Angela Taylor wasn’t sure whether she was doing the right thing. What about the cost? What about the time it would involve? Would she be able to get as far as she used to? But in the end, she went for it. She bought an electric car. In Scotland, that still makes her a pretty rare kind of driver.
The reason there aren’t more people like Taylor is that, for many, the potential downsides of electric cars still seem too great. Such as “range anxiety” – will an electric car get me as far as my petrol one can?
Another is the cost: you still have to pay more upfront for an electric car than a petrol or a diesel car and the second-hand market for electrics is tiny.
And drivers who are thinking about switching also worry about where the chargers are – and how long the process takes. Together, all of these factors, and a few others, have acted like a drag on the electric revolution which we are told is coming. Which we are told has to come.
But it could be changing. In recent days, there have been some signs of shifting attitudes – among consumers and companies. Mercedes-Benz said it was investing £34 billion to develop electric vehicles and would be ready for an all-electric market by 2030.
Shell announced plans to build hundreds of new charging points in Waitrose car parks. And, in Scotland, figures from the DVLA showed electric car sales have doubled in the past 12 months.
All in all, good signs that we’re heading in a good direction.
There have, however, also been a few indications of the obstacles that are still on the road ahead. The Competition and Markets Authority issued a report last week which warned that the access to charging points was a postcode lottery in the UK, the charging process was still too complicated, the pricing sometimes unclear, and that the rollout of on-street parking was too slow.
It said the current number of charging points in the UK – some 25,000 – was woefully inadequate. If the plan to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in 2030 is to go ahead, it said, we will need 10 times that number.
For Angela Taylor, who is in her 30s and lives in Glasgow, all of these factors were on her mind when she and her wife, Anneka, were wondering whether to go for the electric option. “I did a pro/con list,” she says, “and the concerns I had were higher monthly costs, chargers potentially not working, less range than petrol, and time to charge versus filling up (if on a road trip).”
Since buying her car – a 2020 Corsa E – some of those concerns have come to pass, although not in a serious way. For a start, the monthly costs, including insurance, are higher than they were for her old petrol VW Golf, but not by much: £10 a month.
She has also come across a charger that wasn’t working while out and about in her new car but only once, in a rural part of Ayrshire.
As for the range of the car, it has taken some getting used to. “Unlike with petrol cars, it’s not an exact science with how much charge or how many miles you have left,” she says. “It can go from 190 miles when you get in, then it’ll go down to 80 then back up to 94, which I think is due to different factors like how much you’re braking.
“As long as you know roughly how many miles you need, you should be fine, but I wouldn’t attempt to head out to the house with 40 miles showing and hope for the best. If you needed to do a lot of journeys in a day, or you’re on a tight schedule, you would need to factor in charging time. But if you know that’s the case you would just need to be a bit more on top of your planning and time-management skills.”
For some people, this might sound like just too much faff. It also helps that Taylor is able to charge her car in the driveway overnight, having invested in a home charger. Again, there were extra costs involved to buy and fit the charger, but you can make use of a grant from the Energy Saving Trust.
You are required to use a registered electrician and pay up front, but Taylor could then claim £250 back (it can be more if you live in a more remote part of the country) and ended up paying £700 in total.
And now the charger has been fitted, she reckons that, over 1,000 miles or so, she has saved about £120 that she would have spent on petrol.
Of course, not everyone is in the same situation. What about people living in flats who have to park their car on the street?
And to take advantage of the savings in running costs – which are 49 per cent lower on average for electric vehicles – you have to pay for the car in the first place, and an electric vehicle will cost you more than the equivalent petrol or diesel.
It is these kinds of factors that explain why – although sales are rising – electric vehicles still make a small percentage of the total number of new car sales. The question is: what is going to change things?
The first problem – as the Competition and Markets Authority has pointed out – is the patchy charging network. It is good news that Shell is going to install lots of shiny new chargers at Waitrose shopping centres, but what if you live in a deprived area? Or a rural area?
The postcode lottery that the CMA highlighted means chargers are relatively easy to find in neighbourhoods where people can afford electric vehicles but much harder to spot in lower-income communities.
It doesn’t help that the market for second-hand electric vehicles has been almost non-existent, although it is growing.
The charging network that does exist is run by ChargePlace Scotland, which is owned by the Scottish Government, funded with public money, and is generally free to use once you’ve paid £20 to register. And if you live near one of its chargers, that’s great news. But the question is how sustainable that is as a model for the future if millions of people start switching to electric.
Is it feasible to have a nationwide, publicly-funded charging network that people don’t have to pay for?
Who to charge?
In a report published in the last few days, Transport Scotland cast serious doubt on the future of the model. There needed to be a fundamental shift to a different arrangement, it said, that involves private money and allows companies to charge and reduce the burden on the public purse. However, it also warned that the Scottish Government might have to continue to offer support to ensure that charging was available in parts of the country where private companies might think chargers were commercially unviable.
Transport Scotland’s warning was that, as demand increases, the Government will struggle to keep up without serious private money and investment.
And the evidence is that after years of doubt and scepticism, commercial companies are getting seriously interested because the demand is increasing, even if it is still being driven mainly at this stage by early adopters who are concerned by the environmental impact of their current petrol or diesel car and can afford the initial greater up-front cost for an electric one.
But even here there are some people who are sceptical. They have doubts about whether electric vehicles really are as green as we think. They have concerns about the production of the batteries, and their disposal, as well as how much CO2 is expended in manufacturing the car.
These are all legitimate questions and the answer is that electric cars are absolutely not climate-neutral – there is a cost to them just like with regular cars. There is pollution involved in the mining used to extract the materials needed for the batteries. There are emissions in the manufacturing process. There’s the question of where the electricity comes from – if it’s not from renewable sources, then you still have a problem. And if the batteries are ending up in landfill, that’s another serious downside.
But it’s when you get the electric car on the road that the environmental benefits start to add up. With no tailpipe, electric cars produce no carbon dioxide emissions when driving which means fewer pollutants and cleaner air.
The energy company EDF estimates that in a year, one electric car could save 1.5 million grams of C02, which is the equivalent of four return flights from London to Barcelona. Even factoring in the problems with batteries, this is an absolute slam-dunk win for electric cars.
Given these figures, there is a sense now that even though there is still resistance among some, if not most, motorists, the environmental arguments are beginning to bring about a cultural shift.
The business consultancy PwC, which has been keeping an eye on the sector, believes that the market for electric vehicles is beginning to establish itself regardless of Government subsidies.
In other words, people are beginning to buy the arguments and then – with a little Government help – they are starting to buy electric vehicles.
This is certainly what happened with Angela Taylor, who has had no regrets about her decision to go electric. For one thing, she’s discovered that since buying the car there’s a nascent EV community ready to help – Facebook groups that offer support and advice about charging, the best routes for road trips, advice about apps to use or cars to buy, and so on.
Taylor and her wife have also been on day trips here and there which they say they wouldn’t have necessarily done in their old Golf because of the cost of petrol.
“I understand why people will be hesitant and be put off getting one,” says Taylor. “The cost is high at the minute and not overly realistic for everyone to spend a lot of money on a car when they potentially might have to then figure out how they are charging it and taking into consideration other factors – not having a driveway for a home charger, finding a charger near your house and so on.
“But I think the cost of the cars will come down when the companies put in more investment.”
And for Angela Taylor, there is one factor that trumps all others.
“For me, a lot of it was to do with the environment,” she says.
“I feel better about driving knowing I’m not adding to the CO2 going out.”
It means driving can be a bit of a pleasure, and less of a guilty one. “I don’t for a second regret going electric,” she says. “I love it.”