Knowing which way the wind is blowing

There was some interesting news on electric cars this week with Volvo announcing that all its new cars will be at least partially battery-powered from 2019; and France announcing, one day later, that it will ban the sale of cars with an internal combustion engine by 2040. There’s a plethora of links in these two articles – on a side note, blogs seem to have become media articles these days while media articles seem to have become blogs – which are well worth exploring, too.

On top of this, the Queen’s Speech promised legislation to ‘ensure the United Kingdom remains a world leader in new industries, including electric cars‘, with the accompanying notes referring to an Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill whose purpose would be – among others – to improve the national charging infrastructure. With the government being supported by the DUP, whose own green credentials leave something to be desired and whose programme features a strong element of climate change scepticism, this is an interesting inclusion in a Queen’s Speech which doesn’t otherwise feature a lot else of substance, Brexit apart.

Volvo will, of course, still be producing existing models with internal combustion engines after 2019; and it will continue to produce a range of hybrids (cars with some level of electric/battery input alongside an internal combustion engine, which can be as minimal as simply managing fuel efficiency); while a policy announcement that takes full effect in 23 years time is, perhaps, little more than virtue signalling given shortening policy timescales. We were all, after all, an awful lot younger in 1994.

Nevertheless, the direction that the wind is taking is clear and it is, on the whole, a good one in terms of reducing carbon emissions. It is worth pointing out that international agreements on carbon reduction have provided an important impetus to the development of the electric vehicles market, not least in the light of the role in total carbon emissions played by aircraft travel and the more readily available technology that battery-powered cars provide in terms of achieving the necessary reductions targets.

Much remains to be done, however: globally, sales of electric cars total no more than 2m, about 30% in China and Japan and a further 25% in the US. Within Europe, the Netherlands and Norway look to me be leading the way. In the light of this, it it no wonder that progress is slow, and incremental. It does need a bit of a kick and the toes being dipped in the water by Volvo and the French government simply aren’t sufficient. Better instead, to do more in the way of encouraging manufacturers to bring end prices down.

Drivers of electric cars are likely to continue to be worried about the availability of charging stations – especially, for longer journeys, the availability of rapid chargers which allow the current generation of electric cars to be fully charged in about 45 mins (30 mins to about 80%). The focus of the UK government’s initiative on electric vehicles – that petrol re-fuelling stations would be compelled to offer electric charging points – is thus an interesting one. The Bill will indeed require the installation of charge points for electric vehicles at motorway service areas and large fuel retailers, and on the basis of a common set of technical and operational standards.

Precisely what will be required, and where, and the cost regime that is envisaged along with any subsidies on offer, remains to be seen. If electric cars do take off, then petrol stations would need to change their business model anyway and, while it is easy to see a conversion of some facilities to coffee shops (and hopefully something more welcoming than just the coffee areas to the side of existing facilities that is currently substantially the provision), it is a lot harder to see the profit in selling two or three cups of coffee and possibly a cake or two while people wait for their cars to charge against a £30 fuel sale (by the end, a full tank on our BMW was costing £70). We might see this as the government providing a bit of a nudge to service station providers ahead of the deluge that will otherwise befall them, but the better option, if the government wants to get involved, would be to facilitate the provision of charging points away from petrol stations but put them in car parks, park and ride facilities. The smart move, if we’re talking about town centre regeneration, would be to put a mass of charging points in, or very close to, town centres, too. There’s absolutely a role there for councils and it would be good to see the government working closely with local councils instead rather than nudging petrol stations to do what the market will force them to do anyway.

The other major issue of course here is, as with anything else, Brexit. Renault-Nissan has a 20%+ market share of 2m electric car market (and hence the Macron government’s lead on this); and the UK claims to be the largest market for electric vehicles in the EU (though the Netherlands looks larger), while one in five electric cars sold in the EU in 2016 were made in the UK. Nissan does, of course, have a plant in Sunderland – our new Leaf was made there, and on the basis of an internal competition within Nissan to be a site featuring production lines for the higher-output models. The leading role of Nissan-Renault in the global electric car market – on the back of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement announced this week – will clearly be a major feature in the Brexit negotiations. Precisely what Carlos Ghosn (who has now moved on from Nissan) got out of Theresa May when they met last October – a discussion that we know encompassed electric cars (Q112-Q115) – continues to be a highly-relevant point for discussion. It is to be hoped that the new Chair of the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, when elected this coming week, will see it as a priority not only to pick up the threads of its inquiry into the electric car market but also to recall its earlier desire to get to the bottom of that infamous letter.

[18 July edit: a letter has also been sent in highly similar circumstances to Toyota. The Committee – with Labour MP Rachel Reeves in the chair – has an urgent task in keeping the activities of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under review as Brexit talks get underway.]

[18 July update 2: it’s actually the Treasury Committee which is taking charge here and, by the look of it, it is on the case.]

