The EV delusion

Huge economic and infrastructure challenges must be overcome if electric vehicles are to become anything more than toys for middle class drivers

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The very fact that electric vehicles (EVs) wind Jeremy Clarkson up makes them interesting. Never a fan of electric cars, Clarkson recently managed, by a convoluted argument, to suggest that they were bad because they allowed other road users to out-accelerate a Lamborghini from the traffic lights without making a loud noise. But beguiling though their 0 to 30 rates are, EVs’ main appeal is environmental.

If pootling around town is all you need a car for, then you should be okay

While it takes time to pay back the carbon emitted in producing the cars, given a green source of energy, EVs reduce the national carbon footprint. This has convinced the government of their worth: stopping the sales of petrol and diesel cars in 2030, and hybrids (which are about making people feel they’ve done their bit) in 2035. I’m convinced too and really want one of these cars. But there is a reality gap between the pricing of EVs and the amount most of us are realistically able to pay.

The real cost per mile

If we take three popular budget petrol cars, the Dacia Sandero, Hyundai i10 and Kia Picanto, we are looking at starting prices in the £10,000 to £13,000 range. A more up-market Renault Clio can be had for around £18,000. Dacia don’t do an electric car — but the cheapest from Hyundai, Kia and Renault cost between £30,000 and £33,000 each. Admittedly the government subsidises these cars — but only by £1,500, taking the starting price to between £28,500 and £31,500.

What’s more, the petrol cars can cover 350 and 450 miles between refuelling stops, but these “budget” electric cars have terrible ranges. The best of those mentioned above (Renault’s Zoe), has a stated range of 234 miles, where the other two allegedly can manage around 180. But that is with a following wind. Electric car stated ranges can hardly ever be achieved at the best of times — and drop considerably in cold weather.

If pootling around town is all you need a car for, then you should be okay. But many of us mix short local journeys with longer trips, typically in the 200 to 300 mile mark — and for these, those cheap electrics don’t cut it. Getting a car that can consistently manage such a range (still well below that of the petrol vehicles) typically adds another £10,000 to the price.

Defenders of electric car pricing point out that they are cheaper to run, and this is true. According to Renault’s calculator, on a typical 7,000 miles a year, the owner will save between £400 and £700 depending on whether they are home charging or using commercial charging points. But that hardly makes up for an up-front price difference of £20,000.

The government responds to criticism for having cut the subsidy for EV purchase to £1,500 each on December 2021 by claiming that electric cars are rapidly coming down in price. Official statements tell us that economies of scale are starting to kick in as car plants switch over to electric production, making the cars far more affordable. It’s hard to compare like with like, as electric cars are a relatively new product. But the Renault Zoe — one of the most popular EVs — had a starting price that was £3,000 less in 2019. This is hardly “rapidly coming down in price”.

Rose-tinted projections

There’s no doubt that EVs are being bought in increasing numbers. Around ten per cent of new cars sold in 2021 were electric. However, until electric cars with reasonable real-world ranges (which means a genuine range of at least 300 miles) are available for under £20,000, it is hard to see that they will be anything more than toys for the relatively wealthy who wish to polish their environmental credentials. Looking around houses near me with an electric car on display, every driveway also has a petrol or diesel car to cover those longer-distance journeys.

To be fair, the government is not alone in its bullish optimism about the affordability of EVs. In an October 2021 report, Net Zero Pathfinders, Bloomberg tells us that the trajectory of electric car pricing means that “EVs are likely to reach upfront price parity with comparable internal combustion vehicles without subsidies as soon as 2022 in some passenger car segments in Europe and North America.”

The UK needs around 250,000 public chargers by 2030.

A few European countries do indeed have subsidies that dwarf the UK’s. The German subsidy for electric cars costing less than €40,000 is €9,000, around five times the UK grant. But even that is only about a third of the difference between electric and petrol cars with similar ranges, while Bloomberg’s prediction of parity without subsidy in 2022 seems to depend on spectacles so rose-tinted that they are practically opaque.

The challenge of charging

Apart from selling their first-born to afford the car, the other issue faced by would-be EV owners is getting the things charged. If you are lucky enough to have off-road parking, the least you might expect a supportive government to ensure is that having a charging point costs nothing. It is, in principle, possible to charge an electric car from a 13-amp socket, but with a decent range battery this means plugging it in for 30 hours. Not ideal when you get an emergency call to help an ailing elderly relative.

Fast home chargers, which can provide a full “tank” overnight, cost around £800 fitted (this isn’t a DIY job). There was a £350 OZEV (Office for Zero Emission Vehicles) grant towards this, but this is no longer available for new car buyers: you have to have already owned an electric car for six months and it is being withdrawn on 22 March 2022. From that date, it is only available to landlords, who can claim up to £70,000.

Meanwhile, the government is using legislation to extend the availability of charging points. From 2022, new English homes and workplaces are required to install chargers when built. It’s claimed that this will result in up to 145,000 extra charging points per year. The last government statistics on public charging points (from July 2021) showed 24,374 devices, 4,551 of which were rapid enough to deal sensibly with mid-journey charging. The Competition and Markets Authority has suggested the UK needs around 250,000 public chargers by 2030.

These numbers need to be treated with some caution. One of the plus points of electric car charging is that it is heavily supported with smart software that can tell you, for example, the status of chargers in your area.

Looking around nearby public chargers that I could access, around half of them are listed as out of action. A charging point is not just an electric socket: it requires mechanisms for taking payment and carefully managing these large currents, meaning there is far more to go wrong than might be expected.

Trouble on the home front

Most owners, though, will rely on the significantly cheaper electricity from home charging points for the bulk of their power. As of late 2021, there were around 250,000 home and workplace chargers. Bear in mind that there are currently 32 million cars on the road in the UK. There’s a long way to go before a fully electric fleet could be charged.

Imagine having to deal with six different types of petrol pump

The other difficulty with home charging is faced by the approximately 40 per cent of UK homes without off-road parking. It’s hard enough to find a parking space nearby when living in a row of Victorian terraced housing, but the idea of charging up an EV poses even greater barriers.

Running a charging cable from the home to the car is often impossible because of the need to cross the pavement. The alternative is on-street chargers. A few councils have invested in these, but they remain few and far between.

Users of on-street chargers also face a considerable price hike for their electricity compared with those lucky enough to have off-street parking. Typically, electricity from public chargers costs twice as much as from a home device. It’s still far cheaper than petrol or diesel, but it does add to the burden of anyone who can’t wire up at home.

The incompatibility issue

Finally, charging points aren’t one size fits all. Chargers can be AC or DC and can provide a whole range of power from a few kilowatts (kW) up to the ultra-rapid chargers in the 100 to 350 kW range. Not all cars can take the ultra-rapid charging. There are also six different types of connectors, from the traditional three-pin plug for 3 kW AC, to Type 2 and CCS at the rapid charging end. Imagine having to deal with six different types of petrol pump, each with an incompatible nozzle.

It should not be surprising that a relatively immature technology has not got distribution cracked yet, but thankfully it is developing quickly. And, as was shown by the queues at the pumps due to panic buying in September 2021, the petrol network itself is sensitive to disruption. If home chargers were widely available, things would be far easier than they are now with petrol cars.

Similarly, there is no doubt that the economic barrier to purchasing EVs will lower. What remains to be seen, though, is whether we are on track to overcome the difficulties presented by electric cars in the optimistic timescales the government has set. As a would-be EV owner, I really hope that we are. But it seems likely the government will have to dig significantly deeper into the public purse if drivers are to make the move in time.

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