Electric cars? Not just yet


On Tuesday morning I attended a breakfast briefing sponsored by Eurelectric on the Commission proposal on the deployment of electric infrastructure (actually the full title runs to 21 words, but I thought you’d be happy if I abbreviated it).  We had speakers from the sponsor, from the car industry, and so on, and there was much discussion of the need for interoperability (a pretty obvious desideratum, I’d have thought) and of targets for electric infrastructure development, with the industry calling (no great surprise, this) for mandatory targets for member states on the availability of charging points.

I was very happy to hear a call from my good friend Anna Rosbach, a Danish MEP,  for regulators to stand back and allow the market, and consumer choice, to guide the development of the industry.

But I had some points of my own.  It seems to me that the critical point, which they scarcely mentioned, was the development of battery technology.  Right now, it’s very difficult to get anywhere near the sort of battery charge you’d need to deliver the same sort of range as a petrol or diesel car.  We hear about “range anxiety” – the fear of running out of charge on the motorway, far from home, and far from a charging point.  Indeed one of the speakers’ slides showed a cartoon where the salesman was telling the punter “This electric car is ideal for the man who works close to home”.

What’s more, drivers today expect windscreen wipers.  And headlights.  The EU is mandating day-time driving lights.  Drivers want air-con and/or heating (I was unkind enough to point out that for those who fear global warming, air-con was ever more critical).  And radio and GPS.  All these devices use power and reduce the range still further.

The batteries are a major part of the cost of an electric car, and may not last the full lifetime of the car.  Replacement is very expensive.

Then there’s charging time.  I fill up my car in two minutes.  For electric cars, even the top-whack high-powered recharging points take around half an hour, while a domestic supply can take six hours – an overnight job.

I don’t believe that electric cars will come into their own, at least until we have lighter, longer-lasting batteries that carry several times more charge than today’s batteries.  They will come, but meantime (as with solar PV) we are spending large sums on deploying technology which is relatively inefficient and may soon become obsolete.  Let’s do the development first, and the deployment later.

There’s great excitement about the way that a large fleet of electric vehicles could soak up “spare” electricity from intermittent renewable generation.  But as a driver, I don’t want a text message telling me to re-charge now because the wind is blowing.  And if most people are recharging at home overnight, then solar PV won’t help a great deal.

Of course electric cars produce no emissions in use, but as others at the briefing pointed out, while much of our electricity is produced by fossil fuels (and coal use in Europe is currently increasing), the electric car system is still producing emissions.  I’ve seen studies suggesting that on our current mix of generation, electric cars are much the same as a modern, efficient small diesel in terms of total emissions.

Electric cars are touted as cheap to run.  But I pointed out that when I fill up my car today, around £50 of the bill goes straight to the government in tax and duty.  But as soon as Finance Minsters find that the up-take of electric vehicles is making a significant dent in petrol/diesel revenues, they’re going to devise new ways of taxing electric vehicles.

I’d be happy to consider an electric car.  But only when it can offer similar performance; similar range (with air-con etc); and a comparable charging time, to a conventional car.  There’s still a way to go.

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20 Responses to Electric cars? Not just yet

  1. neilfutureboy says:

    You are right that the battery is the sticking point.
    Battery capacity seems to be improving by about 10% a year & Elon Musk (of Tesla fame among others) seems to be betting this, or better, will be a long term trend – having recently forecast electric supersonic planes according to the Telegraph.

    Newt Gingerich has proposed battery technology as suitable for a $300 mill X-Prize.

    Some years ago the late professor John McCarthy suggested designing cars so that the entire battery could be removed mechanically in seconds in refuelling stations. The industry would thus revolve around rebatterying as fast as cars currently refuel.

    • Mike Stallard says:

      We can take this a step further. If there are some way of storing the power generated by the windmills, then they would suddenly make a lot of sense. Forget the greenery – they provide free power! If that could be stored for when the wind drops, would’t that solve the problem?
      And storage of the batteries wold present no problem whatsoever if it were done centrally.

      • Me_Again says:

        Good point Mike, maybe if we put a 420 foot wind turbine on top of a car………………integral power generation wow!

  2. Jane Davies says:

    How about wind power to save the battery whilst the car is moving above a certain speed? I know you love wind power Roger!!

  3. Ex-expat Colin says:

    Driving without many litres of petrol following you about is useful. However, sitting on quite an intense chemical process is perhaps something else. I wonder what the electric vehicle safety case states?

    We know about new tech batteries in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner instances. Mitigation being fire protection/containment at present. It appears that the causes of the battery failures are still unknown. Filled with confidence there – I don’t think!

    The drive in and battery drop (exchange) has been demonstrated in the US, but looks to be expensive for the plebs. Plebs should be on busses etc anyway.

    The trade off as regards CO2 is simply dumb. Subsidy is wrong, but as long as the plebs foot most of the bill who really cares. Who really counts here?

