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Arguments for and against electric cars

Arguments for and against electric cars

Like it or not, electric cars are here to stay. Those with a stake in the future of electric cars like to trumpet that their sales are rising. Indeed, Demand for electric cars surged 144% in 2019, claiming a 1.6% share of the overall market. This spike in interest saw some 37,850 new battery electric vehicles registered in 2019, up from 15,510 the year before. Hybrid vehicles also saw a healthy jump in sales, albeit less robust than battery-only models. 

This sharp increase in sales of EVs comes despite a 2.4% drop in sales of petrol- and diesel-powered cars. However, against a backdrop of 2.3 million overall car sales, electric vehicles were a drop in the ocean. 

And remember, those 37,850 registrations were pure electric. The various forms of hybrid vehicles - Plug-in Hybrids, Hybrid Electrics and Mild Hybrid Electrics - accounted for another 229,000, and this is an interesting number. Sales of MHEV diesel models, for instance, surged 740% last year. What this suggests is that new car buyers are dipping their toes in the waters of pure EV ownership – at least for now. 

Some forecasters reckon there will be 20 million electric cars on the world’s roads by 2020. By 2030, one leading component supplier reckons 30% (125 million) of all new cars will be pure electric.

The problem is, as the above shows, argument and counter-argument bedevil the world of electric vehicles. You say sales are rising; we say they’re still a tiny fraction of the whole market and that people are wary of them. 

The reality is, there are strong arguments for and against EVs - and certainly while the charging infrastructure is still being developed. To help add some balance to the ongoing debate, below are 10 common arguments you’ll find about electric cars:

1. EVs save you money

Agree: An EV’s lower ‘fuel’ and maintenance costs, and zero road tax, mean that after taking things like their higher depreciation and monthly battery hire charges (for example, Renault Zoe battery hire ranges from £49 to £99) into account, an EV is cheaper to run. A nearly new Renault Zoe is around 17.2 pence per mile compared with a Renault Clio diesel at 24 pence per mile. A new Nissan Leaf bought on a PCP is even cheaper to run at around 25 pence per mile, compared with a Nissan Qashqai diesel at 45ppm.

You’ll also be able to enter the London congestion zone for free and get free or discounted parking at railway stations. And when people say EVs depreciate faster, they’re forgetting that many of them attract the government plug-in grant worth up to £4,500 which comes straight off the new price, a fact that’s reflected in lower used prices.  

Disagree: The elephant in the room here is depreciation. Yes, the plug-in grant must bear some of the responsibility but then few new petrol and diesel cars are sold at full price; there’s always a big discount, often worth thousands of pounds. The simple fact is that after three years, an electric car is worth around 25% of its new price compared with the average petrol and diesel car at around 40%. If an electric car weren’t so cheap to power, its pence per mile charge, which includes depreciation, would be higher.

On top of that, if you buy a used electric car with its battery, rather than leasing the battery, and it fails, you’ll be hit with a replacement bill that’s likely to be much greater than the value of the car.

2. There are loads of public EV charging points

Agree: As of January 2020, there were more than 30,000 charging connectors, or points, at some 10,000-plus public charging locations around the UK. Given there are around 265,000 electric cars on UK roads, that’s one location for every 26 cars. What’s more, the number of locations is growing at a rate of around 350 a month. 

Disagree: The important thing to consider here is the type of connections, and where the chargers are located. Regarding that last point, regardless of where electric cars are concentrated, coverage isn't evenly spread with 21% of UK chargers located in the Greater London area. 

Meanwhile, the areas with the fewest number of charger locations are Yorkshire and Wales. In any case, there may be someone else charging their car or cheekily blocking the space with a non-electric car if it’s outside a supermarket. 

Even if the charging bay is free, the charger may not be working or if you have an older EV, your car may not connect to it. The current standard is a seven-pin Type 2 connector but some older EVs have three or five-pin connectors. Even some new EVs have an older Type 1 connection socket on the car, although the charging cable they come supplied with will have a Type 2 connector at the charge point end. Confused? Tesla has its own type of connector and network of chargers. 

And while there may be 14,000 connectors, the vast majority are fast chargers as distinct from rapid (these break down into rapid DC and rapid AC). There are far fewer of these. The point is, a fast charger takes roughly seven times as long as a rapid charger to do its thing, so you could be kicking your heels for well over an hour waiting for a decent electrical top-up. 

