An introduction to the electric car

May 21st, 2011 by Michael Boxwell

It seems every week electric cars are hitting the headlines. From car makers showing their latest concepts, governments announcing new incentive schemes and announcements of new technology breakthroughs, electric cars appear to be everywhere. Yet when was the last time you saw an electric car on the road?

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is one of the first mainstream electric cars available. It has space for four people, rapid performance and a range of up to 93 miles on a single charge (click image to expand - ©Michael Boxwell)

The chances are you may never have seen one at all. Despite Guernsey being home to its own Electric Vehicles Company, electric cars on the island are currently few and far between.

Yet with the concern about the environment and dwindling oil supplies, electric cars are now back on the agenda.

The first of these cars are now on sale: Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot and Citroen all sell electric cars.

Ford, Renault, Volvo and TATA are all planning to launch their own models in the coming months.

Why buy an electric car?

Buying an electric car is not just about the environment, or worries about oil reserves.

As early electric car owners are now finding out for themselves, these are great cars to drive.

Excellent performance, ultra-smooth power delivery and ease of use give the car some significant benefits.

It is no surprise that so many people do not want to go back to driving an internal combustion engine car after experiencing an electric car.

From Nissan to Ferrari, Proton to Rolls Royce, every car manufacturer is developing electric cars.

The indications are that these cars are going to offer a superior owning experience to conventional cars in a remarkably short space of time.

The Nissan LEAF electric car is the ‘European Car of the Year, 2011’, as voted by 50 of the top automotive journalists in Europe. It has since gone on to win the prestigious ‘World Car of the Year’ award. (click image to expand - ©Michael Boxwell)

How an electric car compares to a conventional car

At the heart of an electric car is the electric motor. In terms of use, an electric motor is almost the complete opposite of an internal combustion engine, providing maximum performance from standstill rather than at high speed.

This means you do not have to rev the engine to pull away. There is no vibration from the motor and, whilst not silent, electric cars are exceptionally quiet.

Because of the power delivery of the electric motor, acceleration is instant whenever you need it. This makes for an ultra-smooth power delivery, safer overtaking and the confidence that you have plenty of power in reserve.

When you take your foot off the accelerator, the motor slows down the car, using the momentum of the car to recharge the batteries. The result is smoother and more progressive braking and a smoother transition between accelerating and braking.

Electric cars are extremely easy to drive in heavy stop-start traffic. There is no gearbox or clutch to worry about and the car can crawl along at low speeds exceptionally efficiently with minimal effort on the part of the driver.

Incidentally, several people who suffer from travel sickness when travelling in a conventional car tell me they experience no problems when riding in an electric car.

How far can you go?

Range is always an emotive subject when discussing electric cars. Wherever you go around the world, it is the number one concern that non-electric car owners have about owning an electric car, with the perception that they could never adapt to a car with a range of ‘only’ 80 miles.

The reality is hugely different from the perception. Many electric car owners talk of the freedom they feel that every time they go out to their cars in the morning. They know they have enough ‘fuel’ to go wherever they want to without the hassle and cost of visiting the service station.

Electric car owners plug their cars in to charge up overnight. A full charge from a domestic power socket typically takes eight hours, whilst a top-up charge between journeys can be as short as a few minutes. One electric car owner explained it to me like this: “It takes me nine seconds to charge up my electric car. That is the time it takes to plug the car in when I get home. The next time I need to use the car, it is charged up and ready to go.”

Recharging an electric car (click image to expand - ©Michael Boxwell)

The official range of most electric cars is between 80 to 100 miles (130-160km). Realistically, range will vary depending on driving style and conditions. The official range is based on careful driving in reasonable conditions. Drive at top speed and the range will drop significantly. Drive in extreme cold conditions in the middle of winter and likewise, the range will be lower.

