Should we be making the switch when it comes to our vehicles? We take a look at the pros and cons of electric cars.
Since the Great Smog of 1952, which killed 4,000 Londoners in just five days, air pollution has been linked to a shortened lifespan. Over 60 years later and air pollution is still a valid health concern and with more cars on the road than ever, transport is now a major contributor to poor air quality in the UK. Unfortunately, the threat of climate change now hangs over the world and it has been argued that if we do not reduce our polluting emissions we risk the quantity and quality of water resources, crop yields and may even see an increase in climate-related hazards such as droughts and hurricanes, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.
So is it time to switch to electric? The future is foggy (or smoggy), at best when it comes to electric vehicles (EVs). What we can tell you is that the global investment in the EV industry is growing and that many governments are keen to make the switch. Earlier this year, India made a commitment to only produce EVs by 2030, cutting off the traditional internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) market completely. This is a deliberate, bellowing statement to the world, driven by India’s estimated 17 million pollution related deaths per annum, that India wants to be at the forefront of this technological revolution. Whether this ambitious target is achievable or not is almost irrelevant – it signals a push towards this form of transport from one of the world’s most rapidly developing countries.
In light of this announcement from the Indian Government, we investigate whether switching from an ICEV to an electric car will help protect the environment or save some of your hard earned cash.
The demand for electric vehicles has grown exponentially since 2005 when there were less than a thousand EVs on the road, to over 1 million globally in 2015. The EV argument is easy, isn’t it? EVs save us from using fossil fuels and therefore could be our saviours from the predicted environmental disasters of climate change. Well, unfortunately, it appears to be more complicated than that.
Battery electric vehicles are actually quite simple and the technology is not ground breaking, by any means. Electricity stored in a battery pack is used to power a motor which turns the wheels, just like a Meccano truck. Obviously the lack of combustion means that the vehicle does not produce tailpipe pollution directly and skipping the service station can save drivers thousands of pounds annually.
EVs do not burn fuel and consequentially electric engines are almost completely silent and, although it means less noise pollution and perhaps an increase, in the future, of houses built near/next to busy roads there are also safety concerns regarding silent engines. Deaf, partially deaf and those with young children have concerns that more EVs could lead to an increase in the number of pedestrian deaths and call for all EVs to produce artificial sounds.
Electric cars are also more effective in traffic than ICEVs due to regenerative breaking which uses the energy traditionally lost whilst breaking to recharge the battery, therefore lowering energy use. This also means that EVs may be particularly useful if you live in an urban area (be aware that regenerative breaking is not available in all EVs yet).
There is also continual innovation in this market to make EVs more attractive to people looking to switch. Qualcomm, the pioneers behind the 3G and 4G revolutions, have been testing a dynamic electric vehicle charging system which will allow cars to charge as they are in motion over the road surface itself. Metal coils, which are embedded within the asphalt, create an electromagnetic field as the cars ride over it and this transmits the energy to supply the car’s battery. This could mean that you would never need to stop to fill up, the ultimate nuisance, ever again. Although this sounds like a game changing solution, you have to wonder what the cost of replacing the nation’s roads would be and who would pay for this.
Interestingly, EVs seem to have fallen from grace in Denmark, one of the first countries to get behind the electric car revolution, where sales appear to be bucking the apparent rise in sales of EVs. In the first quarter sales plunged by 60.5 per cent in Denmark compared to a rise of 30 per cent in the European Union as a whole. This has been blamed on a gradual reduction in tax breaks from the Danish Government and signals that EVs may not be able to complete without subsidies. Indeed, the UK Government is offering grants of up to £8,000 for cars, vans, mopeds or motorbikes which use electric energy (all of the models we have featured are eligible for this grant). A list of the eligible vehicles can be found at gov.uk/plug-in-car-van-grants/eligibility.
However, there are valid concerns surrounding EVs. Firstly, the scarcity of charging stations means that you need to plan your journey in detail before you set off and with minimum charging times of 30 minutes (and an average of about 10 hours), you can’t just nip out on a whim. Thankfully, new technology developed from Purdue University, suggests that instantly rechargeable batteries could bring the charging time down to that of filling an ICEV with fuel, although the team have yet to build a prototype to test their theory. John Cushman, a Professor of Earth at the university, said: “The biggest challenge for industry is to extend the life of a battery’s charge and the infrastructure needed to actually charge the vehicle. The greatest hurdle for drivers is the time commitment to keeping their cars fully charged.”
The scarcity of charging stations reflects the number of EVs on our roads. According to SMMT, sales of EV contributed less than 2% to the total number of car sales in 2017 to date. It is a catch 22 – people are being put off EVs because there are not enough charging stations and vice versa.
