About six weeks ago, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I visited Eldest Son (ES) and his partner in their new home in Edinburgh. We could have flown or travelled by train but wanted to take the opportunity to visit my Mum and Dad in Nottingham on the way, and decided to drive using our electric car (e-Car). We have used it several times to visit London but this trip to Edinburgh and back via Nottingham (and York) was by far the longest journey we have undertaken in the e-Car.
On the back of that journey I wrote an article for our local village Climate Action Network Newsletter on the experience of driving an e-Car. I thought it would be worth setting out the main points I made here in case any readers are thinking of helping to save the planet by getting an e-Car themselves.
E-Car technology is going to play a large part in the achievement of the climate change control targets set by governments across the world. Much has been written about the pressure this is going to place on extraction of the minerals required for current battery technology and, in turn, on the environments in which those minerals are found. The balance between managing global temperatures by reducing carbon emissions and preserving water supplies and biodiversity is a complex one. On balance, from what I have read, electric cars are better for the environment, in the round, than petrol, diesel or even hybrid cars. I’m not going to address that balance in this post but instead I focus on the practicalities of using an electric car in modern day Britain.
We bought an electric VW Golf two years ago. We sold my lovely but aging petrol Saab and then wrote off (eek!) a diesel Golf during a frantic trip to bring ES and Middle Son home for Christmas ahead of the Christmas coronavirus lockdown. We now have just a single e-Car.
We keep the e-Car up charged up at home and use it primarily for short journeys around our local district. Here, I should admit that my experience is primarily as a passenger – I don’t like driving, am not very good at it, and LSW takes the majority of the driving burden.
My conclusion as passenger and occasional driver is that, if you have off street parking that allows charging off the mains and only use a car for local journeys like the majority of ours, I recommend moving to an e-Car as soon as your existing car becomes aged.
However, using the car for longer journeys away from home is more of a challenge. I set out in the rest of this post, a personal view of some of those challenges (and the upsides) that mean moving to an all-electric car is not a trivial decision.
Ongoing cost. Fuel costs are between 4-5 times less. To charge up our car for an incremental 100 miles costs about £5. Charging at home enables maintenance of a range of 140-180 miles (for our car model and depending on the outside temperature) and seems to be a negligible cost.
Smooth driving. It’s a nice, comfortable, quiet car to drive. This seems to be a general characteristic of e-Cars regardless of size etc. However, having the air-con on does use battery power and has to be used judiciously on a very hot or very cold day on long journeys.
Gentle driving. The battery works optimally at less than top speed. To preserve battery range we tend to drive at about 60mph on motorways. That takes getting used to but is actually a pro because it’s relaxing provided you have the time and especially if the car has cruise control.
Charging time. The fast charge time at service stations of around 25-30 minutes is fine for a brief stop for the toilet and a coffee; frankly, it’s a welcome break. However, this can be longer if there is a (usually short) charger queue. You need to have and allow time for this. Increasingly, town car parks provide slow chargers to enable top ups while we are doing something else.
Capital cost. E-Cars are more expensive. The technology is advancing quickly so we went for a 3-year Personal Contract Purchase scheme. We can buy the car after 3 years if the technology and the battery are still decent. The relative cost of a new e-Car is gradually coming down and the second-hand market is developing.
Range anxiety. This is real while charging infrastructures are being expanded to match increasing demand and until that infrastructure is more reliable. The Zap Map App is excellent in showing which charging systems are where but they are not always available or working! Battery range varies by model, age and outside temperature.
Variable infrastructure. There are a lot of different charging systems and several different business models behind them. The best just require a credit card but some require membership. Some are easy to use but some are more difficult. Some are more reliable than others. Ultra-fast charges are the minority and there aren’t enough non-Tesla fast chargers yet.
Service Stations Charger Location. Ecotricity and Tesla (usually several unused chargers) provide fast chargers at most motorway service stations. However, even at the newest service stations (e.g. Rugby) where there are many chargers, they are located well away from the main building and never have rain cover. That can be very annoying when one sees petrol users under canopies in their petrol station and comfortably out of the rain!
Watch out for pedestrians! The quietness of e-Cars means that pedestrians often can’t hear them coming. Pedestrians tend to rely on sound when crossing the road so extra care and anticipation is required when driving near pavements and crossings.
One Final Positive
It feels like it’s doing good. Our investigations convinced us that, on balance, e-Cars are better for the environment than conventional/hybrid cars. Batteries will get better, chargers will get faster, new and less intrusive ways of charging will be introduced, and even better technologies that require fewer mineral resources will be developed. Ideally we would all buy and use fewer cars regardless of type since they all are heavy generators of carbon emissions and pollution (from tyre wear for example). Until then, LSW and I have reduced our day to day carbon emissions; a warm feeling.
In summary, journeys in an electric car take longer and need more planning. The charging infrastructure away from home (where off-street charging is a big asset) is barely keeping pace with demand and is still too variable in the UK, but it is developing rapidly. The driving experience is different but, in my view, better – provided you are not in a hurry (and I’m usually not now I’m retired!) On balance, LSW and I think that the move to an e-Car is a decision that has worked for us so far.
We hope to journey to Northern Ireland to visit Youngest Son and his partner later this week – coronavirus tests permitting. There is the Irish Sea in the way so, on this journey, we are flying and not using the e-Car. We will help to save the planet this time just by offsetting the carbon from the flight with a SolarAid donation.