Electric Cars

An even more pointless Prius?

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Once in a while a car comes along that is so pointless that it beggars belief – some would claim that the original Toyota Prius filled that role – perhaps slightly unfair as it did develop some technologies that have found their way into many vehicles – but the overall concept is in my opinion deeply flawed (I am not a fan).

good looking - not!

As I understand it one of the Prius ‘selling points’ is its low fuel use (totally flawed as well) – this is managed by being aerodynamic, light and having an electric motor (it’s a hybrid). The downside of all this is that it is noisy (very), built from rubbish materials (the interior is like a 70’s eastern block car) and generally ‘nasty’ (told you I don’t like them).

To make matters worse it also is nowhere near as economical as Toyota claim – so you have to put up with all the downsides with no upside! (It doesn’t even save many fluffy bunnies) The only fun to have in a Prius is getting out of it!

So can someone please explain to me why they are now producing the Prius+? This is in effect a people carrier version. Now I am a fan of small people carriers, I have had a few in my time and they are excellent for growing families. What they are not however is aerodynamic, light or economical – plus cheap build quality is a definite ‘no no’ in a people carrier – it needs to be bomb proof against small people!

So unless I have missed something Toyota have just produced the worlds most pointless car!

A practical hybrid? – apart from the price!

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I have a very poor opinion of hybrids since a Prius tried to kill me. More seriously they have not so far in my view provided a decent driving experience and decent savings in both fuel and emissions (the Prius is nowhere near as economical as Toyota claim unless you drive like a snail!).

yes it's an estate - what do you expect - it's a Volvo!

In recent months the next phase of hybrid electrics have started to appear or be announced (I don’t count the plugin Prius (it’s a personal hate thing). But the likes of Peugeot, Citroen and Vauxhall are starting to produce more interesting machines. All of them do appear rather ‘hobbled’ though – with either poor performance or economy.

The latest offering from Volvo however does appear on the face of it to be a possible ‘decent hybrid’;

The V60 Plug-in Hybrid is powered by a 212bhp 2.4-litre diesel engine (good start!), which drives the front wheels. The rear axle is driven by an electric motor, which provides a further 69bhp and the car has a six-speed automatic gearbox. The 11.2kw lithium-ion battery pack is situated beneath the boot floor and can be charged from the mains, or boosted by the diesel engine’s alternator as well as by recapturing energy generated by the brakes.

On average, the V60 Hybrid should return 148.6mpg and emit just 49g/km of CO2 – pretty impressive figures (and far better than a Prius). But there is a more interesting side to this car – there are three driving modes available – Pure, Hybrid and Power;

Selecting Pure allows the car to drive for 32 miles on electric power alone – plenty for urban trips.
Selecting Hybrid engages the diesel engine to increase performance, so much so that the car can tow up to 1800kg (possibly more important for Volvo drivers?)
Power mode combines the electric and diesel motors to give an output of 276bhp, which should do the 0-62 sprint in just 6.9secs – pretty good!

The downside? The cost – Volvo are offering them at £47,000 – just a bit on the expensive side!.

Electric cars – a failure or the wrong market?

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I have blogged previously about the current crop of electric cars and the motor industries attempt to get us away from our internal combustion engines – my view has been that they are not ready yet for prime time and more importantly are being pushed into the wrong market segment.

Our Government have also played their part in this – the £5,000 government grant was supposed to make 2011 “remembered as the year the electric car took off” – sales figures suggest this is not to be.

Only 106 electric cars were bought in the third quarter of 2011 through the scheme, this marks a significant slump in demand on already sluggish-take-up, with 465 cars registered through the scheme in Q1 and 215 in Q2.

The number of electric vehicles in the UK stands at just 1,107, a tiny chunk of the country’s 28.5m cars. But the government had hoped to incentivize take-up with the launch of grants of up to £5,000, preserving the grant during last summer’s cuts and putting aside £43m, or enough for 8,600 cars, until March 2012. The scheme is due to be reviewed again in January.

The Governments view is that the slow take up is due to a poor choice of vehicle – despite the Nissan Leaf getting car of the year? My own view is that the average motorist is not ready for the electric car in its current form. It does not replace the average family car due to range and charging issues. The electric car is still a rich mans toy – the Tesla being a classic example. The lack of a real charging network is also an issue.

