Sunday 20 August 2017

Dawn of a new era as electric cars charge up

The Nissan Leaf, exterior , is due on the
Irish market next year and the ESB is already ahead of the game
after rolling out the first recharging pumps last month.
The Nissan Leaf, exterior , is due on the Irish market next year and the ESB is already ahead of the game after rolling out the first recharging pumps last month.

AND so, like the flick of a light switch, we have the electric car era.

There have been flickers and promises, but with the announcement of the €5,000 grant for electric cars on Monday and a real push by key manufacturers, I think it is fair to say the era is dawning in earnest.

I briefly drove an electric Nissan (Tiida) with the underpinnings that will comprise those of the much-heralded Leaf small family electric car which is due here next year. It was, as you’d expect, quiet, flexible in terms of speed and quick off the mark.

The thing about it was that you didn’t feel it was anything other than a normal car. It just didn’t tick over, make noise and accelerated better than most. I just put it in drive and off we went. Simplicity is a major plus.

The Leaf is the one that, for one reason or another (including astute marketing and positioning) has most recently taken centre stage in the EV (electric vehicle) era. They had a preproduction version for us to sit into. There is plenty of room. A family of five will fit.

As matters now stand, it will have a range of 160km, insufficient in my mind to remove ‘range anxiety’.

The Leaf will be a forerunner of several electric vehicles from Nissan – a commercial van, a city car and an EV from their luxury Infiniti brand.

That 160km range will certainly expand. I think when they reliably go above 200km, a psychological barrier will have been breached.

Most (80pc) will charge their cars at home, but also of huge importance, again psychologically, is the facility to recharge quickly on the road. And with the ESB promising 500 recharge points for Dublin, 130-150 for Cork and 50 or so each for Limerick, Galway and Waterford – as well as at least one for every town with a population of 1,500 or more – it should be fairly easy to replenish power.

Not only that, but the car itself will tell you where you can recharge as soon as it detects you are getting a bit low. And it will curb consumption to make sure you get to the watering hole.

As the ESB’s Senan McGrath said, to tease out elements of the ‘new era’ electric cars represented a chicken-and-egg dilemma. If you have the cars and no charging network, the whole exercise is pointless. By the same token, setting up a network and having few cars using it makes no sense.

But they (the ESB) decided the network should be in place and let nature take its course.

Yes, it all sounds grand and logical and ideal and all that, but the one thing that comes across was that we, yes we the Irish, are trendsetters here.We’re ahead of the pack (with Portugal possibly) so we will make mistakes that we must learn from. No one has the road map for this. I could raise a dozen doubts this minute. But there is an impetus and government incentives, so at least it is in the public mind.

There are a number of key areas that need to be addressed far more intensively.

Range: even for those only tipping around town, there is the need for assurance that they could, if need be, make a long journey without worrying. In fairness, Nissan’s Tom Smith says the Leaf is not going to suit those who undertake long journeys.

Running costs: this thing about paying €100 a month to rent a battery is potentially damaging. And while running costs may appear lower than conventional fossil-fuel engines, you do need to put up a fair few kilometres to justify whatever premium the initial price entails.

By the same token, maintenance should be substantially lower. And the battery pack will last eight to 10 years.

Price: Of all things this is critical. I know of no one who will pay an extra €5,000 for a car just because it is ‘green’. But I suspect a lot of them would consider it if it can be shown to be competitive on price and running costs.

They are talking about being in the same ballpark as the Toyota Prius (nearly €26,000) when all incentives are included. The sooner this is made clear the better. People will make decisions now for next year.

Trade-in values: what will your electric car with a range of 160km be worth in three/four years when the place is overflowing with spanking new ones that can cover 250km?

Other incentives: Why not provide free parking for all electric vehicles and make them toll-free as well? Such little ‘perks’ change the public mood more quickly than all the talk about carbon footprints.

As I said, there are many questions, many hurdles. There are also many answers and several hurdles crossed. Yet we have just begun. A small, small start has been made. Next year will be pivotal. And the year after, and the year after . . .

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