A Beginners Guide to Electric Cars

Info, Transport

Electric cars are seen as a big part of a more sustainable, low carbon, transport future.  Sales in the UK have been steadily increasing. As of September 2020 there were over 370,000 plug in cars across the UK, and the government has brought forward the date when all new cars have to electric from 2040 to 2030.   

Are you thinking of taking the plunge yourself?  It’s a big step with new technology to get your head around. This Beginners Guide is designed to help you weigh up the options.  It’s divided into the following sections:  

This Guide was originally produced to coincide with the special Green Drinks evening on Electric Cars, at the Star Inn in Steyning, on 28th June 2017.   We had an impressive eight vehicles on display – from a Twizy to a Tesla!  Here’s a link to some photos of the event on Facebook.

Types of electric cars

There are four main types of electric cars:

Fully electric cars – run entirely on electricity, stored in on-board batteries that need to be plugged in to charge them up. There are dozens of examples nowadays ranging from the cheap and cheerful £7500 Renault Twizy to a top end £100,000 Tesla Model S.

Extended Range Electric Vehicles (E-REV) – run mainly on electricity, but have an auxiliary generator on board that recharges the battery using a small petrol engine.  This kicks in when the battery is running low, so extends the range of the vehicle between charges.  Examples include the BMW i3 which has a range extender as an option (for a slightly higher price). 

Plug-in Hybrids (PHEV) – Have both petrol engines and electric motors and switch between the two depending on driving conditions. They plug in at home and can generally run for 20-25 miles on electric power before the battery is drained. At that point the petrol engine kicks in, and the car behaves like a conventional hybrid. Examples include the Mitsubishi PHEV and the top end Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid PHEV.

Conventional hybrids – do not plug into the mains but have electric motors powered by a battery that’s charged when the vehicle brakes. They are described by some manufacturers as ‘self-charging’ hybrids – which while true is somewhat misleading as all the electric energy still ultimately comes from burning petrol. Examples include the Toyota Prius, Toyota Yaris, and Hyundai Ioniq.  These have slightly better fuel consumption than most petrol cars but are not normally considered as ‘electric vehicles’ per se, and are not covered in this Guide.

You can learn more about individual models from manufacturers websites or comparison sites like Next Greencar , the Green Car Guide Car Buyer and WhatCar. There are loads to choose from these days, with new models being launched every few months.

Performance

The technology behind electric cars has moved on enormously in recent years, as has performance.  According to the Plugincars website:  “It only takes one ride in a battery-powered car to understand the improved ride quality of an EV compared to a vehicle using a petroleum-powered internal combustion engine. An electric car is very quiet and very smooth. It makes most regular cars seem clunky and outdated. What surprises people more is the high torque offered by EVs. Step on the accelerator and power is delivered immediately to the wheels, providing an exhilarating driving experience.”

Basically you get what you pay for in terms of performance.  Entry level electric cars like the VW e-Up! do 0-62 mph in 12.4 seconds, similar to the basic petrol version, and has a maximum speed of 80 mph. The sportier Mercedes B Class EV does 0-62 mph in 7.9 seconds, with a maximum speed of 99 MPH. At the other end of the spectrum, the fastest Tesla Model S does 0-60 mph in a breathtaking 2.5 seconds and has a top speed of 155 mph!

Range

“Range anxiety” is one of the biggest concerns for new EV buyers. Will my battery run out before I get home?  With petrol and diesel cars we’re used to getting 300-400 miles on a tank, and rarely have to think about running out.  That’s not yet possible with electric cars. But that may be less of an issue than you think, depending on your driving pattern, given that on average UK drivers travel an average of only 20 miles a day.

As battery technology has advanced, the range of electric vehicles has steadily improved.  The Next Green Car website publishes a table of vehicle range versus on the road price.  It contrasts the official range figures, based on the NEDC test cycle, with real world figures  – which tend to 20-25% lower. Note also that the range will also depend on the weather. Batteries don’t like the cold, and turning the heating on also uses some juice, so the range can drop by a third in winter compared to summer.

From the table, cars can be clustered into different bands (using real world range figures):

New models are being released all the time, with gradually increasing battery capacity, and therefore range. Until recently, a battery capacity of 20-25 kilowatt hours (kWh) was typical for an all-electric car. Later models push this 30-40 kWh, allowing them to deliver greater range, while the current generation are going to 50kWh and above – with the new Kia eNiro packing an impressive 65kWh.  But bear in mind that batteries do wear out, so the effective range will gradually drop off over a number of years. Here’s a technical article on the factors that affect this. New EVs will generally come with a guarantee on battery performance – for example, with a Nissan Leaf comes with a five year or 60,000 miles guarantee on its standard model, which protects you against capacity loss of more than 25%.

