Why Electric Cars Are Not Yet Ready For Market

For months now, ever since I got my Nissan Leaf, I have been shouting the benefits of electric cars. I have gone out of my way to promote them, I have argued their advantages on Facebook and Twitter, I have driven my car the length and breadth of England (literally!) to show that they are not the expensive waste of money that the likes of Top Gear and others say they are.

So this post will come as a complete shock to anyone who has been following me on this journey because this post marks an attack of reality and a significant shift in my position.

Now I need to make something quite clear before I start… I am still a huge supporter of electric cars and I will not be selling my one any time soon. But what has happened is that I have been spouting a kind of EV mantra that EV owners get indoctrinated in when they buy one of these cars.

Who does the indoctrination? Well, no single individual or group. Instead, it is the whole pro-EV brigade… those that already have an EVs and those selling them primarily. You get wrapped up in the enthusiasm of this new technology and before you know it you are teaching the “mantra” to budding EV owners yourself.

People don’t buy an electric car right now unless they are highly motivated to do so. Owning an electric car this early in their life-cycle is a challenge and to do so means you must really want it. This means that EV owners come pre-loaded with answers to all the common questions: How far will it go? How long to charge? Where can you charge it? How much do the batteries cost to replace? How long do they last? As owners we proudly regurgitate the answers when confronted with these questions on a daily basis and to be an EV owner automatically means the logic of buying one will be constantly challenged everywhere you go.

Until now I too have chanted this mantra whenever people challenge why.

However, I am now slowly coming to my senses.

To me, electric cars are the future of road transport. Hydrogen has been 10 years away for the past 30 years an is still 10 years away strongly belie. I believe that hydrogen may eventually have a place in the future transport mix but not likely for personal transport. Electric is the future in my opinion and I am strongly behind that. But the answers that we are encouraged to give to those common questions about electric car ownership do not tell the whole story and I want to put some of that right here.

Electric cars of today have a range of less than 100 miles. There are exceptions: the Tesla Roadster has a range of over 200 miles but at about £100k it isn’t realistic to use that as a benchmark. In fact, if you believe Nissan and talk to most Nissan Leaf owners you will generally get the answer that the Nissan Leaf has a range of 100 miles. This is highly misleading without further explanation.

May be the Leaf can do 100 miles but only in the right conditions. It would need flat terrain, warm weather, speed kept to around 45, very careful “eco” driving”, no load inside the car. In fact, unless you live somewhere like California, where people are regularly getting 100 miles, to claim it does 100 miles here in the UK is quite wrong. In the UK a more typical range is 80-85 miles and even then only in the best of conditions. Drive it on hilly country lanes or on motorways at motorway speeds and that drops significantly further. Do it in cold weather and it drops further still.

Is this a problem? Well, the car is marketed as a local runaround so perhaps none of this actually matters much but you see my point? When asked the range of my Nissan Leaf I have been saying “about 100 miles”. This is what Nissan say. I now feel a bit of a fraud saying 100 miles. Instead, a more realistic and honest figure is 75 miles and that is what I will say to people from now on.

When looking at EV range you would do well to take 75% of the quoted figure as being more realistic.

They Are Expensive
When I bought my Nissan Leaf it was not to save money. I bought my EV because I wanted to be part of the future today. But somehow I have been brainwashed into trying to convince people that EVs are cost effective and so justifies the high purchase price. When asked about the cost I have always tried to get people to recognise that although the purchase price is high the running costs are so low that after a few years the extra cost is recovered.

That is highly misleading. Electric vehicles are expensive and that is a fact. No matter how much we try to balance that against the low running costs it is the purchase price that determines what cars people can buy, not the running costs. It is no good an EV costing 1/3 the cost to run if people can’t afford to buy it in the first place.

Prices need to come down. In fact, they already are with the launch of the Renault Z.E. range next year purchase prices will be significantly lower. They will achieve this by leasing the batteries. Overall the costs may turn out to be similar to the outright purchase prices of today over a 4-5 year period but by leasing the battery it allows people to buy the car at a lower price and pay for the battery monthly in a similar way to now where the car is cheaper but people have to buy expensive petrol or diesel as they drive.

This is a clever move by Renault and I can see that this could be the more successful business model in the coming years.

So, in future, when discussing the price of my Nissan Leaf I will no longer try to justify the high price with cheaper running costs. To most people that does not make the car affordable… and in any case, EVs are now pretty much the same price as similar cars in the same class so the argument that they are expensive is no longer true.

