22 February, 2023
If you are wondering about the pros and cons of owning an Electric Vehicle (EV) and considering the switch from a petrol/diesel car to an EV, then this blog has been written with you in mind!
Phasing out fossil fuel powered transport is a vital step in our transition towards net zero, however the EV debate has become factionalised, making it difficult to know whether the claimed environmental benefits are true, and if aspects of EV ownership such as limited range, rapid battery degradation and slow charging times are genuine shortcomings. I have been following the EV debate for many years and I believe the environmental benefits are real. There can be no argument that zero tailpipe emissions can significantly improve the poor air quality that blights our towns and cities, and that is a major contributory factor associated with poor health and reduced lifespan. The debate around CO2 emissions and overall environmental impact is more nuanced, and there are legitimate concerns that manufacturing the numbers of EVs required to replace the world’s fossil-fuelled vehicles will have a devastating impact on local environments. The potential of EVs to dramatically reduce the negative environmental impact of transport will only be realised if the electricity used to power the EV is generated from environmentally-friendly low carbon sources, EV batteries are manufactured using low-impact ethically-sourced raw materials, and EV batteries are fully recycled at the end of life. Getting these crucial factors addressed is a work in progress, but there are positive indications that things are moving in the right direction, with the UK power network shifting towards renewable sources, BSI standards introduced for battery manufacture and new companies taking on the challenge of EV battery recycling.
But what of the EV ownership experience? Does your typical EV have a top speed of 50 mph and a range of 100 miles? Does the car need to be plugged in for 24 hours to get back to full charge and while doing so crash the national grid? Well despite what certain headlines may scream, this is not my experience. After 2 years and 25,000 miles of driving, I am now reasonably well-qualified to say that owning an EV is in the most part a practical and pain-free experience. Yes, there are some downsides which may be deal-breakers for some, but for many, it is a perfect vehicle.
One of the best things about EVs is how easy they are to drive. The month we got our EV (Kia eNiro) was coincidentally the month my eldest son started to learn to drive. Watching him struggle with gear changes, clutch biting points and hill starts brought it home how ridiculous and antiquated a manual drivetrain is. An EV has a stop pedal and a go pedal, you just need to be able to steer. A five-year old could drive one. Yes, an automatic car doesn’t have a clutch pedal and a gear lever, but it does have a complex drive train with hundreds of moving parts, whereas a typical EV drivetrain will have fewer than 20 moving parts, making it far more efficient and much easier to maintain.
Charging an EV is simple…if you have a home fast charger. We are lucky enough to have a house with a private driveway and a convenient place to locate a fast charger wall box, so charging the car is as simple as plugging in a kettle. When we had our charger fitted there was a government grant to cover the cost, but unfortunately this is no longer available, so expect to pay around £1,000 to get one fitted. Home chargers usually operate at 7 kW (for comparison a kettle typically runs at 3 kW), and for our car it takes one hour to add 10% charge to the battery, which equates to around 25 miles of range. Charge times can put people off EVs, but home charging is almost always done at night when there is no need to use the car and when electricity is available at a lower price (see https://rightcharge.co.uk/ to compare tariffs and if the source of electricity is renewable). We rarely need to add more than 30-40% charge to the battery in one go and finding 3-4 hours at night to do this is not exactly a problem. Prices have gone up in recent months, but it is still inexpensive to charge at night, currently costing around £3.50 to charge for four hours. It is also possible to link a local source of electricity generation (e.g. solar array or wind turbine) to certain chargers, so that excess electricity can be diverted into the EV battery, rather than back to the grid. We have a south-facing 3.8 kW solar array and have used this to part-charge the car, but it is unusual to add more than 10-15% charge to the battery even on the sunniest of days and prefer to divert the excess electricity to heat our water which saves burning gas.
Public chargers come in two flavours: fast and rapid. Fast chargers are essentially the same as the boxes you have fitted at home, providing 7 kW (sometimes 11 or 22 kW) power. These are typically found in carparks and described as “destination chargers” as you turn up at your destination and then plug in for a few hours. There are already a few of these scattered around the Babraham Research Campus, with plans to install more over the coming months and years. Rapid chargers range from 50 kW up 350 kW; the higher the power the faster it will charge the car, so 350 kW chargers can add range at a rate not too dissimilar to adding petrol into a fuel tank. The caveats are that chargers of more than 100 kW are rare, and even if you do find one the car needs to be designed to work with it. The Kia eNiro can charge at a maximum of 77 kW, so plugging in to a 350 kW charger will have no benefit over a 100 kW charger. And even then, achieving the 77 kW is rare as the battery needs to be in the right condition (temperature, level of charge) to operate at that power. Real world experience has shown that it takes around 45-60 minutes to add around 50% charge to the Kia’s battery at a rapid charger. That will give a useful amount of range, and the time charging can be used to grab a coffee.
