Sunday, 21 September 2014
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Stuck in first gear

If whizzing around Rockingham Speedway in a Nissan Leaf reminded me just how impressive the speed and acceleration of current electric cars are, then being overtaken by the SRZero sportscar caused my jaw to drop.

They might not yet be a regular sight on most roads, but electric cars are definitely coming. This isn’t just the view of the green lobby or specialist firms but that of the notoriously slow-moving major car manufacturers.

At the Cenex Low Carbon Vehicle (LCV) industry event this week, the messages from engineering directors at Ford, Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover were all the same. Over the next decade we will see electric vehicles (EVs) enter the mainstream as they improve further in performance, drop in price and start to win over the public. And after that we can expect to see more from hydrogen cars.

That’s not to say there’s not plenty of work still to be done. The first report from the Technology Strategy Board’s EV user study this week revealed some interesting viewpoints.

It suggested that most drivers quickly become satisfied that EVs can fulfil all their needs once they’ve tested them for a while. But the report also highlighted how big an issue range anxiety (worrying about running out of power before you reach your destination) still is for those who’ve only driven petrol cars. Plus, while many thought their EV performed better than a conventional vehicle, 60 per cent still said it was worse.

There could be many reasons for this: not everyone in the study was driving the same car and different people will inevitably have different criteria for judging the performance. For some, it may even be tied up with the immediate feedback that the noise and feel of a petrol engine provides.

The key point is that more innovation is needed to make people feel an electric car isn’t just satisfactory but preferable. And judging by the variety of companies on show at LCV, much of that development could take place in the UK.

The show provided evidence of the numerous research programmes – many funded by the TSB ­– and partnerships between the big players and specialist SMEs that are turning out world-class technology. There was also competition as well as collaboration, with multiple companies trying to do outdo each other in areas across the sector, from electric motors to charging points.

But for all the positivity at the show, there was also a sense of frustration. A representative from one major manufacturer told me he had expected the show and the UK industry to grow much more than it had over the last few years. That LCV was a long way from becoming like the equivalent events you would see in Germany.

Another exhibitor bemoaned the fact that he had caught up with a lot of old faces but wanted to see more new ones. Over 2,000 visitors may have attended the show over the last two days from industry and academia, but there was a feeling that this number would need to grow substantially before the UK could really see itself as a global competitor.

The answer? The same as ever. We have to find a way of converting more innovation into commercial success. We need to encourage the creation of more small companies in order to foster a larger supply chain that will enable our existing firms to grow.

Nissan choosing to build the Leaf in Sunderland was a big boost for the UK’s automotive industry and for the low carbon sector in particular. If we can show that Britain has the necessary skills, innovation and support structure, then hopefully more manufacturers will follow suit.


Readers' comments (8)

  • The greatest problem seems to be the limitations of the electric vehicle and the lack of honesty from those selling and manufacturing them. Many people using them find they are suitable for their purposes, mainly short distance commuting, many find them unsuitable.

    Honesty is a real issue, how many manufacturers mention the various issues they have? and only mention their positives in sales spiel. Most of this does come down to sales though, and obviously money and profits.

    If manufacturers were honest about the issues they would allow potential purchasers to make informed decisions, and not base opinions on fear and speculation. This would encourage many to make an informed decision and look at an EV where it is a suitable alternative.

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  • Electric cars are all well and good but we have to produce electricity that is cheap enough to make them a viable alternative to efficient, conventional transport. At the moment, the UK government is wasting huge amounts of money on renewable energy when it desperately needs to build nuclear power stations to match base-load. Pull your finger out, Mr. Cameron and do it now!

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  • Construction of the first of the new nuclear power stations is expected to start within the next 18 months to two years, with procurement beginning as soon as the competing designs are approved by the HSE.

  • To give a boost to this industry in the UK requires "government" to do a lot more a lot quicker. For example they could make public transport lanes in the major city centres only accessible to EV's ( whether private or public) and provide charging points at city centre taxi ranks

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  • I feel that far to much time and effort is devoted to trying to make the new product (in this case EV's) look and feel like the old product.
    Do we really have so little confidence that the only way to sell EV's is to make them indistinguishable from IC vehicles?
    I would be far more interested in an EV if it were designed from the ground up as a low energy vehicle (i.e. light with no frills).
    We should be selling new technology on it's own merits, not dressing it up to look like what people already buy.

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  • Referring to editor’s comments, nuclear plants take 4 years from concrete to operation ignoring likely overruns, plus 2 years HSE, let’s say 6-8 years providing you find the investment capital in the first place. There’s something else, ref. GB2477442 at the IPO if there are any manufacturers reading this. It’s good for hydrogen too.

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  • I would happily drive an electric vehicle for my daily commute. I don't think the issue is that people won't choose to drive them, but have more practical concerns:

    Like the majority of private road users I buy my cars second hand. What will be the cost of replacing the batteries on a 5 year old vehicle?

    I live in a top floor flat, extension leads for charging are not really an option, until an infrastructure to enable roadside charging is in place the electric vehicle won't be an option for those that live in flats or city dwellers without parking.

    When visiting friends and family I travel distances of up to 250 miles each way, maybe a couple of times a month. With current ranges I would also have to run or hire an IC vehicle to be able to do this.

    And finally... Are we actually saving the environment, or just moving the carbon production elsewhere?

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  • "
    I feel that far to much time and effort is devoted to trying to make the new product (in this case EV's) look and feel like the old product.
    Do we really have so little confidence that the only way to sell EV's is to make them indistinguishable from IC vehicles?
    I would be far more interested in an EV if it were designed from the ground up as a low energy vehicle (i.e. light with no frills).
    We should be selling new technology on it's own merits, not dressing it up to look like what people already buy."


    Costs... Why would manufacturers want to design a whole new vehicle when they can just retrofit an existing vehicle at a fraction of the price? its not about giving us what we want - its about them minimising their costs while trying to keep in touch with a rising trend

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  • Most of the articles on EVs discuss issues like performance and range. How about an article on their purchase cost relative to comparable petrol or diesel counterparts, and their energy cost per kilometre compared to petrol or diesel fuel?

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