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Is the government really going to be able to make the switch to electric cars?

27 July 2017

6:06 PM

27 July 2017

6:06 PM

Don’t electric cars sound exciting? No exhaust emissions creating a toxic soup for children to breathe in as they go to school and charging at home before whizzing about in a quiet, clean car. Ministers are so excited by them that this week they announced they want to ban all new petrol and diesel cars from 2040.

I already own an electric car, so you’d expect me to be excited that others will be joining the revolution that’s currently the preserve of tedious people like me who also own folding bikes and have a veg box subscription. But while my car is a dream to drive, it’s really not particularly convenient. A lot needs to change before most people want to buy these cars.


Going electric might make you feel rather smug, but quite quickly you notice a new and not particularly welcome emotion when you’re doing anything other than short trips. It’s called Range Anxiety, and describes the nervousness that electric car drivers experience as they wonder whether their battery will run out before the next charging point. The current range for vehicles like mine is around 120 miles, but this decreases when you are driving uphill or when it is cold. Not ideal if, like me, you drive your car regularly between south Cumbria and Edinburgh, neither of which are known for being particularly flat or balmy.

It’s basically like driving an iPhone. You’re constantly checking your battery level, and constantly looking for somewhere to charge. All motorway service stations have charging points, but only one or two, which is fine when you’re part of a niche group of people, less so when that group starts to grow.  A rapid charge, which adds about 70 miles to your battery, takes half an hour. You can charge at home if you have off street parking, which shows how difficult these cars are going to be to introduce in cities, where they are most needed in terms of air pollution. But a long journey, such as my trip from Barrow-in-Furness to Edinburgh, takes much longer because you need two charges, both taking half an hour. Fine if you enjoy hanging out at service stations and taking a good break from driving. Less fine if the confusing charging network means it takes a while just to get the darned thing started, making you late once again for a family thing. My family now think buying an electric car was one of my most eccentric decisions. Even the children in the family are baffled: after spending a rather fraught morning driving around Edinburgh with a battery claiming to be on 0% trying to find a charging point that worked, an eight year old family friend asked me ‘so why DID you get an electric car?’ I wasn’t sure I had the authority to answer this.

Once you get to Scotland, things improve as the charging is free at the point of use. Which is nice, but the fact that it’s free suggests that not many people are using it. And that’s the bigger problem even than getting sufficient chargers (currently there are only 1,800 in Scotland and around 4,500 across the U.K.) which are available to the public. It’s whether there’s enough overall capacity for these vehicles. The Telegraph estimates that we will need 10 more nuclear power stations to cope with the demand, while the AA has warned about the National Grid’s ability to cope with an evening surge in demand as drivers return home and plug in.

Now, of course 2040 is a long way away. Electric cars are just at the equivalent stage of internet dial-up, when everyone still wondered if it would take off, and had to tell their teenage daughters to stop phoning their friends so they could log in to their emails. But it’s worth recognising that while my electric car is the loveliest and easiest thing I’ve driven, making the switch across the country won’t be quite so smooth.

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