3. There are lots of new EVs to choose from  

Agree: There are around 60 new electric models of all types on the market, with more to come. They include small city cars (Volkswagen e-up!), family hatchbacks (Nissan Leaf and BMW i3), SUVs (Mitsubishi Outlander) and sports saloons (Tesla Model S). Too expensive? Buy them nearly new or pre-registered when those in least demand have lost a chunk of money but still feel new. 

Disagree: There may be 60 EV models but they’re expensive. For example, including the plug-in grant, a new VW e-up! costs almost £21,000 or over double the price of the cheapest new up! before discount. Lease it on a VW PCP and it’s £377 per month with a £2,000 deposit. That’s expensive for a tiny city car.

On the other hand, be careful about buying an EV outright because it’s likely to become quickly outdated as new technology comes through, meaning it will be worth even less when you try to resell it. The next owner will have to take on the battery rental charge, too. Save money by buying nearly new? You could do the same with a petrol or diesel car.

4. EV range is growing all the time

Agree: Battery range is increasing as technology improves. When it first went on sale in 2013 the Renault Zoe had an advertised range of 130 miles. In 2015 this increased to 149 miles and today, Zoes fitted with the Z.E.40 battery have a maximum claimed range of 250 miles. Same goes for the Nissan Leaf which at launch had a range of 99 miles. The second-generation Leaf that went on sale in 2018 offered a range of 235 miles. The most expensive Tesla, the Model S P100D, has a range of 441 miles but even the ‘basic’ model can go 359 miles. In certain conditions it can go even farther.

Disagree: ‘Certain conditions’ – exactly. The same goes for a petrol or diesel car except that where you just have to be easy on the throttle to get better economy, the outside temperature and terrain can make a big difference to an EV’s range. Renault is honest about this, admitting that the range of the Z.E 40 battery can be 186 miles in summer and as low as 124 miles in winter. 

On some models stop-start urban driving can replenish the battery charge and extend the range but constant motorway speeds will see it plummet. For example, in an outside temperature of 10deg C and riding on 21in alloy wheels, at a constant 70mph the range of the basic Tesla Model S 75D falls to just 236 miles and the P100D, 286 miles. 

5. Get used to electric cars because soon they'll be the only ones you’ll be able to buy 

Agree: EU governments have agreed to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040. And UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now pledged to bring this forward to 2035.

Disagree: This is perhaps the most misreported area of the EV debate. In fact, although petrol and diesel cars will be banned in 2040, and in any case are likely to have been phased out long before that, plug-in hybrid petrol and diesel cars, combining traditional piston engines with electric motors and batteries, will continue to be made and are likely to remain popular. In the meantime, development of more efficient diesel and petrol engines continues.  

6. Don’t worry – a nation of electric cars won't mean there’s no power to boil a kettle

Agree:  Total UK electrical grid capacity is already big enough to handle electric cars, say some experts. In any case, the relevant number is not the total consumption relative to battery size but the daily swing in consumption. The challenge is intermittency in supply: the wind doesn’t always blow and sunshine is variable. One answer will be to turn electric cars into energy storage systems that can return unwanted energy to the grid, perhaps when their owners are at work. In any case, plug-in hybrid cars are not wholly dependent on electricity.

Disagree: It depends which experts you talk to. The National Grid says that if all cars went electric, peak demand could be 50% greater than it is at present. The UK would have to raise the proportion of imported energy from 10% to around 33%, a situation that could jeopardise the country’s energy security.  

7. EVs are more reliable than petrol and diesel cars

Agree: US consumer organisation Consumer Reports recently reported that the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt is the car maker’s most reliable car. It said that electric cars are free of the kinds of components that fail in petrol and diesel cars. Certainly, a Tesla’s service requirements are light to say the least. In the UK, the 2017 Auto Express Driver Power survey ranked the Toyota Prius (hybrid), Lexus RX (available in hybrid and non-hybrid forms), Lexus IS (almost exclusively hybrid) and Lexus CT (hybrid) among the top 10 most reliable cars. Meanwhile, most batteries come with an eight-year warranty on top of the car’s standard three-year warranty. 