Where Can I Charge
This is perhaps the one where I have been misleading people the most with my potted answers. I have always maintained that most of the time I will charge at home and that remains so. In fact, with a few exceptions, most people will always charge at home overnight and that is by far the best option especially if you have a dual tariff such as Economy 7 or one of the new EV tariffs.

The change comes when considering EVs for longer journeys. I want to see EVs used for all journeys but the state of the art as it stands means that a combination of short range and limited fast charge infrastructure means that normal EVs (not the Teslas, remember?) are not yet ready for long trips.

Yet I have done it haven’t I? I might be wrong but I believe that I have driven on longer trips than anyone else in the UK so I am in a great position to judge. My trip from Cornwall to Gateshead took about 36 hours to plan. I had to find a route that allowed me to fast charge during the day and slow charge overnight. The only fast chargers available were in Nissan dealers and then only when they were open. Finding a B&B that had a suitable socket for me to plug in to with them willing to let me do so was a particular challenge.

Well, I did it and the trip went without a single hitch but I cannot see anyone except a luny like me, with spare time, planning such a trip and to do it without that level of detailed planning would certainly stand a high chance of failure.

So, I did the trip to prove that EVs are not only good for local use but it has backfired somewhat because I am now totally convinced that they are only good for local use right now!

What would make me change my mind? Well, a usable range of 150 miles+ would help (book range 200 miles) but that is not enough. We need a fast charge network on motorway service areas that are open 24/7. Ecotricity has started such a network but it needs more. The Ecotricity network are AC only and the Nissan Leaf uses a DC fast charge so it needs DC chargers co-located with the Ecotricity AC ones. It also needs fast chargers in all major cities and along other major routes. With that kind of fast charge network even today’s EVs would become viable for long trips.

Will this happen? Who knows? There have been some noises from Nissan that they are talking to Ecotricity but I find it highly unlikely that Nissan would sponsor DC fast chargers on the Ecotricity network given that Nissan have publicly stated they will not get involved in building the infrastructure. Perhaps they will change their minds. Some keen EV owners are considering the possibility of funding their own national network of fast chargers and again I find this incredibly unlikely given the cost.

No, the only conclusion I can come to is that for now, and for the foreseeable future, EVs are really only practical for local trips with some scope for a bit of range extension by charging at local charge points. Long trips such as Cornwall to Gateshead, which are so easy in a petrol/diesel car, are pretty much out of the question for non-enthusiasts for some time to come.

Polarisation of Opinion
It seems to me that amongst the general population there are three types of people… those that are pro EV, those against EV and the majority in between.

Nothing surprising there. But the strength of opinion is rather surprising. Those in favour seem unreasonably supportive. They ignore any aspect that is not positive and they continue to show unwavering support regardless of the actual facts. Similarly, those against seem to ignore any reasoned argument in favour of EVs and are often aggressively anti when confronted with an argument that they cannot counter. This severe polarisation is not healthy. Both sides in this debate cannot ignore reality and expect to win the hearts and minds of the majority in the middle. People are not stupid and they will see through any attempt to pull the wool over their eyes and that is why I believe that we should all try to tell it as it is and not try to gloss over the bits that don’t support our side of the argument.

I am very pro-EV and until now I tried to be balanced but it is difficult. To put forward a reasonable criticism of any aspect of EV seems to attract an attack from the pro-EV side and that attack, as I have found to my cost, can be sustained and personal.

What is needed is some balance and I don’t think that the current environment is providing that and until it does it will be difficult to win over the undecided in the middle.

Fragmentation of the Market
Electric vehicles are new to most people. However, there are a group of enthusiasts who have owned and run EVs for years. They have a lot of experience but mainly in the DIY and kit market. Now that the government is supporting EV take up there are several “Plugged in Places” projects developing charging infrastructure and addressing other issues. These projects are government run and so are slow to react but they are already a long way towards establishing a charging infrastructure within their own regions and that will be rolled out nationally over the coming years.

What seems clear though is that the pace of roll-out is too slow for the these enthusiasts and the pro-EV group and so a few have decided to go it alone and develop their own charging network and charge points databases. There are already 3 independent charging networks launched and several charge point web sites and databases. On the surface this seems like it is people power coming to the front to get on with what government is too slow to do.