It is interesting to compare the concerns that non-electric car owners have about range with the reality faced by existing electric car owners:

  • Non-electric car owners perceive that range is going to be a constant issue. They believe that they will be restricted because they cannot simply visit a service station to refuel their cars.
  • Electric car owners like the fact that every time they go out to use their car it is fully charged up and ready to go. They have enough fuel to go wherever they need to and they will never have to visit a service station ever again.

In Guernsey, of course, range is never a problem: journey distances are short and speeds are low. The issue comes if you want to take your car onto the mainland. Where can you charge up then?

Nationwide charging point networks are being installed in both France and the United Kingdom. Two types of charging points are available:

  • Trickle charge points in public car parks recharge your car over a period of hours whilst it is parked up
  • High speed charging points which can charge up an electric car in a few minutes.

If you are travelling into the UK, high speed electric car charging points are installed in Bournemouth, Southampton, Exeter and Wincanton.

Trickle charge points can be found in Portsmouth, Chichester, Bournemouth, Weymouth and Portland. Expect this network to expand dramatically over the next few months as companies race to build a truly nationwide network of charging points.

Running costs

The running cost of an electric car is considerably lower than a petrol or diesel car.

Most electric cars can travel around five to six miles on a single kilowatt of electricity, at a cost of around 16 pence using peak electricity, or just 8 pence using overnight Economy 12 electricity.

Are they better for the environment than conventional cars?

Despite the fact that electricity comes from a power station, the carbon footprint for an electric car is considerably lower than a petrol or diesel vehicle.

It is not commonly known that the official CO2 figures for petrol or diesel cars only accounts for burning the fuel in the engine. The carbon footprint for refining the crude oil to produce petrol, and transportation of the fuel to the service station is not included. The true carbon footprint figures for fuel in a conventional car are around 20 to 25% greater than just the pollution from the tailpipe.

Guernsey’s electricity comes from an oil fired power station on the island, supported by a cable link to the French mainland, providing power from nuclear power stations.

Guernsey Electricity claim that around 56% of electricity supplied to the island is carbon free.

Take the worst case scenario on Guernsey: if you take into account the supply of oil to the oil fired power station, the carbon footprint of burning the oil at the power station and the transmission losses of electricity from the power station to the home, the carbon footprint of an electric car is around 74 grams per kilometre.  So even in the worst case scenario, an electric car is far more environmentally friendly than a petrol or diesel one.

A best case scenario? If you are charging up your car with power from France, your carbon footprint drops to around 8 grams per kilometre. That is a similar carbon footprint to cycling, once the extra food you need to eat in order to cycle that distance is taken into account!

Based on figures from the Guernsey Electricity website about the supply of electricity during 2009 and 2010, the carbon footprint for running an electric car on Guernsey is likely to average out at somewhere around 25 to 35 grams per kilometre.

Incidentally, critics claim that the batteries in an electric car are the true environmental villains. Not true: modern batteries do not use any rare-earth materials and the carbon footprint of the production and recycling of the batteries equates to around 3 grams per kilometre over the lifespan of the car.

Can an electric car work for me?

If all your driving is on Guernsey, an electric car can work for you today. If you regularly go further afield, then you may want to wait a couple of years until nationwide charging networks exist in both England and France.

It is unlikely that an electric car will ever be the right choice for everybody: like petrol and diesel cars, an electric motor will just be a choice that a car buyer can have when choosing a vehicle. Electric cars will become the choice for people who regularly travel short distances, whilst petrol and diesel cars will remain the choice for people who travel long distances at high speeds.

As the technology improves, battery ranges increase, prices fall and electric car charging stations become the norm, it is inevitable that electric cars will become the choice for more and more people.

Their convenience, their ease of use and their fun factor make them a strong contender already. Whilst you may not be convinced yet, the chances are that you will have an electric car on your drive in ten years time.

Michael Boxwell is author of The 2011 Electric Car Guide published by Greenstream Publishing (click image to expand)

Michael Boxwell is a car enthusiast who has owned and driven electric cars for the past five years.

He is the author of The 2011 Electric Car Guide priced £9.99.


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