I would argue however that the manufacturers are not marketing to the correct sector with the correct designs. Electric cars are ideal for city cars – most journeys are short and the emission profile is ideal to reduce city smog etc. But more importantly why do ‘city’ cars in their current form mostly have 4 seats and weigh so much? Nearly all city journeys are by single occupants – the only vehicle close to a true city car at the moment is the smart.

The car manufacturers need to address this – some are looking at it and the Audi concept appears ideal at this time. It was recently shown at the Frankfurt Motor show and is a zero emission 2 seater – but will they have the guts to develop and build it?

The start of a realistic charging network?

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One of the major issues holding back the uptake of electric cars (like car of the year Nissan Leaf) is the lack of a decent national charging network – people correctly believe they can’t realistically do long journeys in an electric car. Because of this electric car drivers have been unwilling to break free of the city and hit the open road. Well now green energy firm Ecotricity has launched the world’s first national motorway charging network for electric vehicles and all the power is coming from renewable sources, from the Wind and the Sun. If you are an Ecotricity user at home or work (and they will price match the standard suppliers tariffs) the charging points are free to use – quite an attraction.

It has installed free power points at 12 Welcome Break service stations, with 17 more promised later in the year.

Welcome Break’s power outlets offer two types of sockets – a three-pin one for 13A current supply and a seven-pin one for a higher 32A supply. Using the 13A supply takes around 12 hours to charge the vehicle and would probably require spending the night in one of the service area hotels – not a great idea unless you were planning to break your journey this way.

Opting for the higher current option will top-up a car in just 20 minutes – and fully charge it in one hour, so in the time it takes to get a cup of coffee and a sandwich, the system can charge your car. The downside? Not all electric vehicles are compatible with the newer 32A system.

This is a real step forward and if a major roll out of similar charging points is made across the UK it would offer a real option to the city dweller who only goes on long journeys once in a while (and there are a lot of them). For once a positive addition to our motorway service stations!

A partial answer to electric car issues?

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I have been fairly negative towards the ‘electric car revolution’ that our Government have been hoping for. However following a conversation at work I have given the matter more thought – perhaps the cars themselves are not the issue. More at issue is the lack of recharging points.

I have previously highlighted the slow uptake of the electric car subsidy, perhaps this suggests that Britain should invest in a network of charge points to help encourage the uptake of these vehicles rather than just discount the vehicles?

The ongoing debate about electric cars, typically focuses on their range as the biggest concern to purchasers?At work we could use an electric car for our shorter journeys around the city and environs, most are less than 50 miles, and a quick charge post at the office would allow the car to be ready most of the time – and it would be a great PR story!

Developments in charging technology have made it quicker and more efficient for drivers to charge both parked and moving cars. As a geographically small country, the UK has closely connected towns and cities and, as a result, relatively few charge points are needed to reach most of the population (there are currently very few).

The range of an electric car can also be significantly increased by providing quick “top-up” charging points. This is better for an electric car’s battery too, as its lifespan is lengthened by regular top-ups, rather than deep cycling (just like mobile phones). As the battery contributes heavily towards the average EV’s overall cost, protecting a buyer’s investment is perhaps more crucial than paying part of the upfront purchase price.

Even cooler, with wireless charging, drivers don’t even need to get out the car and plug in a cable, so a trip to the station to pick up a friend could include a 10-minute charge in the station’s waiting bay.

So perhaps with a proper network of quick charge points the urban dweller especially could consider an EV as a much more viable alternative.

So in reality how green are electric cars ?

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I have commented here recently about the current ‘trendiness’ of the electric car. We are being told by the media that it is to be the ‘big thing’ this year – although without digging too deep it is easy to see it won’t be!

Green car?

The BBC’s recent ‘electric mini to Edinburgh’ farce also highlighted the medias total lack of understanding about electric cars – they are not designed or capable of long distances – so why try?

However all this activity has set me wondering – how green is an electric car once you take our power generation into account in this country? The results make very interesting reading and create even more hurdles for the electric car to jump.

Back in the summer of last year I changed my car, I blogged about it here. I wanted to go ‘greener’ so tried various options, however the upshot was a Volvo V50 diesel. It had reasonable green credentials and importantly emitted 105 g CO2 per km (the newer version is 99 g per km). So how does this compare to an electric car?