Some manufacturers, such as the Renault, offer the option of leasing the battery to car buyers, which gets around concerns about battery life and also cuts down the purchase price substantially. Owners have to pay a monthly charge based on how many miles they drove (with a Renault Zoe, battery hire ranges from £59/month for up to 4500 miles to £110/month for unlimited mileage), so this needs to be factored into the costs.

How important the range figures are depend on your driving pattern. If you have a regular 50-80 miles round trip commute and can charge up overnight, it may hardly be an issue at all. But if you’re doing regular long journeys, an all electric car will be less convenient, as you’ll need to break your journey every few hours to recharge.

Choosing an electric car with a range extender partially addresses this problem, although these tend to have quite small fuel tanks. The range extender version of the BMW i3, for example, has a 2 gallon tank which gives an extra 80 miles on top of the 188 miles electric range.  Finding and filling up at a petrol station will be quicker than recharging, so this helps keep you on the go.

Or you can opt for a Plug-in Hybrid – which is essentially a petrol car, with an electric boost.  If you do a short commute of 20 miles each day, you may be able to run it entirely on electricity most of the time – and save the petrol engine for long trips.

Aware of potential range worries, some manufacturers (e.g. Nissan) offer deals with their EV cars, so that if the owners want to go on a long trip/holiday they can a hire petrol or diesel car at a discounted rate.

Charging up 

Charging up an electric car takes time, especially if you have one with a big battery capacity. So finding a convenient way of doing this is crucial. The higher the rating of the charging point, the quicker it is.

Charging up at home

Fitting a dedicated charging point at home makes life a lot easier, provided you have a convenient driveway or garage you can make use of. There’s a Government scheme (OLEV) which subsidises this, offering a grant of up to 75% of the installation cost up to a maximum of £500. It applies to both new and second hand vehicles, but the work has to be carried out by an authorised installer.  Many new electric cars come with a deal where they will cover the remaining 25% of the cost, so the home charging point is essentially free.

Special wiring is needed to install the charging point, connecting back to your fuse box (or consumer unit). Domestic charge points come with different ratings – typically from 7kW (3 times faster than a domestic plug) to 22kW (10 times faster).

The car will come with a lead designed to plug into different type of domestic and public charge points, and software that controls the speed of charge and may even alert you via a smartphone app when it’s done. The cost of a full charge for a car with a 30kW battery is around £3, assuming nighttime electricity rates of 10p/kWh.

There are quite a variety of different types of charging leads to contend with, with different capacities and plug fittings. But standardisation is starting to happen – with the 7 pin Type 2, or Mennekes, connector becoming the most common.

It may make sense to get hold of an extra ‘granny lead’ which will allow you to plug your car into a regular 13 Amp socket. This will take 8 or more hours to get a full charge, but this can be very useful when you’re away from home and might want to plug in at work, or where you’re staying overnight. Your dealer may want to charge you quite a bit for this kind of lead (£500 at Renault), but you may be able to get a discount on this if you haggle!

Home charging is not so easy if you live in a flat, or have no dedicated off-street parking. You’ll be reliant on public charging points so will need to suss out what’s available locally.

Public charging points 

The network of public charging points is rapidly expanding to cope with the advent of electric cars, and will need to grow a lot further if EV’s take off as predicted. The ‘market’ is still evolving and there are quite number of competing charging networks to choose from, with different payment models. Some work on a pay per use model; some via a subscription where you pay a single annual fee; and some (notably in local authority car parks or supermarkets) are still free – but may involve paying for parking. Here’s a recent article on the choices available from the Zap Map website.

Some of the largest UK networks at present are:

  • The Polar network has 5000 charge points nationwide and works via a monthly subscription (currently £7.85). They’ve recently hooked up with some Harvester restaurants, allowing you to charge up while you tuck in.
  • Pod Point has 1500 charging stations nationwide, including many at Sainsbury stores and Southern Rail stations.
  • Ecotricity, the green energy supplier, has 300 charging stations at motorway service stations and on major A roads. These used to be free, but now cost £6 for 30 minutes’ use – although those who get their domestic electricity supply from Ecotricity are eligible for 52 free charges a year.

The good news is that there are apps like Zap Map that show you where your nearest charging point is, how many charging bays there are, and how fast it is.  This last point is crucial, since there’s a big difference between:

  • Slow charging points (3kW) – that take overnight to charge your car
  • Fast charging points (7-22kW) – that can fully recharge most models in 3-4 hours
  • Rapid charging points (43-50kW) – that can give an 80% charge in around 30 minutes.

