Bright Spark


I probably spend a bit more time than is good for me on social media. Mastodon, the open-source alternative to Twitter, probably absorbs at least an hour of my day as I link up with fellow car geeks from around the world, and I’m also a member of a set of transport-related forums that has a very lively electric car discussion thread, even though EVs are slightly outside of the main focus of the site. I noticed recently that this thread now extends to about 500 pages and is just coming up to its tenth anniversary.

When the thread started back in 2013, I was pretty much the only EV advocate, fending off waves of scepticism and worse. It was a lonely fight. Now the thread mainly consists of people talking about their new EVs and explaining how they plan recharging stops on long journeys, or about how much they are looking forward to getting an EV as their next car. Sceptics are now probably in the minority.

I suppose that’s a measure of how the wider EV market has changed over the years. Back at the dawn of electrification, when the discussion thread was just getting going, there was a widespread feeling that we were stuck with cars that were capable of perhaps eighty miles on a single charge. The Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe, then the only real mainstream EV choices, are still with us, of course, but now they can go a lot further than that, and they have been joined on the market by dozens of other electric vehicle options.

But despite the proliferation of new models, it’s not clear whether EVs have really become much more accessible to the average car buyer. If you want a big, expensive, new electric SUV, you’re very well catered for. If you’re in the more typical position of wanting an affordable plug-in replacement for an ageing Astra or Focus, you’re out of luck. The number of second-hand EVs on sale is limited, as it reflects the smaller numbers of electric cars sold before 2020 – and as I have pointed out before, there is also a dearth of affordable new low-end EVs.

EVs still have lower running costs than fossil-fuelled cars, but of course, you need to be able to afford to buy one in the first place in order to benefit. Servicing is cheaper on an EV, but the per-mile fuel cost advantage of electric has been eroded as domestic electricity prices have risen, while away-from-base rapid charging has similar pricing to petrol and diesel. EV-related taxation advantages have been whittled away and I suspect road pricing will increasingly be presented as a mechanism to fill the fiscal gap left by the loss of fuel duty revenues as the electric switchover progresses. For years, I thought it was safe mostly to ignore this threat to the cost advantage of EVs because it was such a distant prospect, but now, over a decade into the switchover, the day of reckoning is probably getting that bit closer.

Another area that isn’t going as well as it might is charging – and not just rapid charging away from base. One complaint that has been made from the earliest days of EVs is that drivers unable to access a home charger will find it harder to switch. I always felt that while prospective EV buyers without off-street parking suffered an unfair disadvantage, this would not hold up the growth of the EV market as a whole, because the then limited supply of cars could easily be absorbed by drivers who did have their own driveways. In the meantime, or so I thought, solutions to the problem would be found. But now, a good few years have passed by, and we still haven’t advanced much on this front. Meanwhile, the share of EVs in the new car market is now much higher than before, and the continuing challenges faced by potential buyers without home chargers is much more likely to start to inhibit the development of the market.

The frustrating thing about all of this is that electric cars long ago passed the proof of concept stage. We know that a combination of rapid charging and EVs with decent range can make a journey from London to Glasgow as easy as doing the same trip on petrol or diesel. But we need to put in more effort to ensure that what already works for some, also works for everyone, if we’re going to get the switchover completed.

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