no-one should be surprised. First, as with all new technologies, these vehicles are expensive and the economy isn’t exactly helping. The cost probably won’t come down properly until China becomes a mass adopter. Second, so far there’s been hardly any choice. More than that though, pure EVs and plug-in hybrids will only ever be part of the solution – just as combustion-engined vehicles will continue to be and, in time, more exotic technologies. And public transport. And bicycles. Horses for courses: plug-ins are great for urban centres and short commutes. If you go longer distances you’ll need a plain old hybrid or a conventional car. Or perhaps a train. One size will not fit all. It won’t even fit all members of most households.

The range limitations and price of EVs are frighteners. There are other barriers too – battery life and replacement cost, charging time and infrastructure. And, for the environment-conscious consumer likely to want a plug-in EV, where the power for those batteries comes from.

But battery-only EVs are something of a diversion, and the pace of progress is way ahead of the sales. Since the grant was announced we’ve seen the launch of the Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt, with an extender system to remove range anxiety and give proper 300-mile-plus potential. It’s a game-changer. And for plug-ins, Renault has begun launching cars in the £10,000-£20,000 range, dramatically cheaper than the £30,000 early offerings from Nissan and Mitsubishi.

The French company’s two-seat Twizy may be wacky and not qualify for the grant, but it’s a halo product for the cause and it makes perfect sense in cities. Peugeot and Citroen’s hybrids don’t qualify either, but they’ve moved the game on too by engineering diesels into the mix. And placing electric motors in the rear wheels for an effective four-wheel drive system. So more performance and grip.

Our friends in Westminster probably see the performance factor as unhelpful, but it’s vital to building appeal. EVs have huge torque, so they can make natural drivers’ cars. Ferrari and McLaren had two of the most significant launches at the Geneva motor show a few weeks back. The La Ferrari and P1 may be for race tracks and private museums but their combination of a fossil-fuel engine with electric motors and battery packs, and the ability to recover and store energy, may point the way for EVs: cars with small engines given much more power by electric motors supplemented with recovered energy.

Battery performance needs to improve and costs need to come down. But the challenge now is as much about how EVs are communicated as about the technology. Yes, they need to be a sensible investment and usable every day. But they also have to be shown to be stylish. Fun. Good to drive. Bristling with technology. The latest in gadgetry. Cool. Saving the planet can be just a no-cost option.

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