Stuck in first gear

Senior reporter

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.