They have been feted as the answer to the worldwide carbon crisis for years now, and yet sales of electric cars have only recently started to pick up. Despite wall-to-wall media coverage of falling global oil reserves and grave concerns about global warming, petrol and diesel have remained the fuel of choice for the vast majority of the UK’s drivers – and indeed those in the rest of the world.
There could be many reasons behind the failure of electric car sales to spark into life so far, but two words plant perhaps the biggest seed of doubt in many motorists minds: range anxiety.
For those who travel long distances, be it for work, another necessity or even for pleasure, the nagging fear that the battery could run flat in the middle of nowhere plays a big part in the decision many make to play it safe and continue to drive carbon-emitting cars.
Although there are now more than 7,000 charge points across the UK, the biggest market for electric cars is drivers who live – and drive – in cities. Given that many cars in cities are parked on the street rather than in a garage with a plug point, charging overnight becomes impossible.
The cost of electric cars has also been a barrier to purchase. Savvy money-saving learner drivers are hardly going to leap straight from passing their test into an electric vehicle if the cost is too high. They’ll also want to stick to what they know and what they learnt with early on in their driving careers.
The battery technology used to store energy and power electric motors is the single biggest reason behind the difference between the prices of electric and traditionally-aspirated cars. Advances in battery technology could mean that electric motors are very competitive with petrol-powered engines in just a few years but we’re not quite there yet. Similarly, technological improvement of car battery chargers has resulted in shorter re-charging times.
There’s a simpler, more obvious reason electric cars have been slow to gain ground on the sales charts. They can look rather unappealing, with boxy designs the norm. The Toyota Prius, one of the most popular hybrids around, wasn’t really bought on the strength of its squared-off rear end.
Even there, though, the norm is changing. This arstechnica.com article points out that many people bought electric and hybrid vehicles on the strength of their ‘science project’ looks – because it signalled to the world around them that they were committed and serious about cutting down their impact on the environment.
Now designers at BMW, Porsche and others are bucking the boxy trend, and treating green car design as a means to make an aesthetic statement as well as an environmental one.
However, the fortune of electric cars could be on the rise. According to this BBC report, we bought 6,000 electric cars in March 2015, compared with 1,200 at the same time in 2014. That’s a rise of some 400 per cent.
And hybrids – cars that have a conventional motor and an electric one – saw their sales rocket by almost 1,000 per cent during the same period, although the stats were very low to start with.
It could be that buyers are getting their skates on: the Government’s £5,000 grant towards the cost of a new electric vehicle will soon be no more. There’s still road tax and London Congestion Charge exemption to sweeten the deal though. As the cost, looks, battery and charging process become easier the tide will turn but progress will need to continue to be made on each of those factors for the trends to carry on in the direction they’re now heading.