Have Electric Vehicles reached a Turning Point?

2018_Jaguar_I-Pace_EV400_AWD_Front – Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It was reported earlier this year that pure electric vehicle sales had overtaken diesel vehicle sales. Is this specifically a move from diesel to electric or is it just a general move to electric vehicles (EVs)? Given the impact of fuel shortages and Covid hitting overall car sales, this is difficult to assess. Rather than dwell on the reasons why, let us discuss the practical factors driving the EV market to this potential turning point.

Most of us know a person with an EV

Yes, it is always good to know adopters of a new technology to get their feedback on their vehicles and ask questions about the ups and downs of EV ownership. This can however be biased as people tend to defend their ‘new baby’ and underplay the downsides. However, if we know someone with an EV, then our interest in the technology may increase.

Seeing that 9 out of 10 drivers would not buy a fossil fuel vehicle again, it is worth exploring the factors they will need to consider.

Purchase prices have come down

We are seeing a surge of new models arriving. They are still on the pricey side but some new entrants are appearing that are changing the game. Let’s look at a couple:

  • MG5 – £27,495 including government grant  (Long Range Excite)
    That is very close in price to many diesel options. Before the ‘Long Range’ version came out it was actually cheaper than a Ford Focus Diesel. The Long Range has a lot of other technology including driver assistance functions, but this is no Tesla!
  • Renault Zoe – £28,795 less £1,500 government grant  (base model)
    This is still not a cheap car, but with the help of incentives, they are well within the range of a traditional diesel purchase, which is why Taxi drivers are getting interested.

Range is a misunderstood issue

In general most car journeys are remarkably short. The insurance industry tracks these details and data shows the average journey is under nine miles. When it comes to daily mileage, RAC data indicates 28 miles per day.

With that level of use, one would only need to charge once or twice a week for a 250 mile range vehicle. Many people are finding this a real boon, especially if the bulk of their charging can be done at home or at a local ‘rapid charging’ point. This may put off those who travel longer distances frequently, or even occasionally, purchasing an electric car.

Flats and terraced houses without driveways

Clearly there is a need for local charge solutions where a driveway is not available such as in some terraced houses and flats, which is about one third of all car owners. Some councils are stepping up and providing kerbside and parking area charge points but they are far from common. A lack of government guidance and limited funding means variations from council to council are significant. Some terraced houses could be helped out by allowing sunken channels for cables, as it is not normally allowed to drape a charging cable across a public pavement. So there is an urgent need for councils to provide places to charge EVs. However, many supermarkets and some workplaces have charge points. Of the supermarket ones, many are free whilst shopping.

Range in more detail

EV folk spend a lot of time posting about range, both good and bad. How you drive makes a big difference on range for an EV as well for an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicle. An ICE is relatively inefficient, generating waste heat. An EV battery is very efficient with little waste heat. An EV uses the battery for everything so what power you use to keep warm reduces range. When you demist the window on an EV it is really quick, it is electric and instant. Once the cabin is warm the heater does not use a lot of power particularly in UK weather. One would expect a drain of 1-2% an hour to keep the heating on, so you can keep the heating on if stuck in a long traffic jam for hours and be quite smug as you do not have to worry about running out of fuel.

When it gets really cold which is rare in the UK then the heater will have to work harder and the range may reduce more quickly as a result. Some people use their electric seats if available more and keep the heat on low to reduce consumption, something that is not intuitive to an ICE driver. But the bigger impact on all EV’s is cold, expect to lose 20-25 % of your range in cold weather, some are better than others but all will suffer winter range loss and range gain in the summer. When I chose my vehicle, the clincher was it could do my monthly 150 mile round trip in winter without an enforced charge, so I chose a vehicle with a range of over 200 miles.

Tip
Instead of Miles per Gallon (MpG), the EV term is Miles per kiloWatt-hour (kWh) and is usually between 2 and 6. Confusingly charge rates are sometimes quoted in Miles per hour (an hour of charging not driving)!

Of course the range will decrease if you drive very fast, although this is also true for internal combustions engines. Electric cars peak efficiency is usually at ‘around town’ speeds; an ICE car peak efficiency is at 10-20 miles an hour faster than that. For both, if you want good range, you must keep your speed down – 60-65 mph on motorways is typical.

What fun to drive!

If you have not driven an EV yet, you are missing a real treat, they are silky smooth to drive, quiet of course and quick! The acceleration is definitely a wow factor, but EVs usually have a Normal, Economy and Sport modes to suit your driving style.

