Life Motoring

Sunday 25 August 2019

On the road with electric car drivers

There is more to EV ownership than simply plugging in and hitting the streets. Geraldine Herbert spoke to some owners about their experience of zero-emission driving

Elayne Devlin with her children Ethan and Ava alongside their
Nissan LEAF Photo: Gerry Mooney
Elayne Devlin with her children Ethan and Ava alongside their Nissan LEAF Photo: Gerry Mooney

Geraldine Herbert

Despite substantial savings in running costs and the potential to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, electric vehicles currently make up a tiny fraction of the cars on Irish roads.

Irish buyers continue to be wary of electric vehicles, which has resulted in a low take-up, with concerns regarding range and flexibility when compared to conventional engines, a limited recharging infrastructure and uncertain resale value.

Electric cars are no longer a niche product restricted to short commutes and city driving, with car makers now delivering more electric models with longer travel ranges and lower prices.

EVs are even moving into motorsport, and this summer the Nissan LEAF became the first all-electric car to enter the Mongol Rally, driving 16,000km from the UK to Mongolia.

Globally, electric vehicles are gaining fans. It is estimated that there will be 200,000 electric cars on UK roads by the end of next year and in the US, 30% of car buyers now would consider opting for an electric car as their next purchase, compared with close to zero as recently as four years ago.

However, the reality is far removed from the hype. With less than 1,000 electric cars sold or imported this year, Ireland is some distance away from achieving the Government's ambitious goal to have 10% of all cars to be electric by 2020.

In a bid to lead from the top and demonstrate how cost-effective and seamless the switch to electric can be, Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Denis Naughten TD recently spent a week commuting between his constituency of Roscommon-Galway and Dáil Eireann in a 100% electric Renault ZOE Z.E. 40. And in this year's Budget, the Government announced funding of €10 million to incentivise the use of electric vehicles (EVs) and a number of support measures were outlined, including an EV taxi grant to stimulate take-up in the high-visibility taxi/hackney/limousine (SPSV) sector, a public awareness programme to include driver experience opportunities, a toll incentive regime to incentivise ultra-low emitting cars, and a 0% Benefit in Kind rate to incentivise EVs without mileage conditions for at least three years.

But will these measures be enough to move the needle on mass adoption of electric cars? Word-of-mouth is crucial and it is EV drivers who are the most convincing that the time to plug in is now.

Pat Lawless, an advocate for electric cars and renewable energy, is currently on his second Nissan Leaf. With an average commute of 800km a week, he is not what you might consider a typical EV driver. Apart from the ease of ownership and how economical EVs are to run, the lack of maintenance when compared to an old diesel car was one of the most significant advantages. "From a practical point of view, servicing is a very simple affair. There is no oil change or fuel filters, timing belt or clutch, so a service costs on average €70 in a main Nissan dealer," says Pat.

Tom McGovern's commute to work is similar to most. He hops into his car, listens to the radio and sits in traffic for an hour. But his 440km weekly commute costs a little more than four euro per week. Lured by low running costs and a good deal earlier this year, Tom traded in a Peugeot 206 for a Hyundai Ioniq and hasn't looked back since. "With a scrappage allowance of €4,000 and the government grant of €5,000, it made good economic sense to opt for an electric car," Tom says.

And it's not only Tom that found the significant savings a key factor.

"Once you've got used to living with an electric car, it's fantastic. I wouldn't go back to petrol," says Elayne Devlin, RTÉ radio producer and mum of two. An enthusiastic Nissan Leaf owner, she says the freedom of not having a petrol expense and the environmental impact are all significant benefits. "I initially looked at a second-hand car but when we added up all the running costs - insurance, tax, petrol, contingency for repairs - it gave us pause for thought."

Affordability is, however, a key issue but as electric cars have been in Ireland since 2010, a second-hand market is emerging. "I couldn't afford to buy a new electric, I think they are quite expensive, but there are some great second-hand ones available," says Elayne.

