Electric vehicles – the be all and end all?

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Author: | Updated: 07 Aug 2016 10:27

We are at the tipping point where electric vehicles (EVs) are set to become a more dominant force than traditional fossil-fuelled machines. That’s a bold belief and one held by many wedded to the EV market. However, is it the case and based on what evidence are we about to witness the much heralded EV revolution?

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As with so many things in life, a lot of the EV debate centres around statistics. In the UK, the number of EV charging points is rapidly increasing and expected to exceed the count of traditional forecourts by 2020. It will indeed be a momentous time when that happens and certainly signals a major shift in the UK’s car buying and driving habits.

Does it mark such a groundswell move in how many cars of each fuel type there will be on the roads, though? This is the more significant point that many of the EV-angelists do not address so readily.

In the first half of 2016, EV sales were up for the 22nd consecutive quarter and it’s something to celebrate.

More British drivers are choosing plug-in rechargeable cars than ever before as they realise the benefits to the environment and their wallets. Yet, without the government’s continued support of EVs with the Plug-In Car Grant (PICG), would so many be choosing an EV?

We will only know the answer to that when the fund of cash for the PICG runs out, which is expected to happen in 2018. Only if the government chooses to let EVs stand on their own four wheels financially will we get a true picture of their acceptance and popularity.

Tesla Birmingham charger

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Even so, EV sales are up by a whopping 31.8% in the first half of 2016 compared to the same period the previous year. By any standards, that’s a massive rise. Some of it can be explained by more car companies offering EV models now than ever before, while another reason is the growing readiness of the public to opt for an EV.

At present, 98% of EVs are charged at home.

One other reason that has had an effect but is harder to quantify is the on-going fallout from Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal. Those who might have chosen a diesel-powered car for its economy and low carbon dioxide output are now more wary and come have definitely voted with their wallets to choose alternative fuel options.

So, we know EV sales are on the up and petrol stations are dwindling in number, but is this an accurate measure of electric vehicles coming into the mainstream as a replacement for petrol and diesel-fuelled cars? I think not.

Petrol stations are shrinking in number for many reasons. The cost of running a petrol station is simply not viable for many of the independent operators we’ve been accustomed to for decades. Just like the pub trade, fuel retailers cannot make enough selling their core product and have had to either diversify or die.

The large fuel retailers can afford to run their businesses and, as they dominate the market, the price of fuel becomes less flexible. With fewer outlets to choose from, drivers have to accept what they are given. It’s not ideal, but that’s capitalism for you and putting petrol in the car to get to work, go to the shops and collect the kids is more important than worrying about the cost of a litre of fuel for most of us.

This has opened up a great opportunity for EVs, which can offer the prospect of low-rate charging overnight from a domestic supply. At present, 98% of EVs are charged at home, which demonstrates that most owners have access to this kind of charge point and also the sort of journey they use an EV for.

BMW charging for the i3

We’re not going to get mired in the debate about EV range versus the internal combustion engine. What we will say is that EVs are ideal for certain trips and cars running on petrol and diesel are better suited to others at present.

We predicted hybrids to be the future in the late 90s yet these only account for a small portion of car sales in 2016, with the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV being one of the most popular.

This does show, however, that EVs are not at that important tipping point yet. Until we can all either afford a Tesla, or battery technology in all EVs allows significantly larger range, petrol and diesel will remain big players in the propulsion game.

It’s no reason we should not be pushing for EV charging points to outnumber petrol stations. Edward Jones, EV Manager for Nissan, said: “As electric vehicle sales take off, the charging infrastructure is keeping pace and paving the way for convenient all-electric driving. Combine that with constant improvements in our battery performance and we believe the tipping point for mass EV uptake is upon us.”

CHARGE SYMBOL

Mr Jones is absolutely right to have faith in EVs, and not just because he works for one of the major producers of such cars. Even so, the ‘tipping point’ he talks about is not one that will see off fossil fuel cars any time soon. It’s more about EVs going from the periphery of the car market and coming into the mainstream.

Looked at in this way, the discussion about EVs shifts from whether or not they will replace traditional cars to asking if EV sales have plateaued? After all, we predicted hybrids to be the future in the late 90s yet these only account for a small portion of car sales in 2016.

Expecting consumers to move wholesale to EVs is an over-ambitious wish in my opinion. The uncertainty over long-term electricity supply and prices, which has been in the news a lot recently with the debate over Hinkley Point, means the typically cautious UK car buyer will need a lot more convincing before EVs truly tip over into the fast flow of mainstream car sales and culture.

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