Electric Cars – Are they really the future?
I am so grateful to Peter Donaldson for kindly supplying the following piece about his experience with electric cars which will hopefully open up a long-running debate on the subject. In an ideal world, they may be the perfect solution to help in cutting down ICE pollution and as city cars not travelling too far from a home base I think they are an excellent idea but for any sustained long-distance travel, as Peter’s article will indicate, I think the impracticality of mass re-charging in the future could become a very big issue. I am sure that most of the still technically minded amongst us will have an opinion and we really would like to read about it here on the blog.
Opening the debate in favour of electric cars then is Peter’s article sent from his home in the land of the free charging point – Scotland.
Peter Donaldson outside The Grampian Transport Museum with his blue Zoe electric car.
From Cray Valley – to the future!
I suppose that my interest in electric cars is partly down to Cray Valley Technical High School! In the late 1950s, we were studying electric motors as part of the curriculum and that made me vaguely aware of having seen a small motor in dad’s garage. “Yes, lad. It’s a quarter horsepower and will probably still work.” With permission, I dragged it out and once wired to a plug, was impressed with the quiet power of the thing on mains. Like many of us, I had a soapbox cart with pram wheels and I wondered if the motor would drive that. I mounted it on the deck at the back – with the motor spindle driving one of the back wheels. It was perfect! Speed was about 3 mph but acceleration was instant. The downside was trailing a wire behind me which, of course, I broke and blew the plug fuse!
That was my early brush with electric propulsion, but I always had a soft spot for the electric motor. Dad’s motor had been unused for 40 plus years – and just started as though it had been in use every day. Not many internal combustion engines would do that.
Fast forward to 2017, and at the age of 72, I decided that I wanted to try out an all-electric car and enjoy the new technology while I still had all my marbles. So, I purchased a six-month-old all-electric Renault Zoe demonstrator car from the Renault Dealer in Brechin here in Scotland. It arrived in July 2017 and cost just over £12,000. Why not the more well-known Tesla? Well, for the uninitiated, a Tesla ‘S’ – model D costs over £90,000! This will buy a comfortable long-range cruiser that can cover 300 miles at 70 mph on one charge but it was out of my price range. My normal maximum driving journey is up to 100 miles round trip and the ‘Zoe’ seemed to fit the bill admirably. The declared range for the car between charges is 180 miles in summer, and 120 in winter. (The latter figure is due to the fact that lithium-ion batteries used by most current electric cars are less efficient in really cold weather.) On the 27th of July 2017, I joined the electric revolution and started to experience a new way of driving.
July in Scotland proved to be a good time to commence this sort of experiment because the weather is warmish and the battery range is not a problem for normal commuting runs. The initial experience was so satisfactory that after a few months, I sold my diesel car which I had kept back in case the electric car experiment was a failure.
The main difference with running an electric car is using charging points to ‘refuel’ the car rather than going to a filling station. Renault prudently provide a free home charging point that can refuel the car from empty in about seven hours so a quick home top-up is never a problem. However, at the time of writing in November 2018, most public charging points in Scotland are free. I work part-time at Grampian Transport Museum in Alford, Aberdeenshire, and there is a fast charge unit in the car park outside the museum. With normal driving requirements, a free charge once a week is sufficient for my needs.
And so I started to get comfortable with electric driving and gradually increased one-way journey lengths to over 100 miles (even in mid-winter) as my confidence grew.
Then came a journey that I had not remotely considered. My wife’s niece, a committed environmental scientist and ‘eco-nut’, was getting married at the beginning of August 2018 in Oxford and asked if there was any chance of using the Zoe as her all electric, pollution-free wedding car. What could I do but say ‘yes’ and start the planning?
Long before the acquisition of the Zoe, we had stopped driving six hundred miles in a day as my wife and I resented getting so tired. Dividing the journey to Oxford into two days made the planning easier, leaving the problem as to whether to go down the east or west side of the country. The growing electric car charging system in Britain is publicised in a constantly updated internet guide called Zapmap. A close investigation of the location of chargers showed rather more were available on the east side so east was the decided route. It then became simply a matter of dividing the days into manageable chunks and seeing what chargers were available around those points. That proved fairly straightforward. I went back to the sort of planning I did when a pilot and arranged each charging destination with one or two alternate charge point in case the first was broken or in use. The route chosen was home (N of Aberdeen) to South Queensferry, Edinburgh (lunch and charge) – then to Newcastle for a night stop and charge. Day two would be Newcastle to Rotherham, (lunch and charge) then on to the destination in Noke, outside Oxford. We had booked a cottage as a base for the wedding – and it was only after booking that we discovered that it had its own electric car charging points. What a bonus that proved to be!
The journey itself was reasonably straightforward – arriving at Oxford with no major difficulties. We were surprised as to how fresh we two septuagenarians felt after arriving.
