Electric cars are being hailed as a low-carbon solution to the menace of the motor car but ‘what are they like to drive and are they worth the hype?’ asks Simon Birch.
"Driving an electric car is unlike any other vehicle I’ve driven,” says Dr Charlie Sherrington. “As there’s no noisy engine it’s completely silent and you feel like you’re floating on air. It’s a bit weird but very relaxing. I love it.” A stress-free drive is just one of the benefits that increasing numbers of electric vehicle (EV) owners such as Dr Sherrington are now discovering. After a shaky start, UK sales of EVs are now booming – currently standing at a total of around 35,000.
Dr Charlie Sherrington recharging his Nissan Leaf on the streets of Manchester.
Greenhouse gas targets
But this is just the beginning of the EV revolution. With 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions coming from private cars, the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body which advises the government, wants to see 1.7 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2020 if the UK is to meet its greenhouse gas targets.
“I liked the idea of an electric car as it would be cheaper to run than my existing gas-guzzler and it would help me cut the carbon emissions from my driving,” says Dr Sherrington explaining why he decided to buy the Nissan Leaf, the world’s first purpose-built, affordable, mass-produced electric vehicle. “Plus the Leaf uses new and exciting cutting-edge technology which I like,” adds Dr Sherrington, a consultant neurologist from Manchester.
So what are the biggest differences between driving an EV and a petrol car? “The Leaf has several economy drive settings which encourages a more economical way of driving,” says Dr Sherrington, “consequently I’m much gentler on the accelerator and brakes so it makes you drive in a far more relaxed and ultimately safer manner.”
But crucially, how does Dr Sherrington cope with the fact that the Leaf only has a range of 90 miles when fully charged and has he experienced what’s known as range anxiety, a condition which is said to afflict all new owners of EVs?
“I was anxious initially and wanted to keep the car fully charged all the time,” admits Dr Sherrington, “but that went after a few weeks after I got used to the car as 90 miles is long enough for most of the journeys that I make. Whenever I want to find the nearest charge point I simply look at the Charge Your Car website which lists all charge points in the UK.”
To make things easier Dr Sherrington has had a charge point fitted at home so that he can now charge up overnight with the car on the drive. He is now looking at switching to a green energy provider.
And so how do the running costs of the Leaf stack up? “It costs me around £2 to fully charge the car at home, plus the Ecotricity Electric Highway which has charge points in most motorway service stations is currently free,” says Dr Sherrington who aims to save around £2,000 a year on running costs compared to his previous petrol car.
But should we be getting excited about EVs being a low-carbon solution to the menace of the private motor?
“EVs are definitely the future when it comes to cutting greenhouse gases from private transport,” says Dr Ben Lane, director of Next Green Car. “Even if you just use mains electricity to charge your EV you can cut carbon emissions by up to 25% as EVs are three times more efficient than petrol engines even after taking their manufacture into account.”
Simon Bowens, regional campaigner with Friends of the Earth agrees with Dr Lane: “What excites me is that EV technology can be used in conjunction with community and domestic renewable schemes so you can use 100% green energy to charge your EV,” says Bowens, who charges his own Nissan Leaf with the electricity generated by the solar power panels on the roof of his Leeds home.
“EVs are clearly part of the solution as you’re never going to get everyone out of their car and onto public transport so we need to make sure that the cars that they drive are as low carbon as possible,” says Bowens.
Dr Sherrington agrees with Simon Bowens: “If people don’t buy EVs then companies won’t invest in their future. We need to support this new technology which needs to be normalised,” believes Dr Sherrington. “People need to see that there are positive solutions to the threat of climate change.”