Are Electric Cars Ready for the Masses?

I have been a staunch supporter and promoter of electric vehicles (EVs) over the past year. I have often tried to persuade people that 80 miles range is perfectly adequate for most trips and most days for most people but whilst I know that this is true even I feel that we need more range. We don’t need a car for 80% of our journeys, we need a car for all our journeys and until EVs can deliver that then they will always be open to legitimate criticism. I have done over 10,000 miles in the past year on electricity. That is the vast majority of my trips but there have been many days when I have had to use the diesel car instead because either the EV did not have the range or there was no charging station at which I could fast charge to get me home.

When I bought the car I knew it would easily satisfy most of my journeys and I thought that would be enough. Perhaps it should be enough! After all, if I can drive an EV for all my trips every day for 28 days in the months and only need a diesel car for the other 2 days when the EV won’t do it, surely that is a good thing right? I will have saved most of my fuel costs and saved a huge amount of CO2 in the process (yes, even charging using grid electricity generated by coal stations it is still better than most diesel or petrol cars) so surely that alone should adequately justify owning an EV? I thought it would but not being able to do long trips easily is becoming frustrating and it is taking much of the shine off my EV ownership. I accept that this is not a reasonable point of view but feelings are often unreasonable and it is the feeling of having an EV and not being able to use it that is so frustrating.

I also thought that it was just a matter of getting fast charging infrastructure in place to make my Leaf suitable for long trips. I now think I was wrong. More fast chargers would make more long trips possible but they will still be inconvenient with a range of just 80 miles. In fact, no matter how many fast chargers there are if you have to stop every 75 miles for 15 – 30 minutes is never going to work as a viable means of long distance travel by car for most people. Not only is it hugely inconvenient but it would mean that EVs would be spending almost halve their time on a trip charging. There would never be enough charging stations to allow that en-mass. Even with 5 minute charging it still wouldn’t work. Imaging doing a long trip of say, 400 miles, easily achievable with 2 drivers, and being asked to stop every 75 miles or so for 30 minutes… people just wouldn’t do it.

So my first main conclusion, after my year of driving an EV, is that they need more range regardless of what the statistics say. What range is going to work? I think that is yet to be seen but the current range of about 80 miles is way too low. There have been EVs on the road with a realistic range of over 200 miles. The Tesla Roadster can do that and with a suitable fast charge network throughout the UK I think that might be a good base figure. With a realistic range of 200 miles it means that the car can be driven for 3-4 hours between stops and that then falls nicely in with natural meal/comfort break intervals.

Even 200 miles range will not work without there being an adequate fast charge network. It must be fast charging. A normal meal stop is under an hour and so the charging point must be able to deliver power at a sufficiently fast rate to fully charge a 200 mile EV in under an hour and that means at least 50KW. Anything under that will not be fast enough to make recharging just part of the journey as refuelling a diesel car is now. Not only will we need fast chargers at all motorway services and many other locations besides (existing petrol stations are the obvious place for them) but we need more than one per location. How would you feel if when you turned up at your local filling station there was only one diesel pump and the car currently on it would be there for an hour! OK, I hear you all shouting that there are not enough EVs out there right now to justify more but isn’t that the problem here? Without lots of charge stations, that have several fast charge points, then ultimately we cannot say that EVs are ready for the masses.

So then, my second conclusion is that it it going to take decades, not years, before there is a sufficiently good fast charging infrastructure making EVs a viable and realistic alternative for the masses. They are a realistic alternative for a very small minority right now and current owners proves that but without EVs with a realistic range of 200+ miles and a fast charge infrastructure that can support several cars charging at the same time EVs will always be minority interest vehicles. They are ideal for short trips and commuting but until longer trips are easy and simple they will struggle to find widespread appeal.

Where then does this leave slow charging? Is slow charging at all important in the picture of whether EVsEVs are viewed by the masses. Charging at 22KW or less adds miles so slowly that it cannot help with making those longer trips and so as far as persuading people that an EV will work for them this slow charging will not have any impact at all.

I must say at this point that I am not saying that slow charging is not important. As I have said, slow charging is important and it will be an essential part of the mix at locations where cars are parked overnight or for long periods. Neither am I trying to belittle those currently involved in the installation of slow charging. I support their efforts. However, I do not believe that slow charging will have much bearing on Mr & Mrs Average and whether they would or would not consider buying an EV as their only family car. Increased range and an adequate fast charging infrastructure will.

