Electric vehicles (EVs) are big news. China leads the world in EV development. Most European countries have set 2030 as the year in which fossil fuel vehicles may no longer be sold. It seems a good time to write about my experience with two electric cars.
It is almost two years since I bought my first all-electric car. I have driven around 15,000 miles (24,000 km) since. I loved the experience from the moment I first drove an electric car. I cannot imagine why it took me so long to change.
Why are EV’s so great?
The internal combustion engine is an extraordinary means to power anything. It is made up of scores of parts that bounce up and down or spin around and make a lot of noise in doing so. The means to make them all move are a series of rapid explosions that take place as fuel is burned. Some of the energy is used to turn the engine; the rest of it is blown out of a tube to pollute the air.
And then there is the gearbox. The engine needs one because its power is so inflexible that it cannot drive the vehicle at different speeds without gears. These further reduce the engine’s power, make yet more noise, and complicate driving the vehicle.
Maintaining and servicing internal combustion engines is a lot easier than it used to be. But it is still a chore – and a cost.
Modern designs have improved many of the worst features of internal combustion engines. However, the principles are the same as they were 150 years ago: they result in significant inefficiencies and pollution.
How could we (myself included) have become so seduced by the noise and fumes of this weird and inefficient power source?
Yet there will be many who become nostalgic for the combustion engine, as there are with another major polluting technology, the steam (and even diesel) engine. As examples of human ingenuity, engineering, and brute force, they take their place in history along with the trireme and the windmill. They were useful in their time – but are no longer.
One might think that at least older technologies did not pollute. But what about the human waste from 1800 rowers crammed into tiny, foetid, spaces in a fleet of 100 ships? And imagine the industrial accidents caused by ungarded wheels on windmills or the health hazards of flour dust.
Thank you, ancestors, you did a great job, but it is time to move on!
The figure presents the total global stock of electric vehicles in key regions, including both battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).
The strange thing is that most of the very first cars were electric.
In 1835, Thomas Davenport built the first electric vehicle in the USA. In 1884 Thomas Parker built the first electric production car in London that used high-capacity rechargeable batteries. In 1889, William Morrison introduced a very simple electric wagon to the USA. in 1898, Ferdinand Porsche, no less, created a vehicle that was powered by hub-mounted electric motors that drove the wheels.
Electric vehicles then disappeared for decades with the introduction and popularity of the inexpensive Model T Ford in 1908. Fossil-fuelled vehicles were lighter, less expensive, and easier to mass produce – as they still are today. Research and development of traditional engines was easier to justify than trying to develop better batteries and electric power sources.
This all changed in 1973 when British scientist, Stanley Wittingham, invented the, now ubiquitous, lithium-ion battery.
An EV drive train has 60% fewer components than the equivalent internal combustion engine and gearbox.
‘At 60 miles per hour, the loudest sound is the ticking of the clock’
The famous Ogilvy advertisement for Rolls Royce cars, appeared first in 1958. It became the longest running and most successful advertising campaign ever.
Sitting in today’s electric cars at any legal speed is a similar experience. It is even quieter because there are no ticking clocks!
The smooth drive and silence are what everyone first notices about driving in an electric car. There are no noisy engine parts, no clutch or grinding gears to change, or a jerk when an automatic gearbox changes gear. There is no exhaust noise – at any speed. Most electric cars have no hand brake or gear lever, and no instrument dials. Driving is simply putting your foot on the pedal (carefully – acceleration is rapid) and moving forward.
And then there is the internal charging system. The electric motor becomes a generator when coasting or going downhill. This also gives excellent engine braking. You do not need to use the footbrake most of the time. What is even better is watching your range increase as the motor recharges the battery going downhill!
What about the range?
Everyone asks this. It is odd because no-one asks that question about petrol or diesel vehicles. In any case, many of these now show range in preference to a fuel gauge. This is logical because the range of an electric vehicle is determined by the same factors as any other vehicle – speed, acceleration, load, hills, wind. If you drive a vehicle hard, you will use more fuel. Going uphill uses more fuel than going on the flat or downhill. A tail wind will benefit you; a head wind will cause you to use more fuel.
This is all logical and well-known.
As an example, my VW ID3, has an official range of 240 miles. By driving carefully, I have achieved a range of 300 miles without difficulty. On the other hand, driving at the legal speed limit on a motorway against a strong headwind, my effective range went down to 150 miles. Fossil fuel vehicles would show similar variations, but they are less noticeable.
The reason why many would-be EV drivers worry about range is because, so far, there are not as many charging points as there are fuel stations. Also, re-charging takes longer than refilling a fuel tank. This means the driver must plan more carefully and find options if, for example, a chosen charging point is occupied or out of order.
Very low running costs, almost no servicing charges, no road tax, no congestion charges, no air pollution and a ‘Rolls Royce’ driving experience – it sounds too good to be true. So, what are the snags?
There are a few.
Electric vehicles are more expensive to buy than comparable petrol or diesel vehicles. There are few cheap options, even second-hand. Electric vehicles will remain out of reach for many motorists for some time to come.
Unless you have your own parking space and access to household electricity, you may find it hard to keep your vehicle charged. Local charging stations are slowly being installed in city streets around the UK and other countries. However, there are not nearly enough yet for most of the people who park their car in the street, let alone in a car park nearby.
Electric vehicles operate with sophisticated software. Like all software, this sometimes has glitches, especially in newly developed cars. My VW ID3 had three major (free) software upgrades in the first four months. Each took a day to install.
Finally, drivers need to learn a different language and adapt their operating techniques. There are no fuel tanks but battery packs of varying capacities. Fuel consumption is not litres per kilometre but kilometres per kilowatt. The fuel gauge is a battery meter. Refilling (re-charging) needs a little more thought than simply putting a fuel pipe into a fuel tank at the local garage.
More people are buying electric vehicles than ever before. The rate of increase in most countries is very high. It is easy to see why. They are very inexpensive to run. They are excellent to drive. And facilities for them improve every week.
The blockages to further adoption include the price but also the nervousness that many people feel about change, learning new techniques and technology.
I shall write more in future about what I have learned, the mistakes I made, and how to avoid them. For now, take it from me, you will not regret going electric should you choose to do so!