Fully charged debate

 

Will electric cars ever take the place of the combustion engine? It seems the public is still to be convinced.

Despite petrol prices hitting all-time high records, and the threat of a tanker drivers’ strike turning the nation’s forecourts into battlegrounds, our attachment and reliance upon petrol powered cars has never been greater. With 30 million vehicles on the roads, it seems the personal freedom that they bring is ingrained into the fabric of our personal and business lives – and this love affair with the car is unlikely to change.

 

 

But as fossil fuel supplies dwindle, and with a quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions coming from petrol and diesel road vehicles; a fact very much on the radar of government courtesy of the Climate Change Act 2008; it could be argued that there has never been a better time to make the case for electric cars as the way forward in terms of easing running costs and reducing the impact of motor car emissions.

While on the surface the benefits of electric vehicles appear to make them a favoured transport mode of the future, as with most complex scenarios there are a number of pros and cons which require a balanced assessment. It will then be up to the public and business communities alike to assess the arguments for and against the merits of electric cars versus the combustion engine. Worldwide it is estimated that about 50,000 electric vehicles were sold in 2011. About 1,000 of this number were purchased in the UK, accounting for just 0.06% of annual new sales. Indeed, back in 2010, the Committee on Climate Change predicted UK yearly sales of about 11,000 electric sales by now – a forecast that is way short of the current reality. And remember this is set against a background of the £5,000 car grant introduced by the government early in 2011 to try to stimulate sales.

So is the public slow to catch on? And, if so, why is this? Perhaps a quick summary of some of perceived advantages and disadvantages to the case for electric vehicles will shed some light on consumer and business behaviour.

Advantages

  • Electric cars produce zero CO2 emissions when running and they do not emit nitrous oxide or other particles – supporting the green agenda at a time when regular fossilfuelled road transportation is widely cited as being responsible for around 20% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It is acknowledged that to fully charge the battery to power an electric car will cost the owner no more than the price of a pint of milk.
  • Great efforts are being made by electric vehicle manufacturers to ensure that not only are the cars highly recyclable, but they are often made from recycled materials.
  • Estimates indicate that while a conventional combustion engine will lose as much as 80% of the energy produced when the oil is burned through heat loss, the energy loss figure falls dramatically to just 10 or 20% for electric vehicles.
  • Due to substantial noise reduction associated with electric cars, some manufacturers in Japan are having to introduce artificial noises to ensure, for example, that people with visual impairment can hear the vehicles for safety reasons.
  • The real energy saving potential of the electric vehicle will be fully realised when powering an electric car can be undertaken from a renewable power generation source. At this point the electric vehicle can truly boast of a ‘zero emission’ status.
  • Currently the cost bonus to electric car owners in terms of running costs can include no congestion charge in London, free or discounted parking in a number of places, no road tax and free charging bays in selected cities around the UK

Disadvantages

These fall into two primary areas. Firstly, how people feel about the cars themselves, running them, their performance and how they look. Secondly, the wider implications of the infrastructure required to support an electric car industry in the UK and where users can charge and service their vehicles.

  • The upfront cost of a vehicle at around £25,000 is expensive in comparison to conventional car choices.
  • The average electric car available in the UK will comfortably reach speeds of 50-55mph. This is lower than a small 1.1L petrol car.
  • The distance range of electric vehicles is determined by a number of factors such as weight, battery pack voltage, type and driving conditions. However, there are limitations on how far a vehicle can go on one charge. This will range from 50 up to about 100 miles depending on the electric car type.
  • While most cars can achieve about 70-80% charge capacity within two hours, a full recharge can take up to seven or eight hours.
  • The infrastructure issue for charging and servicing is inherently linked to the success (or not) of electric vehicles. Currently, these support functions are concentrated within cities and need to be more readily available to enable drivers to mirror long journeys taken in conventional cars. With batteries requiring time to recharge, schemes such as ‘Stop and Swop’ – exchanging a rundown battery for a fully charged one (like refilling a petrol tank) will requires major investment and government support.
  • Batteries are not cheap and will require replacement after a number of recharges.

 

There are notably also several dual-fuel cars (often called hybrid cars) on the market, which typically combine an internal combustion engine (petrol or diesel fuelled) with electric battery power or some other fuel. These vehicles, whilst offering the security of familiar petrol driven power, can switch between power sources – such as a petrol motor and electric battery – in order to maximise performance and efficiency. However, the challenges for these vehicles are those of electric cars, as the batteries also require charging etc. If a different source of dual fuel is used (such as gas), availability can also be an issue.

According to Dr Clive Roberts, senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, the future for electric cars is one of great possibility. He comments that “whilst the advantages of low emissions and cost are attractive, the reality is that until a significant development in the nationwide support infrastructure required for electric vehicles takes place, the chances of electric car sales outstripping combustion engines remains remote”. “However, while the majority of people may be taking a back seat on the issue for now, major expansion plans to increase charging points across the region could help to reverse the trend”.

Plugged-In Midlands (PIM) combines the roll-out of electric vehicle infrastructure with the development of regional capabilities associated with the electrification of road transport. It is one of eight national ‘Plugged-In Places’ projects. Over the next two years, the project will develop a regional network of more than 500 electric vehicle charging points across both the East and West Midlands that will be fully compatible with the Charging Points being installed across the country.

 

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