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The pure electric car market is growing, but cost, battery life and charging points can put people off. Here, one wannabe electric car owner searches for answers to key questions.
After buying my car 15 years ago and accidentally scraping paint from its nose on a multi-storey car park pillar, reversing it into the corner of my house and then driving over a small wall in my garden, it became affectionately know as “Scratch”.
On our muddy adventures over the years to my many ultra-marathons and mountain bike trips “he” has become a trusty companion allowing me great freedom to access even the remotest places in Scotland.
Sadly though, his backdoor now rattles and disconcerting creaking noises have led me for many years to approach every trip as if it is his last.
The thing is, I don’t want my next car to be a petrol one. So I’ve been flirting with the idea of buying an electric vehicle, or as the cool people say, an EV.
The test drive
I desperately want to do more for the environment, to fix our planet, but is an EV a reality for me with the places I want to go to, or is it just too soon to take this carbon-free step into the unknown?
To find out more I visited Barry Carruthers, head of innovation, sustainability and quality at Scottish Power to have a test drive in one of their fleet of Nissan Leaf cars.
From his office in Glasgow he drove us 20 miles to Scottish Power’s Whitelee Wind Farm, which produces much of the green electricity for the car. Then I took the wheel.
It was an automatic, much to my horror as I’ve only driven manual cars, but surprisingly within no time I was nipping about with ease – a relief as I’ve now learned all EVs are automatic.
It had surprisingly good acceleration too, for overtaking on the motorway, not the Driving Miss Daisy ride I had thought it would be.
- Did you know? At present, the UK has a network of more than 24,000 public charging connectors in nearly 9,000 locations, according to figures from the Department for Transport.
“Don’t you feel smug?”, Barry asked, and then it hit me I was finally driving guilt-free for the first time in my life. I wasn’t polluting the world with carbon fumes and it felt great.
“Yes”, I said and at that moment I didn’t want to wait another fume-filled minute, it was time to get rid of “Scratch” and buy an electric car.
Reality check one – cost
However, to purchase one new would be between £31,500 and £39,500, which is a hefty financial undertaking even with the UK government’s £3,500 grant and the Scottish government’s interest free loan of up to £35,000 over six years.
“You can buy a second-hand one though for about £7,000,” said Barry who has owned a used Renault Zoe for the past two years.
But is there any hope the new car cost will come down soon?
Analysis by environmental lobby group, European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E), suggests the number of electric car models available to consumers in Europe could triple by 2021.
If that does happen then there will be a bigger market, more competition and possibly a better deal for customers. But my problem is “Scratch” hasn’t got much life left.
Reality check two – battery life
My test-drive Nissan Leaf had 155 miles on the clock when we set off, but it was a brand new model with just a few road miles.
But how good is the battery in a used electric, do they act like a mobile phone battery when it gets old?
Barry’s answer was: “When I thought that perhaps the battery range [in his EV] was reducing, a software upgrade from the manufacturer helped increase the range.”
That was exciting to hear as this has been one of my biggest worries.
Recent research suggested only one in four people would consider buying a fully electric car in the next five years. And range, that’s the distance the electric car travels between charges, was one of the most limiting factors.
Reality check three – charging points
Another worry of mine was finding charging points. Were there enough around the country?
I discovered that there are more than 1,000 charging points now across Scotland including rapid charging points, charging cars within 25-40 minutes.
The Scottish government says the average distance between any given location to the nearest public charging point is just 2.78 miles.
Barry showed me the electric car’s in-built sat nav to find us a charging point only a few miles away and how easy it was to use.
He had a special card, costing a one-off £20, which he used it to activate the charge point.
The lead was then plugged from car to charger and the free fill-up began. Yes, free fuel – I was getting more interested by the second.
I thought it wouldn’t be good for the car’s battery to charge before it was fully discharged but Barry disagreed.
He also said there were now many cinemas and supermarkets with charging points so I could top up while I was shopping or watching a film.
In an urban environment, the charging picture looks positive. Another positive is there is no car tax. Also I checked out that I could get an electric car MOT done at my local garage.
But it does look like any big problems with the battery – the most important part of an electric car – would have to be tackled by the dealership.
- Did you know? A combustion engine car has more than 1,000 moving parts while a pure electric vehicle has about 200.
Most electric cars have warranties on the battery of about seven or eight years.
They are made up of several modules which can be replaced if the battery, for example, stops charging past 70% capacity. However, the battery is too expensive to be replaced entirely.
Access to charging points while out and about is one thing, but charging up at home is what I need.
Installing a charging point at my house, where I am fortunate to have a driveway, would cost in the region of £1,500.
That’s a big outlay, but I could get grants that bring the price down to a few hundred pounds.
Will a breakdown company come out to fix my EV?
After early research and my test drive, I was turning into an “electric car evangelist”, I thought.
I had to be more hard headed so I decided to write down exactly what I needed a car for, including how practical it was to get to remote races and to Glenshee in the winter for skiing.
At this point I remembered Barry telling me an EV loses about 25% battery life in freezing cold weather, which would not be good.
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Then I got thinking about what happens if I break down. So I called the AA and a spokesman told me they did attend EVs and all their engineers were trained to work on electric and hybrid cars. I was happy again.
The motoring breakdown organisation also said it was developing and trialling an alternative fuels vehicle capable of providing a top-up charge for an electric vehicle or a hydrogen top-up for a fuel cell vehicle. They could also tow EVs to the nearest charging point.
I was still in a bit of a quandary so I decided to call The Scotsman’s motoring correspondent, Matt Allan, for advice.
He said: “For some an EV is perfectly feasible and they can charge their car overnight at their home. For others between the range and infrastructure they might find it to be a stumbling block.
“I wouldn’t discount an EV for my next car as it would serve my commuting needs, but it’s when we want to drive for example to my mother-in laws that it suddenly becomes very limiting.”
Matt added: “You can charge them in an ordinary three-point pin socket but it would take a very long time so again that maybe isn’t feasible.”
Is there a portable charger I could carry in the boot of my car?
Matt said: “There isn’t, I’m afraid, as it would be too heavy.”
Do I go for it or not?
I decided to ask a friend why she had sold an electric car only three years after she had bought it in 2014.
She said she gave it up because it just wasn’t feasible.
One, she didn’t enjoy sitting in dark remote car parks waiting for her car to charge.
Two, the 150-mile range would change on a daily basis, depending on how she drove, so she couldn’t be sure of relying on the mileage promised.
And three, when she moved to a flat it wasn’t practical to roll leads out of a window across the pavement to her car.
- Did you know? There are 31.5 million cars on the road in Britain, according to the DVLA – and 31 million of them are still petrol or diesel powered.
Like all wannabe electric car owners, for me cost and battery life are key. I’ve concluded that an EV hitting a capacity in the region of 300 miles will be the one I go for.
Car manufacturers say they are getting there in terms of range, thanks to the larger 64 kilowatt battery. And a promise of more miles for your charge has created growing waiting lists for next-generation EVs.
Take, for example, Hyundai – they told me that since August last year, they had sold 1,500 of their Kona electric and because of the growing demand had a waiting list of 4,000 plus.
A spokeswoman at the company said that although the car itself was made by them in South Korea the battery was sourced from elsewhere.
She thought that if they started making the batteries themselves then they could more easily fulfil demand for their EVs.
While I won’t be an electric car pioneer, I want to be an early adopter. But when?
Well, for now I’ll put my name on the list for one of those bigger battery cars and continue believing I can join the road to an emissions-free future, sooner rather than later.
And while I wait, I’m hoping “Scratch” will keep on going.