Thursday 12 December 2019

Give electric cars a chance - sales may be a joke but they're better than our diesel guzzlers

Nissan Leaf
Nissan Leaf
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Electric cars are getting slaughtered in Ireland at the moment. Sales are dreadful, plug-in infrastructure is weak and the distance range continues to be a fraction of petrol and diesel cars, at around 100 miles per charge for most models.

In short, almost no-one here will consider buying one.

Yet electric cars are most definitely the future. They're clean, powerful and will improve quickly as new models come onto the market.

What's more, most of the exciting, innovative developments in cars at the moment involve electric vehicles. A quick look at the most interesting announcement from Audi, BMW and Mercedes all involve electric motors. Tesla continues to be the most exciting car company in the industry.

I have only driven two electric cars, Nissan's Leaf and Volkswagen's eGolf. Both are among the best experiences I've ever had in a car. They were peaceful, fuss-free and accelerated like Porsches. They had cost almost nothing to run (tax-free and pennies to charge up). I couldn't imagine a better time.

I dearly want to be an electric car driver.

Yet when I recently went to change my car, I knew I couldn't buy one. To do so would be to play roulette on my way to places such as Sligo or Galway or Cork.

It's all about the range. I started to have visions of being stranded in Ballaghaderreen or Belmullet because of an out-of service public charger. (There is usually only one for miles around: Belmullet's is the only one for almost 50 miles.) In my anxiety daydream, I would be sitting somewhere in Roscommon or Longford wondering whether, if I drove slowly enough, I could make it to Swinford or Ballymahon (20 miles away) to see if the next charger was working. And if not, who I could persuade to let me plug in for an hour to get enough juice to make it to Swinford or Ballymahon.

Who would buy a car with that sort of uncertainty hanging over them?

Almost no-one. Despite being (rightly) seen as the coming thing, electric car sales fell from a pathetic 466 in 2015 to an irrelevant 392 in 2016. That's less than the number of Jaguars or Volvo trucks sold. It's a bit of a joke. As such, dealerships barely even bother taking up space on the showroom floor with their electric models anymore.

Still, someone is actually buying and driving them.

My guess is that the small handful of Irish people doing so are dedicated environmentalists who do all their driving around cities. Or people who are in a two-car family where the other vehicle is a comfortable medium-to-large automobile that easily handles long distances.

In both cases, electric cars are essentially seen by Irish motorists as expensive local runarounds. And although that is what many of us actually use our cars mostly for, few of us want to base our purchasing decisions around that.

Yet there is still hope for electric cars. A quick look at developments in Europe and around the world shows that the cars we now buy - overwhelmingly diesel engine models - will soon either be banned or become very expensive to run.

This message does not appear to have reached Irish consumers or policymakers yet. But three of Europe's biggest cities - Paris, Madrid and Athens - say they will ban all diesel vehicles in the next 10 years. Norway is considering a move to ban petrol and diesel engines in 2025. As a result, Renault is reportedly mulling over whether or not to phase out diesel engines from its ranges. If EU policymakers follow through with environmentally-focused rules on car emissions, other car manufacturers will follow suit.

Regulators generally favour cleaner, lower-emission engines. And that inexorably leads back to electric cars (or alternatives such as hydrogen-powered vehicles).

There is no reason why this should interpreted as anything other than a good thing. Electric cars aren't a nuisance, they're fantastic.

The silence of their operation, while sometimes spoken of as a danger because of a lack of an audible warning to pedestrians, is at least as good a thing as their environmental qualifications. Think of it: a city boulevard or neighbourhood road unencumbered by the growls of a hundred engines revving in rush hour traffic. Who could not like that? Motoring noise is one of the most underrated urban uglinesses of our time. Getting rid of most of it would revitalise town life.

The environmental and health benefits hardly need emphasising, either. Cars, even diesel ones, are dirty machines that poison the air around us.

And those distance range limitations? Once electric cars get to a reliable 300 miles in range, there can be no reason for any Irish driver to complain. There are virtually no two points in the country more than 300 miles apart.

Some Teslas already offer this type of range: Audi says that its next electric SUV will, too. In time, this will trickle down to smaller, cheaper cars.

Even if it's slightly lower than this - 200 miles, say - that is still enough for 95pc of normal Irish car journeys. And if charging infrastructure points are built out a little better, it should never be a real disabler.

Electric cars offer a great future. I can't wait.

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