In some respects this is of huge benefit to the EV community. The roll-out of privately owned and sourced charging infrastructure is only going to be a benefit to EV owners in the long run and I support the installation of all of those 3 networks and any others that come along.

The proliferation of charge point web apps and databases on the other hand are another matter. The data that EV owners need when out and about and running low on power is: where is my nearest charge point? Is it suitable for my car? Is it working? Is it vacant? How do I gain access? etc. This information is only useful is it is easily accessible when out in the car and if it is totally accurate and up to date. What is the point of knowing that there is a charge point 2 miles away if you then have no idea if it even has the charging plug you need? You can afford to drive there to take a look.

So, this very fact means that the idea that private individuals or open source projects can have a complete database of charge points with real-time data being up to date is totally unrealistic. There are currently at least 10 back office systems and charge point manufacturers that hold this data for their own charge points network, and that is just in the UK. They would all need to send real-time updates to any consolidated database for that database to be any good. This is technically possible but firstly they would need to agree in principal to releasing that data and that is not likely. This real-time data is commercially valuable and I cannot see any reason why they would be willing to release it free of charge.

In any case, that aside there is another reason why consolidated databases will never be viable. There isn’t just one of them. There are loads cropping up all over the place and each one has the vision of being the only one left standing. The amount of effort, not to mention money, that is being thrown into these databases and apps is ridiculous when it is weighed up against the likelihood that it will succeed. They are all highly speculative buoyed by a bubble of enthusiasm and desire to be the only one. The truth is clear to me… none of them are likely to succeed. The very fact that the commercial stakeholders are not likely to release their commercially valuable real-time data to open source and private projects makes all of these databases dead in the water… or at least floundering soon to be dead.

Whilst these databases and apps serve some kind of purpose in these very early days ultimately they will do more harm that good as they fragment the market and make it even more difficult for EV owners to get the info they need. I believe that consolidated database can only come from within the existing stakeholders. They hold all the cards as they are the owners and custodians of the real-time data that EV owners need. They will develop data sharing between themselves and it is from them that a national database of charging infrastructure will come. This is already happening as individual stakeholders create links to other stakeholders.

Charging Standards
In this area things have changed significantly over the past few months. Where there was no plug or protocol standard for charging so it is now becoming clear that the standard, at least for AC charging, is looking like settling on the “Mennekes” socket AKA IEC 62196-2. This is good news for everyone. If this does finally become the standard it will now be possible to roll out charging infrastructure reasonably safe in the knowledge that it can be used by most, if not all, future electric cars.

Unfortunately, the current batch of electric cars can only use these Mennekes sockets for slow charging because they use a different system for fast charging called CHAdeMO. CHAdeMO uses high voltage DC to charge a Nissan Leaf in under 45 minutes but it needs a special fast charge unit which is expensive to buy and install. Prices are coming down for these units very quickly so I am hopeful that the UK standard will include both Mennekes and CHAdeMO but at the moment this is still unclear.

Anyone buying an electric car today must accept that there will be a degree of uncertainty over where they can charge with some charging stations offering Mennekes, some CHAdeMO and some both. However, the electrical requirements for both these standards are very similar and I am hopeful that all future installations will include both.

Whatever your opinions on the usability or otherwise of EVs there is one inescapable fact… it is new. Sure, there have been enthusiasts who would have you believe that it has been around for years and that they have years of experience but their experience is of mostly DIY conversions and mostly using older technology such as lead-acid or NiMH batteries. Today’s electric vehicles are production cars from main manufacturers and so many unknowns still exist.

Amongst them are: residual values, reliability, battery life and replacement cost, accident repair costs etc. We have some good ideas from the manufacturers as to how some of those might work out but taking the word of the manufacturer is a little risky and ultimately it is only time that will tell.

So, buying an electric car today you will have to come to terms with this high level of uncertainty and for many that is a risk they may not be prepared to take. It is tough being a pioneer in new technology and many people will not be happy being one.

I accept that this post is just my personal view and you should treat it is such. However, I have drawn my own conclusions from this assessment and the main one is that it is still way too early for electric vehicles for most people. It is true that for a small number of pioneers, who are prepared to accept the shortcomings and uncertainty, electric cars are suitable and I include myself in that group. However, amongst my friends and family it is clear that it would be difficult for them to accept the cost or practicalities.

So, perhaps this post should be titled “Why The Market is Not Ready For Electric Cars”. In my opinion, both are appropriate.

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