There’s quite a lot to learn when it comes to public charging – with much depending on your driving patterns. For many, it’ll be the occasional top up.  But if you do regular long journeys you’ll become a master at planning your trip around convenient charging points – and you’ll find yourself seeking out rapid charging stations where you can get the job done quickest. The closest charging points to Steyning are:

  • The rapid charging point (43-50kW) at the petrol station in Upper Beeding.  This was installed in December 2018 and is on the GeniePoint network.  Note that you have to pay extra if you plug in for more than an hour – they don’t want drivers blocking it once they are charged up.
  • The fast charge point (7kW) at the Old Tollgate Hotel in Bramber

There’s also a rapid charge facility at Storrington Library, Shoreham Civic Centre, and in Pulborough, Billingshurst,  Midhurst, and Withdean Stadium.

How congested charging stations become will depend on how fast the take-up of electric cars occurs, and whether the charging networks keep up. As of December 2018, it doesn’t seem to be a big problem. In our first 10 attempted top ups, in journeys to Oxford, Bristol, Chatham and Shrewsbury, we were only thwarted by the charging point being busy once. The lessons from this were to plan ahead so you know where the alternative charge points are, get to know your phone app so you can see which points are working, and don’t run the battery down too far before you top up.

Could you go on holiday with an electric car?  The answer is, yes, if you plan ahead and are not in too much of a hurry.  You can’t just bomb up the motorway for 600 miles with just one 10 minute fuel and bathroom stop.  Instead you’ll find yourself taking a more scenic route – stopping for a leisurely coffee, finding a nice town to have lunch in, and maybe take a stroll, and breaking the journey down into stages where you top up at each stop.  It’s quite a bit slower, but you’ll be saving loads of money on fuel and discovering some interesting places along the way!

Cost of Electric Cars

Electric cars are more expensive to buy than petrol or diesel equivalents, but they save money on fuel, tax and servicing, and there are government incentives around to take the sting out of the initial purchase price. There are a variety of financing and leasing options available through dealers to spread the cost.  So figuring out how expensive they are overall is quite a complicated calculation.The Next Greencar website has a handy car comparison tool that is a good place to start. Here’s some of the main factors to consider.

Government Grants

The Plug-in Car Grant (PiCG) scheme changed in October 2018. Subsidies for hybrid cars have been removed.  Buyers now get:

  • £3500 off the purchase price for electric vehicles in ‘Category 1’ – which means they have CO2 emissions of less than 50g/km, plus a range of at least 70 miles.  Here’s a list of the vehicles that qualify.

Vehicle Excise Duty (VED)

The rules on this changed recently and are now more complicated than they used to be. Here’s a good explanation from the Next Green Car website.  The headlines are that:

  • All electric cars are pay zero VED provided their list price is under £40,000
  • ‘Premium’ all electric cars costing more than this, pay zero in the first year then jump up to £310/year
  • Plug in hybrids pay £5-15 the first year, then £140/yr after that provided their list price is under £40,000 (its £450/yr for more expensive premium models)
  • Regular petrol or diesel cars pay £100-£2,000 in the first year depending on their emissions, then £140/yr from year two onwards (£450 if it’s a premium model)

The bottom line is that most electric cars will save £140 a year compared to a plug in hybrid or conventional car.

Fuel costs

This is the big savings compared to a regular car.  Fuel costs can be as low as 3-4p per mile with fully electric cars, depending on tariff. For an annual mileage of around 10,000 miles, switching from a conventional to an electric car could save you around £700-£800 in fuel costs alone. The more miles you drive, the more you save. The Next Green Car website has a handy calculator that allows you to pin the savings down more accurately.

Other savings

Electric cars are generally cheaper to service than petrol or diesel equivalents because they have far fewer moving parts and use regenerative braking to help slow down, rather than wearing out brake pads. This should save around £100 a year on servicing costs.
If you travel into London, EV’s will save you money on the Congestion Charge as cars with emissions below 75g CO2/km qualify as “Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs)” and get 100% exemption from the normal charge of £11.50/day.

There’s also significant tax advantages if you choose an EV as a Company Car because of the rules on ‘Benefits in Kind’ tax for cars emitting less than 50g CO2/km. Here’s an article the describing the benefits.

Second hand prices

How much will my electric car going to be worth after three of five years?  This is a hard one to answer because the whole sector is so new.  A lot will depend on how many miles you’ve done, and how well your battery has lasted – since replacing a battery is expensive (often around £5000).

