Business Technology

Sunday 30 April 2017

Why petrol must be the future for electric cars

Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

THE immediate future for electric cars? I think I have seen it - and, ironically, it's petrol. Let me explain. I have wanted to own an electric car for some time. But when I went to change my own car a few months ago, I flinched. I just couldn't take the plunge for a vehicle that can't travel more than 150km without stopping for a one-hour charge.

Recently, I was offered an alternative prospect. I got an opportunity to test-drive a pair of plug-in hybrid cars for a week.

Over a period of seven days, I alternated between a BMW 330e and a BMW i3. They're completely contrasting cars. But they have one thing in common: they back up their plug-in electric power with reserve petrol motors. The effect of this, I found, was utterly transformative. For the first time, I could drive an electric car further afield without the fear of running out of juice.

For those unfamiliar with plug-in hybrid electric (or 'Phev') vehicles, they work mostly on their electric power. Thus, they have roughly the same range as pure electric cars (such as the Nissan Leaf) of between 120km and 150km in normal driving conditions.

But as soon as you run out of charge, never fear: the petrol engine kicks in.

What's more, you can keep topping up the petrol engine as much as you want, meaning long drives down the country - without tortuous recharging waits or 20-mile diversions to find a charging point - are completely feasible.

The range of a Phev petrol engine varies dramatically. For instance, while the BMW 330e's petrol tank had a whopping 550km of distance in it, the i3's tank was much more modest, at around 150km.

Even still, of these two plug-in hybrid cars, the i3 is much closer to what I imagine my car of the future will look and feel like. This is because it handles way more like a pure electric car.

For example, if you're doing short runs most of the time, you can pretty much run it entirely as an electric car with all of the financial and advantages that brings.

As long as you do less than 100km in any one day (which is about 95pc of my car journeys), just plug it in at home for overnight charging and go again the next day. The cost of the electricity is tiny - a few euro at most.

The i3 also has some other intoxicating benefits that come with electric cars. For example, it accelerates like a bat out of hell. I was reminded of this several times when I needed to 'make' a green light or if I was stuck in a wrong lane and needed to get into the right one ahead of the car next to me (all at a safe, law-abiding speed, of course).

In short, electric cars completely overpower most petrol or diesel cars they share the road with. This is a side-effect of not having all the gears and engine gubbins that traditional cars have and which stand between your foot pedal and forward motion.

In chaotic city driving where inches can make a difference, it's a real bonus.

The BMW 330e is also powerful and speedy, but in a more conventional sense. I found that it fell back on the petrol engine a bit more. It's also styled and crafted as a sports car, while the i3 is somewhat boxy and frumpy, in a futuristic-looking way. (Personally, I like this.)

Speaking of styling, I think all basic cars will resemble the i3's interior design in 10 years' time. It's remarkably spacious for a relatively small car (it's about the same size as a Golf). I felt that I had lots of room to play with -far more than the 330e, which is a slightly bigger car.

This isn't to say that my driving experience was perfect. The i3, in particular, has one odd quirk - its windscreen has a mild nauseous effect on some drivers. By 'some', I mean my wife and, to a lesser extent, me. It may just have been the individual vehicle I was driving, or it could be because the windscreen is so slanted. But looking through the i3's front glass results in a distinct sense of distortion.

When you scan left to right with your eyes, there's a small, but perceptible, warping effect. My wife ended up looking out the side most of the time.

For obvious reasons, I didn't - but I did feel twinges at times. It's not something I've ever experienced in a car before.

And while it didn't really bother me, I can't really get a car that seems to make my wife queasy.

There are also still general some teeth-gnashing moments of frustration that you get with driving any electric vehicle. For example, a trip to my nearest 'fast charge' ESB point (in Dublin) resulted in the unpleasant discovery of an 'out of order' unit. The nearest similar charge point was a few miles away in Dublin Port.

Another time, I used a regular charging point, of the type most available around the country. It took an hour to give me a meagre 34km worth of range power.

So clearly, getting an electric vehicle is a non-starter unless you have a solid, secure home-charging point installed. That probably means you need a private garage, as most people in city areas won't want to leave charging cables coming out of a window into their car overnight.

That said, I hugely enjoyed driving both cars. In particular, I have no doubt that future basic cars will look and feel very much like the i3, especially when they become available for under €25,000, a critical tipping point for mass adoption.

(The BMWs I drove cost between €50,000 and €75,000, which means they're well out of my price range.)

After a week behind the wheels, I'm much more optimistic about electric cars in Ireland. However, it is a future made up of hybrid plug-ins.

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