Friday, December 10, 2010

Who's going to buy an electric car?

I'm going to keep on padding away at the Government's core policy of relying on electric cars to reduce transport carbon emissions. Not because I think that electric cars are a bad thing, but because I don't think the policy has been thought through.

The first problem to solve with electric cars is you have to get people to buy them. There are a few - very few - in London, mainly because they are congestion-charge-exempt. This is a very specialized and very small market, and now that the number of congestion-charge-exempt conventionally-fuelled cars is increasing, it's a shrinking market.

There are many problems with electric cars. They have a short range. They are expensive, even with the £5000 government subsidy. There's insufficient charging point infrastructure as yet - the UK currently boasts 200 charging points. In the eyes of the public, the technology is unproven. Although reliability is likely to be better than internal combustion engined (ICE) cars, the public don't know that yet.

The economics don't even stack up that well. Although the cost-per-mile of the electricity is low, this is offset by the high electric car purchase price, and depreciation is an unknown.

People who actually buy new cars are not, generally speaking, sufficiently motivated either by economics or by the environment for those considerations to overcome the factors that count against electric cars. The fundamental problem is that although most car journeys are less than 50 miles, the electric car with the best range, the Nissan Leaf (other than very pricey models like the Tesla) will only allow a round trip of 100 miles without recharging. So if I live in London and want to drive to the seaside for the day, I can't do it. Furthermore, research shows that 'range anxiety' sets in long before the maximum range is reached. Convenience, flexibility and freedom from worry have got to be key factors for car buyers. So key in fact that most people take them for granted. People assume that a car gives them the freedom to spontaneously make a journey without worrying about whether they will get there (and back). Most people won't buy a car that only has a range of 100 miles in the same way that they won't buy a lawnmower that can only mow half their lawn. A 2-car family is a potential buyer, where one car is used as a short-journey runabout. But is such a family likely to spend £24000 on their second car? Because that's the price of a Nissan Leaf including the Government's £5000 discount. £24000 would buy a brand-new Ford Focus diesel that is congestion-charge exempt and has zero VED, plus 10 years worth of fuel.

If the Government is going to persuade people to 'go electric', it's going to need carrots (incentives for EV ownership) and sticks (disincentives to ICE vehicle ownership). It seems to have ruled out sticks with its 'no more war on the motorist' agenda. The only carrot on offer is the £5000 rebate, but even with that the electric car is considerably more expensive than the diesel alternative. There are few special privileges that come with electric vehicle ownership, except for the warm glow that you're not destroying the planet as much as you would with a petrol car.

An additional alternative is the 'plug-in hybrid' which has a petrol motor that kicks in to give extended range when the battery runs down. However, these are likely to be even more expensive than pure EVs, so once again they don't stack up in economic terms. Plug-in hybrids are also heavier and therefore less efficient than pure EVs. Plug-in hybrids also have higher running costs (because the petrol engine needs regular servicing, and because you will be using the petrol engine on longer journeys) and are less reliable (because of the petrol engine).

So it's difficult to see EVs going mainstream unless a number of the following conditions occur:
  1. The Government build out enough charging infrastructure, knowing there will be little return on investment for some time to come;
  2. oil prices rise enough to shock people away from fossil fuels;
  3. electric car prices become competitive with ICE cars; 
  4. battery technology improves enough to give better range at a reasonable price.
 Is any of this likely?

The Government have a programme to support charging-point buildout. An oil price shock will likely come too late: you cannot replace large numbers of ICE cars overnight. Electric car prices may well come down and battery technology may well improve, but there's no Moore's Law in operation.

In summary, it looks rather like the Government aren't doing enough to promote EV ownership.


  1. the lifespan of LiIon batteries is well studied; it's a function of time and not use. You'd be much better off buying a 10 year old diesel than a 10 year old EV with the original batteries. As for "improvement", the W/g from LiIon is on a par with conventional explosives so again, limited scope. All you can do is reduce costs, which needs more Lithium from somewhere or alternate technologies to work.

    The other thing is that a commuter car that only does, say, 20 miles a day, isn't that polluting. You'd need to convert a lot to EV to make a tangible difference in CO2 emissions, and that means retiring older toys, not just moving them out of London.

    EVs and hybrids could be handy for vehicles which do a lot of use round town, need to take passengers, and spend time sitting around. We call them taxis. If the govt helped them go EV/hybrid, with charge points at taxi ranks, subsidies for EVs, it would have a far more profound effect on city air quality than helping a few commuters feel smug with what has to only be a second car.

  2. Face it - the battery electric private car is the neanderthal of transport, an evolutionary dead-end. It will never work as a personal transport because it will never offer enough flexibility, speed and range, and recharging times will always be a chunky multiple of a typical tank-filling. The Li-Ion battery was invented by my old Oxford chemistry tutor - in about 1975, and it has taken until now for them to be commercially viable and even then only in laptops and gadgets. A latest generation LiMa battery is available for my electric outboard motor - car-battery sized, it costs £3,000.

    Even then, the best batteries have an energy denisty which is a tiny percentage of petrol or diesel.

    For cars, a much more practical proposition is the hydrogen fuel cell. That is probably years away, although there have been fuel-cell buses trialled in London, and the beginnings of a permanent fleet has just been launched.

    Battery commercials, on the other hand, might have some near future. For service and delivery vehicles in towns, covering 50-100 miles a day tops and parked overnight in a depot where they can recharge. Like milk floats - remember them?

    Please let's not throw away money, space and time on electric car charging points!