With the more established brands such as the Nissan Leaf there’s beginning to be a bit of a track record.  You can see hundreds for sale on sites like Autotrader, with prices of £9000-£10,000 typical for a three year old Nissan Leaf with low mileage (under 20k miles) and £6000-£7000 for a five year old car.   Three year old Renault Zoe’s are going for £5000-£6000 – less than the Nissan Leaf because owners will need to take over the lease on the battery, but with the advantage that the battery will then come with a guarantee.
If you’re buying second hand, it would be worth reading this article on battery life issues.  They key is to avoid a car that’s been driven very high mileage in hot weather.

Buying second hand

Mechanical wear and tear on electric cars is less than with internal combustion engines, so it’s worth considering buying second hand. Battery life ebbs gradually over time rather than dropping off a cliff. So provided you’re not doing regular long journeys picking up a second hand EV with 75% of it’s battery capacity left could be a bargain – and the way in to EVs for people who are concerned about the steep initial depreciation on new cars.

How green are electric cars?

Electric vehicles are seen by many as an important part of cutting air pollution and reducing global warming. After all, what comes out of the car is completely clean, but nonetheless some are questioning their green credentials. Concerns focus on two areas

  • How the electricity which powers them is generated.
  • How electric vehicles, and particularly their batteries, are manufactured.

Electric cars are as green as their juice”, according to a report on the Shrink that Footprint site, pointing out that there will be a big difference between countries like India, that rely heavily on coal, compared to those like Sweden, that depend largely on renewables. In India, emissions from an electric car would be substantially worse than a petrol model, whereas in countries with a greener electricity generation they are considerably better. The UK is somewhere in the middle – they calculated a typical electric car has average emissions similar to a modern hybrid car. The analysis was based on 2009 figures and took account of emissions from vehicle manufacturing, power station combustion, upstream fuel production and grid losses.

The good news in the UK is that coal fired electricity generation is close to being phased out, and the proportion of electric power coming from renewables has more than trebled from 7% in 2009, to 27% in 2016. With nuclear providing a further 19%, around 43% of our electricity is now coming from low carbon sources.

The Next GreenCar website has an emissions calculator   (they are big on calculators!) where you can compare different cars using latest data. It shows that, for example, a Renault Zoe driven for 10,000 miles a year produces 1.97 tonnes of carbon, whereas a petrol powered Clio produces 3.74 tonnes. A e-Golf comes in at 1.94 tonnes, compared to petrol version with 3.06 tonnes.  This confirms that electric cars do still have a considerable carbon footprint – but switching to an electric car will cut your emissions by well over a third.  This advantage is set to improve as the UK energy supply is further decarbonised.

What about the battery?

A big part of the wider environmental footprint of an EV is the battery, so questions are rightly being asked about how these are made and reused at the end of their lifespan. Lithium is the key component in EV batteries, and there are horror stories about how its mined and how other rare metals used in car manufacturing are obtained. Here’s an article from Wired Magazine that unpacks the issues in relation to Teslas. Manufacturers are under the spotlight on this so its worth challenging dealers directly to get the facts.

Most manufacturers already pledge to recycle battery packs returned to them, and trends are heading in the right direction, according to the article: “As the battery market grows—driven by investments like Tesla’s upcoming Gigafactory—its greater numbers will drive up recycling efficiencies and reduce impact on the environment.”  In summary it concludes: “You can’t judge Tesla, or any other electric car, in a vacuum. You must compare it to the status quo. And that status quo has many of the same problems—plus the carbon emissions and air pollution generated by traditional gas guzzlers.”

More information

There are some active online forums around covering all kinds of electric vehicles. The Speak EV forum is particularly rich, and has separate threads of different types of cars.
The Guardian has been publishing regular articles on electric cars, including one in June called ‘Should you join the charge for electric cars’ which gives an upbeat report on the advantages of owning one.
This video interview with Erik Fairbairn, the founder & CEO of the charging network POD Point, shows how the barriers to EV adoption are falling down all around, with big advances predicted in the near future with reduced up front costs, better battery range, and much expanded vehicle choice.
Hendy Group have produced a Complete guide to driving electric and hybrid cars in the 21st Century, an encouraging sign that the car dealerships are getting on board.
Here’s an article from the US on 8 Reasons you may be driving an electric car in the near future – in summary, quicker charging times, more charging stations, fewer petrol stations, lower car costs, falling cost per mile, tighter emissions controls, EV car hire, and changing driving patterns.
Please contact us at greeningsteyning@gmail.com with any suggestions on useful links and how we can improve this guide.

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