The downside to this was that until this year's Budget, the ESB only installed home chargers for free for new electric cars, while owners of second-hand ones had to pay for the installation.

New EV prices are also coming down. The average price paid for a new car in Ireland is €28,000 and there are now a number of electric cars below or slightly above this price point: Hyundai Ionic, €28,495; Nissan Leaf (30kWh), €21,490; Renault Zoe, €24,000; and the Volkswagen e Golf and BMW i3 are priced at just over €34,000.

And it is not only the substantial savings that act as an incentive. Fears that rising levels of nitrogen oxides from vehicle exhausts pose a major risk to health spurred Jenny Liddle, a PR director, to opt for a Nissan Leaf. She says: "I was worried about the environmental implications of driving a petrol-fuelled car and heard that breathing in petrol fumes had been linked to Alzheimer's disease. I now have a car that is far more efficient and relaxing, is silent to drive and the model we have is very luxurious, with a touchscreen and built-in sat-nav that also tells you where all the charging stations are. It's a no-brainer really."

Technology professional Daren Foley and his family dumped their fuel-guzzling Mercedes S500 for an all-electric Hyundai Ioniq. According to Daren, "It was the realisation that I could go from a 2006 to a 2017 car, and have it cost me nothing more on a monthly basis - that sold it to me. In fact, I now save approximately €30 per month despite substantial car payments. As I drive more than 1,000 kilometres a week from Cavan to Dublin return, a reduction in general running costs is the biggest advantage. I have gone from paying €400-€450 per month in diesel to €30 per month in electricity."

But there are pitfalls. The uneven distribution of chargers worries many potential electric vehicle owners. It's one reason electric vehicles make up less than one per cent of cars on the road. There is also the unreliability of the network to contend with.

EV owners we spoke to confirmed that they found the poor state of the public charging network to be a huge disadvantage, with long delays in fixing any broken charge points being extremely frustrating.

For Leon Dowling, admin of Ireland's EV Owners Group, the biggest problem regarding the network is charging points which are marked as working that are in fact broken. The issue is that even when reported to the ESB as broken, it is not marked as such until engineer from the ESB has verified it. The delay in reporting the charging point as broken can be days or even weeks later, while in the meantime EV drivers may be planning routes around broken charge points.

As someone who drives an average of 1,000km a week, Leon has first-hand experience of this. "I once had to sleep in my car on a freezing cold winter's night due to a fast charger being marked as working but broken on arrival. And I'm not the only one."

Rachel Reid, a Volkswagen e-Golf driver based in Northern Ireland but a frequent visitor to the Republic, believes that the problem lies in the fact that it is a free-of-charge but limited publicly owned network.

"While drivers in Ireland still have the benefit of free changing on the limited public network, this is a very mixed blessing as it seems to reflect indecision and lack of strategic direction by government here, rather than any practical plan to put an adequate charging infrastructure in place to support the future of motoring. And, while charging remains free here, there will be no competition from other charging providers whose presence could improve the infrastructure."

Should you get switched on to electric cars?

So would an EV work for you? If you're one of the 2,700 plus drivers in Ireland who've already left behind the world of fuel stations and exhaust emissions with the purchase of an EV, the answer is obviously yes. But what about those still on the sideline? Here are a few considerations to take on board before you opt for one:

1. Electric cars will not suit everyone, so be realistic about your needs. That said, not buying an electric car because twice a year you drive from Dublin to Kerry is not realistic.

2. Do your research. The range of the car you buy and the current charging network need to support the journeys you need to make.

3. Consider whether you have access to home or work charging.

4. Talk to someone who owns an electric car and if possible take one for a test drive.

5. Buy a model with the highest range that you can afford.

6. Finally, remember everything in life is a trade-off; if you are charging your car instead of filling it with fuel, then the trade off is time.

Sunday Independent

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