But the most fiercely debated concern regarding EVs is whether they are actually better for the environment than ICEV. Virginia McConnel, an economist at the environmental research firm Resources for the Future, has said: “If you use coal-fired power plants to produce the electricity, then all-electrics don’t even look that much better than a traditional vehicle in terms of greenhouse gases.” The Devonshire Research Group concurred and concluded their 2016 report into Tesla by stating that the company creates pollutants through their use of electricity from the power grid, which creates greenhouse gas emissions.
The Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative have suggested that EVs need a minimum lifespan of 100,000km (62,000 miles) to be more environmentally friendly than ICEVs. Although this may sound like a ripe-age, electric motors last longer than most combustion engines and therefore EVs should have a longer shelf-life than ICEVs. The sticking point of this is the current trend where people are choosing to change their vehicles every two or three years as a result of manufacturer’s subsidised lease deals. Consumers would need to change their buying habits and keep their EV for longer before swapping it for a newer model, which is a cultural norm in Western society.
A further issue with EVs is that materials which are used in production, such as lithium and other rare metals, are mined and therefore the environmental impact of these practices needs to be taken into account. The batteries which you find in today’s EVs are the same lithium-ion batteries you’d find in a laptop. This means that they are light, last several years over hundreds of charges and can store large volumes of power for their weight. However, they are expensive and alternatives such as supercapacitors or nickel metal hydride batteries may provide a more cost-effective alternative. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency produced a report where they named batteries that use cathodes with nickel and cobalt, such as those commonly used in lithium-ion batteries, as having the highest potential impact on the environment including resource depletion, ecological toxicity and human health impacts.
There is no dispute that EVs have come a long way since their inception in 1832 when Thomas Davenport built an electric car with a range of between 9-19 miles; a distance that, as commutes increase, would not get the majority of Britain even close to their place of work. Nissan has said that its 2018 model of the popular Leaf EV will be capable of driving at least 200 miles per charge. This is impressive but the EV has a significant number of hurdles to overcome including their range, scarcity of charging stations and further minimising the environmental impact of their manufacture. Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based think tank said: “At this point there are plenty of electric cars to choose from, but they’re not convenient…. They’re really only useful as a second car.”
Oil-based fuels are not infinite; this is something we have known for a long time. There will be a time when the supply chain runs dry and it may be in decades or centuries but it will happen and when it does EVs are the best alternatives we have, at the moment, to ICEVs. The question isn’t if we are going to switch to EVs, it’s when.
An overview of three EVs
All EVs are automatic (sourced from text)
The Leaf is one of the world’s best-selling EVs and priced from just £16,680 we can see why. Marketed as a family car and available in 5 different colours this zero-emission car has a maximum range of 124-155, depending on which model you buy. Regenerative breaking and eco mode helps you to achieve the best possible range, which you can monitor in the car, on your smartphone or computer. On Revoo, an independent and impartial website, the Nissan Leaf has an overall score of 8.6 from its driver, scoring well for ‘fun to drive’ and ‘easy to use’. Nissan claims that its 2018 model will be capable of driving at least 200 miles per charge, so if the Leaf appeals to you, it may be worth waiting for the new model.
If you don’t want your car to look like an EV, the e-golf might just be your cup of tea. Nearly identical to the iconic Golf, the e-Golf has been modified to include a near silent electric motor. Although not available, at the time of print, this may be one to keep your eye on. With a maximum range of 186 miles it may out-range the Leaf, and has buckets more style, but with prices from £31,215 it is almost double the price. Sure, it has adaptive cruise control, Traffic Jam Assist and Park Assist systems. The public may have lost confidence in Volkswagen after the dieselgate scandal, but with plans to roll out a range of new EVs over the next few years, Volkswagen mean business. Christian Senger, head of the automaker’s electric car efforts, told
Bloomberg: “We’re using the need to step from combustion engine to electric cars to reinvent VW brand.”
Tesla S P100D
Image credit: 2017 Tesla Model S P100D. (Photo By, Brian Brantley/Brian Brantley Media, ©2017)
Now this is not really even in the same league as the Nissan Leaf or the e-Golf, and it seems cruel to write about them in the same article. But, in the interest of car enthusiasts everywhere, we had to include this top-of-the-range beast. With 0-60 acceleration in 2.5 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph this is a ludicrously fun car. At £131,800 it is nearly eight times the price of the Nissan Leaf but, I suspect, people don’t buy a Tesla S P100D for its value for money. With an 8 year battery and drive unit warranty, keyless entry, GPS, collision avoidance technology, and personalisation, Tesla’s Model S an indulgent treat. Is it worth saying that Tesla also manufactures the Model X, which is also relatively costly, and the Model 3, which is their most affordable car and will be ready for delivery in the middle of 2018, at the earliest.
NOTE: Tesla Models X and S both have options for a vegan model which contains no leather in the seats or steering wheel