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Adrian Weckler: Ireland needs U-turn on electric car policy


A Toyota FGV Plus concept car on display at the Paris Motor Show in Paris, France, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016.  (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

A Toyota FGV Plus concept car on display at the Paris Motor Show in Paris, France, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

A Toyota FGV Plus concept car on display at the Paris Motor Show in Paris, France, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

If you invested in an electric car two or three years ago, you may be feeling like a mug. But how much worse must it be if you ploughed millions into marketing and selling the plug-in vehicles?

In Ireland, that's the scenario facing companies like Nissan, Renault, Volkswagen and BMW. The Government has been touting lofty targets of supporting up to 200,000 electric cars on Irish roads by 2020, to be backed by renewable-friendly policies and incentives.

But with just three years to go until that 2020 target, Ireland has a piffling 2,000 electric vehicles on the roads, or 1pc of the original target. Last year, sales of new electric cars actually fell (from 466 in 2015 to 392 in 2016, compared to 142,000 new cars overall).

Even by the State's modified goal of 50,000 electric vehicles active by 2020, it's a pretty bad result. If you're a company like Nissan, which has spent more than anyone on marketing its Leaf car here and has the lion's share of the market, it's a source of frustration.

Last week, Nissan Ireland's chief executive, James McCarthy, put a brave face on the figures, referring to an investment in branding. But last year, it sold 350 Leaf electric cars compared to 1,676 similarly-sized diesel or petrol 'Pulsar' cars. It also sold 4,600 (mostly diesel) Qashqai cars.

Like Volkswagen, Hyundai, Renault and BMW, Nissan went along with government promises in recent years to steer future State policy in the direction of electric cars. But with the exception of a government grant, little has been followed through. Nationally, we have a threadbare network of chargers and no real enthusiasm from anyone in official circles.

It is not like this in other countries. In Norway, electric cars get access to bus lanes and free parking in cities. They also pay no road tolls. As a result, it has 126,000 electric cars compared to 2,000 here - both countries have roughly similar populations and levels of car ownership.

There are other issues. Virtually no publicly tendered vehicles acquired by State bodies are electric. Why not? Buses may be too expensive, but there are many official bodies with extensive car allowances or acquisitions. Why aren't any powered by renewable energy? To be fair, there is a government grant (of €5,000) that's available to anyone buying a new electric car. But this only reduces the price of a €26,000 hatchback Nissan Leaf to that of a standard Volkswagen Golf, which has a greater range, far more refueling points, and a higher resale value. (Granted, the Golf is more expensive to run)

I recently went to upgrade my car and looked at electric options. But none of the current models had a 'real world' driving range of over 100 miles. All other things being equal, this made the choice of an electric car unfeasible. I drive outside the city at least once a month and charging points, which are sparse enough even in our cities, are threadbare outside. There was no way I was willing to invest in a car that relies on the availability of isolated charging points in counties like Offaly, or Roscommon on those trips.

Could I have overcome such range anxiety if I could use the electric car in a bus lane? Very possibly. With such a perk for everyday city driving, I would be strongly incentivised to seek other forms of transport for those out-of-city occasions.

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I suspect I am not alone. However, it doesn't look like the authorities are going to consider such soft benefits to lure us into becoming electric drivers.

Indeed, it looks like the Government is about to lower electric car targets again, this time to 20,000 by 2020 - a 90pc reduction from its original goal.

Even this seems an impossible target without any practical new incentives. While the Communications and Environment Minister Denis Naughten has spoken of introducing incentives, his colleague, Transport Minister Shane Ross, has largely vetoed the moves, saying that perks such as bus lane access would violate the principle that public transport channels shouldn't be clogged up by private vehicles, whether they are environmentally friendly or not.

This is a fair point and one that many urban planners would agree with as a long-term policy, but in the short term? Opening up bus lanes would do hardly any damage as there simply aren't enough electric cars on the road yet to make any discernible difference.

There is nothing to stop authorities from introducing, say, a time-limited period for incentives. As the Norwegian experience shows, this would result in a big boost in sales. At the end of that time-limited period, electric vehicles would be in a much stronger position to stand on their own unsubsidised legs, for two reasons.

First, new models coming on stream over the next two years will double and triple existing distance ranges. It will start this year with the Chevrolet Bolt and the Tesla 3, which will bring ranges to around 200 miles (320km). Once this range approaches 300 miles (480km), as it will do in 2019 or 2020, it ceases to become a significant issue on Irish roads as almost no-one drives over that distance here in a single day.

The second reason electric cars sales wouldn't fall off after an introductory boost period lies with customer satisfaction in the vehicles themselves.

When people actually drive electric cars, they often don't want to go back. I have driven two at different times, Nissan's Leaf and Volkswagen's eGolf. Both were superb. They were peaceful, fuss-free and accelerated like Porsches. They cost almost nothing to run (tax-free and pennies to charge up). Would I like to be an electric car driver? Absolutely.

But right now, unless I'm happy to have a city runaround, or I'm in a two-car family where we share vehicles for different purposes, or unless there's some really compelling advantage to owning one beyond marginal savings, it's not a realistic option.

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