Disagree: Batteries can fail and if you own rather than rent it, replacing it can be more than the car is worth. Some owners of early Tesla Model S cars reported reliability issues with them, while the car maker ranked a low 21 for reliability in the Consumer Reports league table of manufacturers. In any case, with a good workshop manual and the right tools, you can maintain and repair most petrol or diesel cars. Try doing the same with the motor or battery of an electric car. Perhaps the biggest problem with electric cars is not their unreliability but manufacturers’ unreliable claims regarding their range. 

8. An electric car is more environmentally friendly than a petrol or diesel one

Agree: With fewer or zero tailpipe emissions, an electric car is cleaner right away. Not only that but an electric car can also be powered by renewable energy, meaning there’s no CO2 emitted at source. Where CO2 is emitted in the production of electricity, typically in a natural gas-powered plant, around 60% of the energy is converted into electrical power. A pure electric car can convert up to 94% of that energy into forward motion. 

In contrast, a petrol or diesel car converts only 30% of its fuel energy into forward motion; the rest is wasted in the form of heat and friction. Thanks to hybridisation, the 530 million electric cars forecast to be on the road by 2040 will require eight million fewer barrels of oil a day to power. All told – manufacture of the car and of the power it uses, and the CO2 it emits as it is driven – over 135,000 miles, a pure electric car is responsible for 42 tonnes of CO2 or 21 tonnes if the electricity it uses is from renewable sources, compared to 53 tonnes for a petrol or diesel car.

Disagree: A pure electric car may have zero tailpipe emissions but many more emissions are produced in its manufacture. For example, a petrol or diesel car’s fuel tank is just a container made of plastic or steel but an electric car’s battery – in other words, its fuel tank – is much more complex. Producing the average 60kWh battery alone generates nine tonnes of CO2. Because an electric car is heavy, often aluminium is used for its body, production of which again generates much more CO2 than producing steel. 

And that’s a pure electric car. A plug-in hybrid has a battery and an electric motor, and may be made from advanced materials to reduce its weight but it also has a petrol or diesel engine. At a stroke, the efficiencies of one are cancelled out by the inefficiencies of the other. Not even a 30-mile electric-only touring range can fix that. 

The best thing you can do to save the planet is, with the aid of a workshop manual, to keep running your old petrol or diesel car for as long as possible, thereby gaining the most benefit from the CO2 produced in its manufacture. You won't be able to do that with an electric car.

9. An electric car is more fun to drive

Agree: In so-called ‘ludicrous mode’ a Tesla Model S P100D can accelerate from 0-62mph in 2.5 seconds. That’s faster than all other sports cars except the Ferrari La Ferrari and Porsche 918 Spyder. Even the quickest BMW i3 manages it in 6.9 seconds. The Nissan and Renault Zoe are more sedate but even so, the fact that an electric motor produces 100% of its torque at zero revs means they’re quicker away from the lights than a conventional car. Without a multi-speed gearbox there’s no interruption in torque delivery, either. The result? Fun! Regarding hybrids, when the electric motor and conventional engine are working together, they can feel quite sporty. 

Disagree: Electric cars use energy recuperation during braking and coasting to recharge the battery. This can make them feel quite jerky and uncomfortable. At least while you’re adapting to a pure electric car, or when driving beyond your usual area, range anxiety – that sinking feeling that you’re going to run out of power – can spoil all that fun you’re supposed to be having. And where’s the fun in a silent electric motor rather than a bellowing V8?

10. An electric car is better to own

Agree: With fewer potentially unreliable parts to worry about and cheaper servicing, a pure electric car, at least, is easier on the pocket. Free or discounted parking is a bonus. In electric-only mode you can congratulate yourself that you’re doing your bit to reduce local air pollution. On longer drives, you get to have a proper rest and a coffee while the battery is being recharged. An electric car changes your driving style by encouraging you to drive more smoothly and plan ahead, leading to less stressful motoring. 

Disagree: A plug-in hybrid is potentially more complicated and problematic than a conventional petrol or diesel car. You’re never wholly free from range anxiety in a pure electric car. You can't make a long-distance emergency dash in one because at some point, you’ll need to stop for ages to recharge it. Finally, you can't tinker with an electric car as you can a conventional one because you’ll very likely be electrocuted – and that ain’t fun.