There is a general assumption that electric cars are “cleaner” than petrol/diesel/hybrid cars, but  electric cars cannot claim to be “emissions free” if they are powered from an energy grid supplied by power stations burning coal or gas. Or even nuclear, for that matter.

Tailpipe emissions for electric cars can be classified legitimately as zero – which is certainly beneficial for an urban environment where local air pollution is a huge problem – but is this pollution simply being displaced meaning that it still ends up in the atmosphere but via the route of a power station’s stack as opposed to the exhaust? And, crucially, is less like-for-like pollution being emitted by using an electric car as opposed to one reliant on the internal combustion engine?

In terms of emissions, over the course of 19 recharges, the average transport cost of an electric car is 21 kWh per 100km – about four times better than an average fossil fuel car. 

But, (now the interesting bit);

 In terms of carbon emissions, 21 kWh per 100 km is equivalent to 105 g CO2 per km, (assuming that electricity has a footprint of 500 g CO2 per kWh).

That’s exactly the same as my Volvo – a car that allows me to go 500 – 600 miles between refills!

Yes, the electric car does not pollute a city atmosphere, and its silent. But perhaps we need to step back and consider the current  move to electric cars is perhaps a touch premature?

Now if we had much higher levels of renewable electricity generation that would change things a lot………….

Total change needed in UK car policy?

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This weeks ‘electric car challenge’ by the BBC (trying to drive London to Edinburgh in an electric mini) and the recent hike in fuel costs has set me thinking. Do we actually need a total change in car policy in this country?

Currently most drivers consider themselves as victims of the tax system – not a view I would disagree with. But, one needs to consider what the Governments supposed aims are in levying these taxes, and more importantly whether they can work and if not what the alternatives are?

So which is it?

Taxes on car use – like those on alcohol and tobacco – have always provoked bitter arguments about the Governments real goals and hidden agendas.

Is the ultimate aim to curb people’s bad habits, be they driving, drinking or smoking, or is it more about raising revenue on the sly, without putting up income tax? I believe at the moment it is hard to argue that the prime reason for the tax hike is to raise finance. Any reduction in car use or emissions is purely ‘a lucky by-product’.

We can expect renewed debate on those familiar lines following recent events;

The minister for decentralisation, Greg Clark, has written to local authorities to tell them that the Government is scrapping its parking charge advice to local councils.

Until now, this advised them to raise charges in order to get more people out of their cars. So the response from some quarters will be to claim that both changes offer proof that the Coalition Government is dumping whatever green credentials it claimed to have, and that the Tory party, to which Mr Clark belongs, is playing to the gallery. Conservatives have indeed long been seen as the car-friendly party while Labour has carried the flag for public transport. No surprise then, if you follow this line of argument, that the congestion charge is being banished from wealthy west London, the capital’s Tory heartland.

But, when London first introduced the congestion charge in 2003, the case in its favour looked overwhelming. Businesses opposed it from the start. But those complaints were initially trumped by falls in the levels of traffic of about 30 per cent in the first two years, which made London a cleaner, more pedestrian-friendly place. Since then, however, traffic levels have crept back upwards and congestion levels today are more or less what they were in 2002. This has prompted claims that the charge has become another regressive tax that doesn’t cut car numbers or reduce pollution, while hitting the less well-off hardest. Supporters of the charge are thrown back on the claim that matters would surely be worse without it, but this can’t be proven.

The Governments argument for scrapping advice to local councils on parking charges also deserves consideration. He maintains that high charges do not force people out of cars but only encourage them to drive further to out-of-town shopping centres where they can park for free. The big casualty, therefore, is the old town-centre high street with its necklace of small shops. A fair point!

Part of the problem with the way that Britain has handled car-related questions has been over-reliance on foreign planning models. In the 1950s and 1960s, we had an almost slavish adherence to American thinking on how we should live, inspired what now seems the absurd idea that everyone would want to drive everywhere – paying little or nothing for petrol.

Since the 1980s, looking to Europe has been more in vogue. But copying the transport policies of continental cities has not always proven much more helpful – they have a very different social structure to their cities. It is easy to winkle drivers out of cars and on to trams in small, high-density cities like Amsterdam; less easy in much more spread-out British cities like London, where living patterns are very different.

So what is the answer? If I am honest I have no idea, but whatever happens we are going to have to come up with a different model for our car policy. It needs to be a much more ‘joined up’ approach, the car is going to have to change and we need some real investment in public transport. The current policy isn’t working!