Why electric cars have shorted out

Electric cars are about to take off. Or at least, that is the hope of governments around Europe and beyond which are rapidly developing policies to encourage their take up. However, there are numerous hurdles to overcome before electric cars are first produced in sufficient numbers to make an impact and then actually bought by the motoring public.

 Electric cars have, in fact, been around almost as long as the internal combustion engine. In the 1930s, Harrods, the famous Knightsbridge store, built 60 electric delivery vans and though they only had a maximum speed of 25mph, these were used successfully into the 1960s. (Indeed, I remember their almost silent approach when playing in the back yard of my block of flats in West London when growing up as a child in the 1960s, although the milkman still delivered by horse and cart  – the electric milk float came later).The weight of batteries, the limitations of range and the lack of interest from motor manufacturers meant that until recently electric vehicles were confined to milk floats and externally powered trolley buses.

 Now, however, the imperatives of carbon reduction and wider environmental policies have pushed electric vehicles far higher up the political agenda. European legislation designed to reduce average emissions from cars means that targets for average emissions will start to be phased in from 2012. Manufacturers will face fines for non-compliance and crucially electric vehicles will be considered ‘zero emission’ as only exhaust gases are counted, irrespective of the reality that vehicles powered from fossil fuel generated electricity have emissions that are not much different from their diesel and petrol counterparts. Targets will be progressively tightened each year with the result that by 2020 a 40 reduction in average tailpipe emissions from 2009 levels will be required from manufacturers

 This stimulus has pushed governments into beginning to look at ways of boosting both the supply of, and demand for, electric vehicles. The problem is that the process is being driven from above in the name of environmental sustainability but there are numerous obstacles to the creation of a mass market for the vehicles. It is not just a matter of encouraging the public to buy the vehicles, but also to ensure that not only is the infrastructure available, but also winning over public opinion. One expert in the field, Professor Eric Samson of Newcastle University, even goes further, by suggesting considerable behavioural change will be needed: ‘Motorists will have to adapt to a different style of driving and so far we don’t really know how electric will fit in with the rest of the traffic’. Professor Samson also warns that there are limitations to the technology, even on the most optimistic assumption: ‘You will never get electric trucks – you just wouldn’t get sufficient power.

 Martin Ward, an analyst who advises the British government on the electric cars market, is equally clear about the limitations of the vehicles, suggesting their role will be limited: ‘Electric cars are part of the future (a piece of the jigsaw ) in reducing C02, but there is other technology in petrol and diesel engines that will also help Governments and manufacturers reduce emissions.

 To break into the mass market, there are numerous hurdles for electric cars to overcome Here’s top seven:

Doubts over environmental benefits

As a recent Royal Academy of Engineering report put it succinctly, ‘electric cars are only as green as the electricity which charges their batteries’. While in France, with its reliance on nuclear power, electric cars come out as much ‘greener’, in Britain where most electricity is still generated from gas or coal, there is little advantage. As Professor Roger Kemp of Lancaster University, chairman of the Academy’s electric vehicles working group put it, ‘Swapping gas guzzlers for electric vehicles will not solve our carbon emissions problem on its own. When most electricity in Britain is still generated by burning gas and coal, the difference between an electric car and a small, low-emission petrol or diesel car is negligible.’

Manufacturers’ lack of interest


Until the stimulus programme at both European and national levels, manufacturers had shown little interest in promoting a concept that would be expensive to develop, difficult to sell to the public and be a rival to their existing models. Now, however, the manufacturers are more enthusiastic and have begun to devote R & D and manufacturing resources. For example, Nissan is building a factory in Sunderland in Britain’s deprived north east region, which aims to produce 60,000 vehicles per year by 2013, but this is still small scale given two million cars are bought in the British market annually. Despite such moves, and many warm words about ‘electric vehicles being the future’, there is still not wholehearted support for a concept that may founder or probably, at best, be a minor market for the big manufacturers for many years to come.



Battery weight


The mobile phone battery has gone from brick size to neat sliver in the space of 15 years. Similar miniaturisation of the car battery would overcome many of the obstacles yet battery size to power ratio has only increased marginally over that period. One reason is that cars require ever more electricity to power everything from windows to air conditioning, which means that the modest improvements in battery technology have been outweighed by increasing demands. While lithium batteries, which are the basis of all electric cars currently being developed, offer twice the power of conventional ones, batteries will, with current technology, still weight in the region of 300 kgs for an average size five seater, and take up considerable space. Professor Samson reckons ‘we need a step change in technology to help widen the appeal of electric cars’.

Battery and overall cost

Out of the £32,000 price of an electric vehicle, more than half is accounted for by the battery, enough to buy a whole conventional car. Moreover, the battery life span is, at best, eight years, and less if the batteries are misused, whereas the rest of the car could expect to be used longer. Renault is suggesting that the way round this problem is to lease the batteries rather than sell them as an integral part of the car, but this runs into a financial issue as several European countries have legislation that prevents finance being raised simultaneously more than once simultaneously on a particular car. Mass production will undoubtedly reduce costs somewhat, but this may be balanced by rises in the price of raw materials, notably lithium whose long term availability is by no means guaranteed. On the plus side, however, the cost of running cars on electricity is far less than using petrol or diesel – perhaps £1.50 per hundred miles, compared with £10-15.

Range anxiety

Even though most cars are used predominantly for short journeys, concern about the shortness of the range of electric vehicles is a major barrier to take up. Although the range of electric cars is at least eighty miles and mostly more, drivers in tests on them have proved to be far more anxious about the car running out of fuel than if they were driving a conventional vehicle and start seeking to top up the supply even though the gauges show that there is still plenty left.

Legislation and regulation

Governments across Europe will have to set the right framework to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles. So far several governments have announced that they will be introducing subsidies to bring down the cost of vehicles. In Britain, the government is proposing a subsidy of £5,000 on the estimated £32,000 price of an electric vehicle while the highest incentives will be in Norway and Denmark, where electric vehicles will be exempt from vehicle purchase tax, worth more than €10,000. Merely reducing the cost of vehicles is not enough. Governments will also need to ensure that charging facilities can be provided relatively cheaply – France has a target of one million charging points by 2015. There are also numerous safety considerations such as, for example, preparing emergency services to deal with accidents involving vehicles that have considerable electric power


Just plug in? Not so simple. The rate of recharge and the voltage are issues, and so is the design of the plugs required. Nissan, for example, Nissan has suggested that owners would need a special box, costing several hundred pounds, fitted by an electrician in the home or office to ensure that recharging batteries was safe and carried out in a way that maximises battery life but this may prove to be unpopular with potential owners. Meanwhile, no standard has yet been developed for recharging points and countries look set to adopt their own standards – for example, the Netherlands is set to mandate a five pin plug while neighbouring Belgium is developing a two pin version.

 Then there is the expensive issue of providing recharging points but there is a chicken and egg problem. Not many people will buy electric cars if they fear they cannot recharge, and therefore , for the most part, governments have to intervene to provide or at least facilitate the provision, of a network of charging points. Several countries, notably France and Ireland, or cities, such as London, have programmes to provide large networks but this will take several years.

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