    Could be good business for the AA/RAC and Green Flag boys though.

  4. Me_Again says:

    Only place where it’s sensible to have an electric car so far, is off world……..moon maybe?

  5. Ex-expat Colin says:

    Off Topic: Der Spiegel
    The eurozone has begun preparing a third bailout package for Greece of up to €20bn (£16.5bn) on top of existing loans totalling €240bn.

    And then there’s electric cars !

  6. David says:

    Glad you mentioned the downside, Roger, one of many downsides, I refer to the extra demand on power stations, which the advocates of electric vehicles never mention. So they get rid of some of the petrol/diesel fumes, and up the emissions from the power stations. Remind us, how many windmills does it need to replace a power station?

    • Mike Stallard says:

      And please remember also the way that all the coal fired power stations are now under pressure to close or adapt to greenery.
      And the way that “nuclear” is still nie danke.

  7. silverminer says:

    It isn’t clear to me why Tesla can offer Supercar performance and a 300 mile range yet the best anyone else seems to manage is the Leaf. I’d rather have one of these than Roger’s Jag!


    The great advantage of electric cars is that you don’t need oil, which we’re short of in Europe Generating electricity is easy (if the bureaucrats would get out the way), burn coal or gas and build nuclear power stations. You can run an internal combustion engine on natural gas. Perhaps we should go that way for now?

  8. Malcolm Edward says:

    Electric cars may be a nice idea, but as you say it is not clear cut.
    I should think it difficult for a battery to attain the energy density (in both volume and weight) of hydrocarbon fuel, and so the battery is a relatively heavy addition to the weight of the car but may be offset if the electric motor is lighter. The capacity of the national grid will need to be significantly increased at considerable expense if all cars were to be electric and charged off the grid. So until the UK generates all its electricity from nuclear power stations (wind being a complete joke), we may as well continue to use the internal combustion engine. A possible next step could be more widespread adoption of cars with a combined internal combustion engine and (small) electric motor – though it has obvious cost implications. And there are other questions over cost of supply of copper for all the extra motor windings, and rare elements used in the magnets and in the batteries.
    (Nuclear power of course will need to be generated from cost effective power stations unlike the current deal that our government has negotiated with EDF – but then we need for our government to back a British team to develop a cost effective design – like we used to have).

  9. cosmic says:

    Battery powered electric vehicles have been around since the 19th century and the problem has always been the battery. They have low energy density and are heavy. There’s also the time they take to charge and a limited number of charging cycles. There have been successful battery powered electric vehicles in niche applications such as milk floats and forklift trucks. Even developments in progress are not going to improve things enough.

    However, electric vehicles have always been a Holy Grail for futurists, e.g. the Sinclair C5. Car makers have had research programmes on and off for years.

    If the technology was any good, people would buy it of their own accord, and they don’t. For some reason electric cars are considered green, and we’ve had millions in subsidies pushed into subsidising things people still won’t buy. The latest interest in electric cars is just another one of the rackets which is attached to the great global warming scam.

    A little while back there was a silly scheme to use the batteries of electric cars to supply power to the grid at times of peak demand.

  10. Paul says:

    It’ll be interesting to see whether or not Lisa Duffy will raise the issue UKIP has so far avoided like the plague on Radio 4’s Any questions tonight concerning EU directives leading directly to the flood. Unfortunately, Nigel Farage’s deliberate avoidance of the subject is really rather odd.

  11. Paul says:


    Keith Vaz: “I’m astonished, actually, that Lisa hasn’t blamed Brussels for the floods coming from UKIP”.

    And the money shot from the UKIP panelist Lisa Duffy?

    “Well. it’s. not. Brussels. fault. is. it.”

    So Mr. Helmer you did suggest in an earlier post that your party has spoken up about EU directives and effect of the floods we now experience. I did ask you for links to prove your assertion.
    There really aren’t any are there Mr. Helmer.
    What on Earth can UKIP be hiding?

  12. DougS says:

    Just like green energy generation subsidies, the government should but out and save the taxpayer load of wonga. The stuff that is successful doesn’t need intervention – mobile phones, computers, petrol-engined cars etc. In fact the government usually jumps all over successful products to hobble them with taxes.

    If electric cars ever became a good idea for consumers they’d beat a path to the manufacturers’ doors and battery swap/recharging points would spring up all over the place. However, they’re pretty useless on several levels and a £5K green bribe doesn’t even persuade many to buy. I suspect that the current (very few) buyers are either green zealots trying to make a point, organizations using taxpayers’ dosh or people that are just too rich to notice what a lousy deal they’re getting.

  13. Nick says:

    One word: TESLA

  14. prkralex says:

    China has signalled plans to invest $16bn into its electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, a move that could stimulate massive growth in EV sales and help the country cut carbon emissions.


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