Charging time

For most people who charge at home, it is usually at night on a cheaper rate, so time is not an issue, the car is fully charged in the morning. If you cannot charge at home or you’re on a long journey, you will need to stop at a service station or one of the many supermarket charge points or other Rapid charge points around the country.

MG EV – Source: Author
Charging Terms  
1:  Granny Charger   Cars usually come with an emergency or backup charge unit with the cute nickname ‘granny charger’. It plugs into a standard 13 amp 3-pin socket. It is not really a charger as for home use but a surprising number of people use these as there primary method of charging although it is very slow. but useful way of charging the vehicle particular if traveling and you have access to power.
Note: Problems have been encountered with houses that have inadequate or elderly wiring as the car may pull 10 amps for hours and hours.  
2:  Fast Charging   This is actually your home charge point that sits on the wall outside your house. It has direct wiring with a high-current armoured cable. It has a bunch of safety features but is essentially a clever switch that tells the car how much power is available and only allows the charge to commence if it tests that all is ok. These can have timers and solar interfaces etc. Destination charge points (at hotels or offices) are usually fast chargers and 7kW like at home.  
3: Rapid charging   This can be AC or DC  depending on the vehicle, these allow very fast charging indeed, these are the types that you see at service stations and some supermarkets, but be warned some only have fast chargers. Although these are often free, you need your own cable.          

Most newer cars will take a 20% to 80% charge in under 30 minutes – some are quicker, some are slower. But for many it is the length of a coffee break or a short lunch break. So you can usually drive 2-3 hours without stopping in a decent range vehicle which for most people will be acceptable.

There are issues due to a lack of government strategy to guide and accelerate the installation and standardization of infrastructure charge points and critically no service level agreements. This leads to problems with charge points being unavailable, the lack of pricing guidance means they can also be expensive. 2021 has seen a massive expansion in the number and quality of rapid charge points but for the next few years, challenges are likely to remain. EV drivers learn to know the best places to charge and have a backup ‘just in case’.

Cost of ownership and battery life

EV’s are cheap to run, not just that the cost of electricity is cheap compared to that of petrol or diesel (even before the predicted price rises), but they have very low complexity compared to an ICE engine which has hundreds more parts, So a service plan for an EV will be cheaper than for an ICE vehicle. The major ‘parts’ in an EV are brakes (so brake fluid changes are required every few years) and sometimes a gearbox with an oil change at intervals.

The main reasons for an EV service are safety checks, software updates and paint warranty. There is very little that needs serious servicing, no cam belts, no engine oil changes and no coolant flushes for example.

The batteries, irrespective of the manufacturer, tend to come with long warranties, often around seven years. Battery life is estimated by EDF energy at between 10 and 20 years. The guarantees tend to trigger at a loss of range limit typically 70%, the manufacturers try to avoid this ever occurring so they may have some level of buffer in the system that manages the batteries. Unlike an ICE vehicle, if you do have an older EV that has reduced range it can still be used. Third-party battery upgrade sources are already out there mainly for the Nissan LEAF, and some offer range extensions. This is an interesting new market and expect to see more independent battery renovation providers appearing as demand increases particularly in a few years when the warranties run out.

Where is the cheap smaller EV?

This is the real gap in the market, The Corsa and Zoe are possibly the better known smaller EV’s however they are overpriced for many people. A basic low cost EV is already available in China but not yet in the UK or mainland Europe. The cheapest EV in China is approximately $4,000 (£3,020) and it is selling really well. There are others in the $8,000 bracket. A European spec model may be coming soon.

Electronics complexity

One thing to point out is some of these vehicles are brimming with technology, as are upmarket ICE vehicles, and the electronics are likely to be the main source of frustration as cars age.

Conclusion

Currently available electric cars in Europe are approaching parity with diesel cars in pricing while running cost advantages may be driving the acceleration of sales and in turn further price reductions. There is an absence of cheap new small car options keeping many out of the EV market, a gap that needs urgently plugging. Many of the fears people had about batteries are not borne out in practice with the ownership experience being positive albeit different.  Charging for most is likely to be at home, painless and inexpensive. Charging away from home is improving, there remain teething troubles for some as the industry matures.

The electric car industry is moving to a maturing phase, there are differences to a traditional combustion engine and one has to learn some new things. However, the corner appears to have been turned.


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