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Electric cars: here to stay?

11 December 2015

By Dr. Dimitrios Xenias 

The first cars in the world were electric. The 1820s and 1830s saw much experimentation and innovation on motors, batteries and platforms until the first working prototypes appeared in the 1840s. Internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles arrived many years later, and even at the turn of last century they only represented 22% of the US automobile market, with 38% for electric and 40% for steam vehicles. The domination of internal combustion vehicles started in the 1920s; however, pockets of electric vehicle (EV) resistance remained: from fleets of golf cars to various prototypes emerging regularly in different countries, electric vehicles survived and even had brief moments of hope particularly during energy crises.

However, the last two decades are probably the only period when there is a sustained interest from the car industry to revive and mass produce electric cars. Vehicle choice starts becoming appealing with most major manufacturers offering at least one fully electric model; prices have dropped somewhat; and numbers of circulating cars show significant increase across many countries. Fleets, in particular, are hotspots for the introduction of EVs and the EU funds projects that monitor fleet performance and evolution. While there is a lot of room for improvement, it seems that in some cases EVs are good enough to provide viable mobility solutions.

With this in mind, let us have a look at things that electric vehicles can and cannot do at present:

EVs can improve local air quality. From CO2 to NOx, the recent Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal means that affected models are responsible for an additional 1 million tonnes of NOx – gases linked to several thousand premature deaths in the UK alone. Many analysts fear that Volkswagen is just the tip of the iceberg. Undoubtedly, this would simply not be possible with an electric car fleet, and no tailpipe emissions whatsoever.

EVs cannot clean up emissions from power plants. This is the government’s job, which lately has thrown itself into a race to prove how not to meet any emission cut targets: from cancelling the Carbon Capture and Storage R&D competition, to cutting green energy subsidies, to subsidising fossil fuels, Mr. Cameron seems determined to return the UK to Victorian environmental standards. He might want to bring back steam locomotives while he is at it. I really wonder how the UK delegation can face their COP21 colleagues in Paris.

EVs can reduce traffic noise levels – in fact they are almost silent. Inside the car, this makes for a much more enjoyable and tireless trip. Outside the car this reduces overall street noise and sensory load. Noise pollution, like air pollution, is a health risk for all and the less of it we have, the better.

EVs can change users’ attitudes. Recent findings from six countries show that users’ attitudes to EVs improved after driving the cars, and the majority would like to drive them again. Users also like their road performance and environmental credentials, although the latter is not the main reason drivers would choose an EV over an ICE. There are some concerns about vehicle choice and purpose of trip – but these can be addressed by offering several vehicle types as part of a shared car fleet.

EVs cannot compete with ICE cars on purchasing price. Currently, many EV models cost almost double their ICE equivalent to buy. The car industry tell us that this will change once EVs become the norm. In fairness, ICEs have enjoyed a century of enormous investment in research and development to reach this stage, and EVs seem to be covering the lost ground much faster.

ICEs cannot compete with EVs on running costs. Running costs is another matter altogether, and for a few years governments have been supporting tax cuts, congestion change exemptions, free parking and similar incentives – not to mention that a ‘full tank’ (battery) for an EV costs around a couple of pounds. This is despite global and relentless government support of fossil fuels for several decades; and it is worth a thought. Maintenance requirements are also much lower than for ICE cars as electric motors have much fewer moving parts. In the long run, it pays to own an EV.

In many cases, EVs may be here to stay, after all. Particularly when they are fleet-owned, and achieve high mileage (over 9,000 miles/year according to some sources). That said, we still have some way to go until EVs can be considered a viable mainstream alternative. Largely, purchasing and infrastructure depends on government support. Hydrogen vehicles are around the corner and promise longer range. Governments worry about revenues lost from supporting too many zero emission cars, and as the Cameron cabinet recently showed, they will not hesitate to pull the plug on successful green technologies (as they did with green energy subsidies). For now, the automotive world is holding their breath, and trying to keep their nose above the water. And while EVs are still around, when you next have the chance to drive one, give it a go. You may be surprised.