We started from Scotland using 55 mph as a cruising speed, but this increased to 60 mph as my confidence grew with the car’s range. When on motorways, I had bursts of up to 70 mph to get past knots of trucks before slowing back to 60mph. The longest leg driven was 140 miles but we never arrived with less than 30 miles to spare. The electric car is very relaxing to drive – very quiet, and instant torque if sudden acceleration is needed. A very dismissive reviewer in a large car magazine described the Zoe’s performance on motorways as so poor as to be ‘bordering on dangerous’. The writer was probably concerned that you can’t reach 90mph in seconds.! The Zoe accelerates rapidly low down, and even at 60 mph, a push of the pedal gets it past 70 mph and on up to 80+ pretty quickly. This is more than good enough for me.
The week in Noke went really well despite the daytime temperatures being over 30˚C. The heating and air-conditioning are handled in the car by a 1kw heat-pump. However, the battery capacity is 41 kWh – so an hour of continuous heating or cooling only reduces your range by only 1/41st! The Zoe was decorated in the approved wedding style and looked rather pleased with itself. The cottage we stayed in was situated on an ecological farm site – with extensive solar panels. I charged the Zoe during the day with no cost to the owner or myself.
After Noke, we drove down to a village near Dorchester to stay with old friends. Dorset is a bit of an electric car charger desert – so my friend kindly allowed me to recharge the car from the mains. This again went well with the car fully charged by the early hours of the next morning.
Following the stay in Dorchester, we drove up to near Derby to stay with my sister. We did a few trips with her and charged from her mains’ plug each night.
On the 14th of August, we started the journey home. First to York for lunch and recharge and then to the border town of Jedburgh for a night stop with sight-seeing and recharge. On the way from York to Jedburgh, we had a comfort stop at a hotel in Otterburn and guess what – it had a charging point too! I put the Zoe on charge while we had an afternoon cuppa and then went on to Jedburgh.
The following day was very easy – Jedburgh to Dundee for lunch, shopping, and a charge, then back home which was arrived at by 15.30. Dundee was easily the best place to recharge as the city is making a big effort to woo the electric car and my first choice charging spot contained no less than ten charging points.
The total mileage for the two weeks was 1,571 at an average speed of just under 40 mph. Not bad considering that many hours were spent around Oxford and in Dorset at a lot less than 30 mph.
The public charging points cost just over £4 for electricity, and I gave my sister £8.50 for electricity, making a total of £12.50 for 1,571 miles. Our Scottish card costs £20 per year, and there is a small monthly charge for the Polar card. If we add these prorated charges, it still cost less than £17 for the journey!
My wife and I would be first to admit that the journey was not quite as convenient as a petrol car. The manufacturers are working on reducing charging times (the most inconvenient feature for us – it takes about 2 hours at a fast charger) – and increasing range. However, as we became accustomed to the new way of operating, it was easier than expected and there was time for a very relaxed lunch and forty winks. The cheaper electric cars coming in after 2020 are forecast to solve many of these problems.
A current gripe for many electric car owners is a), the number of charging units that are unserviceable because the card readers are defective and b), the fact that one needs lots of different charge cards for various points south of the Scottish border. (Scotland has it right: one card covers the majority of the country.) I had a Polar card for the ‘England’ part – courtesy of the Polar Charger installed by Renault at our house. This reduced the number of charging points available to me but there were more than enough to fulfil our needs until we arrived in the south-west – where there were very few charging points. If the UK government wants to encourage electric car use, these problems need addressing.
The main advantages for an electric car are low fuel prices (zero here in Scotland!), minimal servicing charges (not much to service!), super quiet ride with instant torque, zero road tax and in my case, really low insurance. The next generation cars should solve the slow charging times and increase the range. However, having got used to the different way of thinking, it is now second nature to me and I would not go back to the old ‘ice’ car unless I had to! As an aside, my museum has an electric car history display and I have been very popular for information. Did you know that Robert Davidson, Aberdonian, created the world first electric driven vehicle in 1839? Mind-blowing. We have made a full size, working replica of his first motor.
I get shouted at from time to time – usually along the lines that I am even dirtier than petrol because coal is used to generate the electricity I use. However, people usually go quiet when I point out that a gallon of petrol takes 6 kWh of electricity to refine. I – like many other EV users, installed solar PV panels when I got the car. My annual solar production is 3500 kWh – and the car uses 2750 kWh per year!
The electric car is not yet perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than most of the crap that was being produced when we were at school.
Any queries gladly received, and grateful thanks to Colin for keeping this site going.
Happy Christmas – Peter Donaldson. 1956 to 1962.
PS Photo shows me at Grampian Transport Museum with my car (the blue one) and an all-electric Mitsubishi iMiev which was donated to our museum. I had just driven it from a formal presentation in Aberdeen.
If there are any other old boys who may own a fully electric car (not hybrid) please be in touch with your own experiences as we would love to hear from you.