Range, perhaps the most commonly derided aspects of EVs, has not been a problem for us. The maximum range of our car varies between 220-300 miles, with the longest range achieved during the summer months and the shortest range in the depths of winter on the motorway. We have never had any issues getting to a destination and have done return trips to the Norfolk coast and Birmingham without needing to charge and without needing to compromise on driving speeds or comfort (cabin temperature). One of the great things about the Kia is that the range is very predictable and the information given by the car is very reliable. If it says we have 100 miles range, then we can be confident that we do actually have 100 miles range. This creates trust in the car and negates range anxiety, but is not the case for all EVs. A bit of research into this before committing to purchase would be time well spent. The latest generation of EVs claim to offer more than 300 miles range, but like claimed MPG, these numbers have to be taken with a fairly hefty pinch of salt. It is also worth considering EV efficiency vs. battery size, as different manufacturers are taking different approaches on this. It is far better to have a small battery in an efficient vehicle than a large battery in an inefficient vehicle, but unfortunately the current trend is for large SUV-type cars with massive batteries. There are online resources giving “real world” ranges e.g. https://ev-database.org/uk/cheatsheet/range-electric-car, but as range is dependent on a large number of variables it is impossible to use one figure. What equates to an ideal range will depend on personal circumstances, but it’s really not necessary for an EV to have an equivalent range to a fossil fuelled car when an EV can always leave the house fully charged. For most people a range of 250 miles is easily sufficient for the vast majority of journeys.
Battery degradation for modern EVs is also not a problem. Studies with data from Tesla cars have shown that the battery should retain at least 90% of its original capacity after 100,000 miles. This is already very good and will only improve with newer battery chemistries and better battery management systems. To ensure the best longevity you have to look after your battery, which means only charging to 100% when absolutely necessary, not leaving the car at full charge or near discharged for extended periods of time, and limiting the number of rapid charges. How a battery has been looked after should be a major consideration when assessing the condition of a second-hand EV, so hopefully this information will become as readily available as the mileage.
On the very few occasions where we have had to charge the car using public chargers, the kindest way to describe the experience would be “unpredictable”. Some might describe it as frustrating, others stressful, or simply horrendous. Tesla drivers will look smug at this point, as they would describe the experience as perfectly pleasant. That is because Tesla had the foresight to set up an extensive and easy-to-use charging network which they realised would be critical to a positive ownership experience of their cars. Unfortunately, all us non-Tesla owners have to put up with the public charging network, which has been largely unregulated, poorly implemented and badly maintained. Successfully finding and using public chargers will depend on where you are in the country, your level of patience, your tech savviness and just pure luck. Biggest bugbears are chargers not working, a requirement to download a proprietary app and set up an account to use a specific charger, and simply a lack of chargers in a given geographical location. Public charging is the one reason I cannot recommend EVs to people who might not be able to cope with the lottery of finding and operating public chargers. There’s no doubt that this situation will improve, but the lack of regulation in the deployment of public EV chargers has been a very unfortunate oversight by the UK government. Whether this is enough to put you off getting an EV will depend on your personal circumstances and willingness to change habits and accept compromise, but we have found that a bit of planning using tools like Zap Map will be enough to help reduce the stress and anxiety to acceptable levels. Or you could just buy a Tesla.
The initial cost of purchasing an EV is the other major disincentive. New, EVs are typically around £10k more than their fossil-fuelled equivalents., with the base models coming in around £30k. That said, new manufacturing processes, economies of scale and increased competition from new manufacturers will mean that costs inevitably drop. And we are just starting to see a large influx of used EVs onto the market, meaning that there is now a reasonable choice of lower priced second-hand options available. On the plus side, running an EV is significantly cheaper than running a fossil-fuelled car: in one year 12,500 miles of travel will cost us around £500 in electricity, £2,000 less than the equivalent cost of fuelling our previous diesel car. We pay no road tax (although there are plans to introduce EV road tax from 2025), we have driven into central London and paid no ULEZ charge and no congestion charges. Vehicle maintenance is minimal due to the simplicity of the drivetrain and brake disks and pads last forever as EVs mostly use regenerative braking to slow down rather than friction brakes.
“The electric car con will destroy our national infrastructure” (Telegraph, Jan 2023)
“Electric vehicles are the Betamax of transport” (Sun, Jan 2023)
“Why I’ve pulled the plug on my electric car” (Times, Jan 2023)
“Electric car owners fighting each other at power points as ‘charge rage’ hits UK” (Express, Dec 2022).
“Electric car rapid charging costs soar, says RAC” (BBC News, May 2022)
There is a lot of unpleasant negative press surrounding EVs at present. Of course, EVs are not a panacea for the world’s ills; it is vital that EV manufacturers are properly held to account and that consumers are not duped into a green washing scheme that ultimately benefits no-one. However, as the UK shifts from burning fossil fuels to alternative methods of powering transport, groups with vested interests and financial means are influencing the debate in ways which make it very difficult to cut to the truth. The right-wing press in particular consistently bias their reporting in an apparent attempt to cast doubt on EV ownership and models of sustainable transport. This is unfortunate to say the least, as there is now an unstoppable momentum moving the car industry away from fossil-fuelled vehicles. Recent announcements by Ford show where the future lies and what will happen to those clinging to the past.
There are, however, many places offering a more balanced, and some would say more optimistic view of the future, and I have particularly enjoyed watching videos on Fully Charged which has reviews on EVs as well as lots of other interesting content on how people are developing new technologies for a more sustainable future. As an example, this video skewers some of the claims made in the Telegraph article mentioned above.
Whichever side of the debate you currently fall, there is no escaping the fact that the UK government has committed to ban the sale of new fossil fuelled cars and vans by 2030, and new hybrid vehicles by 2035. For some, this future is already here, and I would say it is not something to fear: owning an EV has proven to be a better experience than owning a fossil fuelled car. In the process we have reduced our transport CO2 emissions by around 7 tonnes which is a significant contribution towards the target reduction that UK households need to meet by 2030. And we have not been polluting the air with sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and exhaust particulates. In most respects it’s a win-win, we just need a much better charging infrastructure to support and accelerate the transition to a more sustainable future.
22 February 2023
By Simon Walker