So having had a year of ownership would I buy an EV now for the first time? I would like to say yes. The year has been very successful and I have thoroughly enjoyed owning my Nissan Leaf. It serves us well for the vast majority of our trips. However, what is missing is the ability to use it easily for longer trips without it turning into a major logistical challenge and without it requiring several days where one day should be enough. To be fair, the Leaf was never sold to me as a car suitable for longer trips but I was expecting things to improve significantly more quickly than it is. I was expecting longer trips to become easier as fast charging was installed but I now think that this was an unreasonable hope. No amount of fast charging infrastructure will ever make stopping every 75 miles a viable way to travel long distances for most of us. We need cars with a 200+ mile realistic range and the fast charging infrastructure to support them and so my conclusion is no… if I were to be considering an EV now I probably would not buy one until those two conditions were met.

When can we expect to see affordable 200+ mile EVs and a viable fast charging infrastructure installed? I don’t know but it is not any time soon. There is talk of affordable cars with 300 mile range (that would be a realistic range of about 250 miles) but they are probably many years away still. The fast charging infrastructure is almost non-existent right now and although they are being installed in some locations their locations often do not make them viable for use on long trips. Also, they seem to be installed singly, with just one at each location and whilst that is fine right now with the low numbers of EVs it won’t work once EVs start to become popular. There is also the serious issue of what happen if a fast charger station fails… if there is not a second once at the same location it might leave the EV stranded.

My opinions might be controversial amongst many current EV owners as it doesn’t paint the rosy picture they would like to see drawn but I genuinely believe that there is a huge way to go before EVs can be realistically portrayed as being ready for the masses.

Then there is the issue of price. The cost of petrol and diesel might start to influence people more and more and as the petrol prices rise so people are going to be prepared to consider EVs more seriously. Just what price will be needed to jump start EV ownership is impossible to say but I guess it will be considerable more than today’s £1.50 per litre. EV prices will have to come down significantly but this is already happening and I would expect this trend to continue. I expect to see prices of normal family electric cars approach those of diesel cars within just a few years as the technology evolves and matures. Price will be important but unless the issues of range and charging infrastructure are resolved then lower prices alone will not be enough.

In summary then, EVs are great for shorter trips or commuting and as a 2nd car, or if you can live with that as your only car, then great, get an EV now. But if you want to make long trips in it then most people will be disappointed right now. We need greater range (200+ realistic miles) and a proper fast charge network before they will be suitable for long trips on a regular and routine basis and right now it is looking like that will be years away. If you want to do long trips and don’t have access to a 2nd car or are not happy renting then perhaps a hybrid such as the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight might be more suitable. If I were buying today these are the cars I would be considering… not the Nissan Leaf.

3 thoughts on “Are Electric Cars Ready for the Masses?”

  1. You got it right when you said the Leaf was never intended to be a long-range vehicle. Your range complaints are valid, but I suggest a bit, as you said, irrational. I own a leaf, and am incredibly happy with it. I bought it as a commuter/shopper only, and that is the way I use it, which yields smiles every time I get into the car. You could as easily complain thatt your leaf is inadequate for hauling lumber or for taking your kayak to the shore. Those would be true statements, and valid complaints, if totally irrelevant. As a commuter, the Leaf is unparalleled. I love passing right by the sea of cars waiting in line at Costco for gasoline on Saturday. I even enjoy the frequent parking lot conversations where people are amazed at the quiet of the car, or even that it exists. "An ELECTRIC car? How cool?!?"
    You are probably right about EVSE infrastructure – it is many years away and only marginally helpful at that. You have to be calculating and disciplined to make en EV work, but I am both of those things. I also have a truck for gathering lumber and furnniture, and for those longer trips. As a side note: I don't think EV's are the future. At least, not in the US. I believe natural gas will replace gasoline as the primciple fuel in the United States. We have a ton of the stuff, and it can be made to work in a conventional ICE car with ranges similar to what people think they need.

  2. I guess an interesting side point to this would be what would one consider to be a 'long trip'? I can easily travel the EPA 73 miles in my Leaf, even in winter – I would class that a 'long trip'.

    But maybe not everyone thinks like me. Maybe people see 'long trips' as 150 miles? Which would be the EPA 73 miles twice (ish). That is doable with one fast charge.

    Anything longer than 150 miles and I would be looking at a different form of transport anyway. Train being my first choice.

  3. Hi Mark, You make a valid point… just what is a long trip in this context?

    I class a "long trip" as any trip that is beyond the current range of the EV, about 80 miles in the Leaf I suppose. But I can see that others will disagree with that interpretation and in that way I guess that we could all have our own and differing views.

    Another way to look at it is to consider a round trip. if that cannot be done on a single charge then perhaps that could be considered a "long trip" in the context of EVs? Interesting thoughts…

    As for different form of transport over 150 miles… that only really works if there is only one person travelling. As soon as you start to look at the economics of train travel with a family it gets very expensive very quickly!

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