Electric Cars – tomorrow’s technology…

I’m about to buy a new car; and with a bit of luck it’ll be the last oil-burning vehicle I ever own…  But what it won’t be is an all electric car.

Toyota Prius

Before I go on, a few disclaimers.  Firstly I’m not any kind of tree-hugging hippie – in fact I am what might be described as a technophile: or (less charitably – but perhaps more accurately) as a geek…  That said, I am concerned about the environment; and I do think that we probably oughtn’t to go polluting the place (whether man-made climate change is real or not 1).

More importantly than that – I think the fact that it’s now economical to go to quite such extreme lengths to extract oil, shows that (fossil) oil is approaching the end of it’s 100-year reign as the dominant fuel.  Alternative power sources will be needed for personal vehicles (I just cannot subscribe to the suggestion that the solution is to curtail individuals freedom for self-transportation in motor vehicles); and of the alternatives electric vehicles appear (to me) to be the most logical choice.

So given all of this – why am I not going to be signing up to the order book for the new Nissan Leaf tomorrow?

It certainly appears to be a great little car.  There’s a whole load of really clever technology in there – which really appeals to my inner geek; but sadly as great as it is, it’s just too soon (for me) to go all-electric.

The Leaf is meant to be able to do about 100-miles on a full-charge.  That’s quite a long way, and it’s certainly true that the majority of my driving is on journeys of less than 100-miles – but they’re not all less than 100-miles.  This is the first problem for me.  I don’t have room for more than one car (and, let’s be honest, nor can I afford to buy more than one car) : so I need a car that can take me as far as I need to go.

The second problem is the one that really prevents me buying an electric car today.

Simply put, I have nowhere to charge one.  I live in a village in a small house without a garage, or a driveway.  Unless I run an extension cord out of the kitchen window, and across the pavement – there’s no way that I could get electricity to my car.   Worse is that fact that (today) there are only a handful of public-use electric vehicle charging points: and most of these appear to be in central London.

Given the state of the art today – I have to have a petrol car; an all-electic vehicle (EV) just isn’t an option.

I’ve decided to buy a petrol-electic hybrid car: specifically a Toyota Prius.  This is another great car – with some very clever engineering.  It appeals to me both on the level of being a very cool piece of technology, and because of it’s environmental considerations.  And, with petrol prices being what they are – having a car that can do 60-70 MPG is quite appealing!

The Prius for me, will be the half-way house – between traditional fossil oil based motoring, and the brave new world of the all-electric future.  I have no doubt that in seven or eight years time – when it’s time for me to replace it with a new car, that things will be different.

Battery technology has advanced tremendously in the last ten years – so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to project that continuing.  Even if the pace of advance slows, it seems plausible (if not likely) that by 2018 the range of a typical electric car could be of the order of 200-miles.

But even if it doesn’t change, one thing that I can be certain will – is the availability of places to recharge such a vehicle.  Today I fairly often (monthly?) drive a round-trip of about 140-150 miles in a single day: too far for today’s EVs.  But that’s not one single continuous journey.  I drive somewhere – go and do whatever it was that I need to do there – and then drive home.  It’s two journeys – each comfortably less than 100-miles. So if I could recharge my car in between the two trips – even a 2010 EV would do the job for probably 95% (or more) of my driving needs.

Hopefully with the publicity surrounding  (and apparently high interest in) in the Leaf, local authorities, companies, and housing developers will start to think about the availability of electric vehicle charging stations.  After all, if they sell you the electricity at cost plus a little profit margin, when EVs take off – they’ll be poised to make money (and if there’s one thing that will change the world faster than anything else, it’s the prospect of someone being able to make money by doing it!)

Add in technologies like wireless inductive charging (which would be very convenient for the consumer), fast-charging, or even battery-swapping stations; and you suddenly find that the calculus about EV ownership has changed significantly.

Also as the market expands the prices will (by simply application of economic theory) come down – and despite somewhat sensationalist news headlines to the contrary, the minute price per mile-traveled for electric cars will start to encourage more and more people over to EVs.

I think it’ll be a long time before EVs have the majority market share – that won’t happen overnight: and we may be twenty or thirty-years away from seeing that; but I don’t think it’d be crazy to suggest that 10-15% of all cars sold by 2020 might be EVs…

For now however, I’ll have to make do with a Prius (and to be fair, it is a great car); but I am confident that this really will be the last petrol-driven car I ever buy: at least, I hope so…

1 For the record, I think the evidence speaks for itself…