She’s gone electric

Just returned from a few days well-timed break on the mainland, firstly for a lovely week’s holiday and secondly to bring home our new car: a brand new, fresh out of the box, Storm White pearlescent Nissan Leaf. If you don’t already know, this is a fully electric car: no diesel/petrol engine; no exhaust/emissions; no oil. Just a battery (and automatic transmission). Oh, and, pleasingly, a ‘start’ button just as it appears on your computer. As far as I know, we are the proud owners of only the second fully-electric car on the Uists (though there are also a few hybrids running around – cars with both a battery and a ‘normal’ petrol engine). Here it is, sat tonight on its new driveway:

IMG_5978 (Custom)_LI

(It seems I have become an early adopter, after all, albeit by default, when for the majority of my life I have most definitely been a laggard.) And, when researchers were talking only last week of petrol cars being obsolescent (in the US) in eight years, this was also a very timely purchase.

We’ve been researching this for some time, having been alerted to the idea by a hybrid-driving colleague some months ago – as a committed non-driver I’ve recently spent more time in car showrooms and talking to car salespeople than I really would ever want to imagine. Or indeed repeat. (Though I should also say that my recent experience of the latter is that the car salesperson is, in comparison to the legend, an unfairly maligned figure.)

There were two reasons for our purchase: clearly environmental considerations, especially in the context of the previous car having been a diesel although BMW was far from the worse performer in the emissions scandal; but also, secondly, simple economics: electric cars are far cheaper to maintain in terms both of getting them on the road (zero emissions mean there is no vehicle tax) and then keeping them there (in terms both of the ‘juice’ required to run the things and also in there being less mechanically to go wrong. With a purely electric car consuming no traditional fuels in its operation, it is as green as the electricity which is used to charge it (which may be darker or lighter green, depending on your supplier). And, of course, to manufacture and maintain it.

Early experience (a return trip from Perth to Glasgow airport – c. 71 miles in each direction – followed by a one-way trip from Perth to Mallaig yesterday for the island ferry, of about 142 miles) has been pretty favourable (we did, of course, take a similar model for an extensive test drive prior to purchasing). I don’t drive so performance questions are better directed elsewhere although it seemed to me that acceleration (from a standing or rolling start) was as you would expect from any ‘normal’ car and certainly there were no problems in building the speed required for overtaking. For someone whose earlier awareness of battery-powered cars had been with what the Highway Code used to call ‘invalid carriages’ (and now calls ‘powered wheelchairs‘: the law still calls them carriages), this was particularly notable as I did have a few doubts beforehand.

If you have any questions about electric cars, let me know below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Going electric is not entirely a worry-free experience since the range of the Leaf on a full charge is about 120 miles (although, interestingly, Nissan’s claims are for 150+). This is absolutely fine for running around the Uists but, for longer distance trips, especially those involving ferry connections, a degree of planning around the location of charging points on your journey, and a degree of finger-crossing that no-one is already there when you get there, is required. Yesterday, our return home entailed two stops (at Crianlarich and Fort William), and the adoption of a different (and longer) route in order to take advantage of more charging opportunities, when we have frequently done it otherwise in a single hop.

Here’s a few observations on our experience with charging the car so far:

1. in the course of the last two days, we actually visited seven charging stations (there is quite a lot of them around: here in Scotland, for example). For much of the time, it was raining (Scotland – and indeed the rest of the UK – does get quite a lot of rain). I have spent some time on petrol station forecourts and I have rarely got wet since they have usually managed to put some sort of canopy over them. In contrast, six of the seven charging stations we used were in the complete open air. When you also have to stop and download an app, as we did on one occasion, this is potentially a miserable experience which clearly needs sorting out (we did see one station which was encaged in a glass box: well done the  The Green Welly Stop).

2. The seventh station was in a multi-storey council-run car park in Perth so was indeed under cover. However, we did note that the charging points here were in the paid area of the car park, which did raise question marks that blue badge holders would, exceptionally, have to pay to park to use the machines since the blue badge parking bays were located on a different floor outwith the paid parking bit.

3. Longer distance journeys are going to require the installation of more rapid charging opportunities if electric cars are going to take off in the way the US researchers suggest. A typical charging station is composed of one or more petrol pump-style installations having a number of different connectors also with a resemblance to petrol pumps (some electric cars use AC, some DC – and, of course, different manufacturers are using different connectors: the joys of the riotous nature of innovation under capitalism). One of these will be a ‘rapid’ charger which is capable of charging the Leaf’s battery to about 80% of capacity in about 30 minutes. But you wouldn’t want to wait around for someone else’s charge to finish, still less be in a queue to do so. And neither would you essentially want to double the length of your journey time every time to allow for planned, and potentially extended, charging stops (we did allow 7 1/2 hours yesterday – for a journey of 140 miles, that is a little excessive). That by itself is likely to limit the extent to which ‘normal’ cars do become obsolete in the medium-term. (However, I can easily foresee a situation in which people have electric cars for everyday use and the ordinary commute, and then simply hire a ‘normal’ car when required for a longer trip.)

4. People are likely to want to have something to do, or to eat or drink, when charging. This is likely to indicate some opportunities for retail sellers to engage in providing charging facilities alongside their existing outlets, and make a little extra money when doing so. From my limited experience so far, a lot of charging stations are council provided and that is of course absolutely fine – but they do tend to be located around council buildings or sites, including recycling areas, park and ride schemes and other public car parks, as a simple public amenity and it seems not so much thought has yet – at that level – gone into providing attractive additional facilities.

5. Meanwhile, on our journey we were waved at a few times by other electric car drivers; and one other driver – not noticeably having gone electric – gave us a double thumbs-up. That’s unexpected.