Enda Mullen looks at the slow progress being made to bring electric cars to the masses
With warnings about everything from global warming to dwindling oil supplies, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s only a matter of time before we’re all driving around in electric cars.
Certainly as car manufacturers are working overtime to offer more environmentally-friendly alternatives to the gas guzzlers of old, all the talk is of electric vehicles.
And when a company like Rolls-Royce is getting in on the act with a prototype electric version of its Phantom, you know it’s not just a flash in the pan.
Though you can already buy or lease electric cars, in reality the market is still very much in its infancy but the CABLED project, being run from Arup’s office at the Blythe Valley Business Park in Solihull, is paving the way for this revolution.
It’s spearheaded by Neil Butcher, who’s in charge of a fleet of 110 vehicles currently being driven by a range of private and business users.
The fleet consists of a mixture of Mitsubishis, Smarts, Tatas and Citroens, with a couple of Range Rover plug-in hybrids thrown in for good measure.
One of the objectives is to help with the development of vehicles locally, particularly as regards Tata and Jaguar Land Rover, and another is to let the public know ultra low carbon vehicles have arrived.
The aim is to evaluate how people taking part in the project are using electric vehicles.
“We are recording journey data to see how long people’s journeys are, also how people are charging them and when they are charging them,” said Mr Butcher, who added the information gathered will be used to develop an infrastructure of charging points.
One of the interesting things to emerge so far is that users are not really taking advantage of the limited number of existing public charging points – locally there are 18 in Birmingham city centre and the same number in Coventry.
“The charging data shows that the public charging points aren’t being used that much, though we’re not sure why that is yet,” said Mr Butcher.
“Maybe it’s because there are so few out there or maybe it’s because they’re in places our users don’t want to drive to.
“Evidence from around the world is that users are keen to know that charging points are out there – maybe they see them as a bit of an insurance policy.
“People won’t buy the cars until they see that the charging points are out there.”
Of course, the development of greener vehicles is about more than just the electric option, according to Mr Butcher, with both plug-in hybrids and standard hybrids having a part to play as well as more fuel-efficient petrol and diesel engines too.
But the electric route is currently in vogue, in large part because they have no exhaust emissions.
As well as the zero-carbon tag, there’s also something essentially appealing about a vehicle that you plug in to charge and which makes no noise whatsoever when on the move.
Of course there’s nothing new about electric vehicles, milk floats having operated on this principle for decades. But with a flurry of models launched over the last couple of years and many more on the way, the electric car business is most definitely in the spotlight.
Perhaps their biggest drawback is a limited range, most being able to cover a distance between 80 and 100 miles on a single charge.
“Until battery prices start dropping and battery technology advances they are essentially urban vehicles,” said Mr Butcher. “They’re city runabouts but very very good at it.”
However when you take a look at the data on how people are using them they start to make a lot of sense.