Ten reasons electric cars still suck: We unplug the EV hype

Electric vehicles just aren't ready yet, and we've got ten reasons why, such as being potentially more expensive to run and more harmful to the environment than their gas-guzzling counterparts.

Electric cars are arriving in force, and it looks like they're here to stay. The Nissan Leaf will launch in 2011, as will Mitsubishi's iMiev , and a host of other electric vehicles -- EVs for short -- from Renault, BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes and others. In fact, just about every manufacturer worth its salt is investing in the technology, citing greener, zero-emissions driving as their motivation.

As exciting and as important as their arrival may be, we have major reservations they may not be the eco panacea the world has been waiting for -- at least not yet. We've spotted several crucial drawbacks in EVs that mean they're potentially more expensive to run and are, in some cases, more harmful to the environment than their gas-guzzling counterparts.

With that in mind, we've highlighted ten reasons you might want to think again before you take the electric car plunge.

10. They're expensive to buy

Electric cars are a total rip-off, often costing more than twice as much as their closest petrol counterparts. The G-Wiz , the cheapest electric vehicle on the market in the UK, costs a whopping £15,745 in lithium-ion form. For that sort of money, you could buy two Chevrolet Spark superminis -- an alternative that unlike the G-Wiz benefits from good looks, five seats, ABS brakes, six airbags, and a chassis that won't crack in half if someone sneezes on it.

The Nissan Leaf electric car offers all the requisite safety features, but predictably, you'll have to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying safe and driving in comfort. A Leaf will set you back £23,350 and that's after government incentives. Without Big Brother lending a hand , Nissan would charge you a whopping £28,350.

9. They're expensive to run

There's a common misconception that electric cars are cheap to run. They often are, but if you're not careful, they can end up costing you almost as much as a standard petrol car. Take the Nissan Leaf. Charging its 24kWh battery pack (which provides a 100-mile range) can cost you as much as £6 on British Gas' CO2-offsetting Future Energy tariff.

We've chosen this particular tariff as an example because British Gas claims all its electricity comes from green sources, and it would be ideally suited to electric car customers wishing to neutralise all their car-related carbon emissions.

It costs 25.114 pence per kilowatt hour (ppkWh) for the first 42kWh consumed per month, followed by 11.374ppkWh for any subsequent consumption. The total cost of charging a Nissan Leaf on this tariff works out to be a maximum of either £6.02 at the highest rate (24kwh x 0.25114ppkWh = £6.02) or £2.72 at the lowest (24kwh x 0.11374ppkWh = £2.72).

That doesn't compare very favourably to the cost of driving a highly efficient petrol car. The Volkswagen Polo Bluemotion uses 3.4 litres of petrol for every 100km driven. This works out to be 83.1mpg, which (using the magic of maths) equates to 21.95 miles per litre of petrol. Based on current fuel prices of £1.20 per litre, putting enough petrol in your Polo Bluemotion to travel the same 100 miles as a Leaf charged at the highest rate would cost a mere £5.46 (100 / 21.95 x 1.20). That makes the Leaf, on the higher tariff, 56p more expensive to drive per 100 miles than a filth-chucking petrol vehicle. 

  • To learn more about EV running costs, visit Ben Rose's excellent Jaffacake.net gadget blog.

8. Zero emissions is a lie

It's true that electric cars don't emit any exhaust gases, but the same can't be said of all the power stations generating the electrical energy they rely on. In the UK, the majority of our electricity comes from either coal or gas-fired power stations, which emit CO2 in the process of generating electricity.

According to the National Energy Foundation's CO2 calculator, providing a full charge to the Nissan Leaf's 24kWh battery pack creates 13kg of CO2. That's 13,000 grammes every time the Leaf is driven its full 100-mile range, or 130g per mile, or 81.25g for every kilometre it's driven. Compare that to the 89g/km emitted by the Toyota Prius and you'll start to see that EVs aren't particularly green -- unless you switch to a more expensive electricity tariff that offsets carbon emissions, which as we've seen make them more expensive to drive than some petrol cars.

As Ben Rose says of the Leaf, "Charging this thing is like boiling your kettle for 8 hours solid. Still sound green?"

7. They take forever to recharge

It takes around two minutes to refuel a car that uses an internal combustion engine. It can take over two days to fully recharge a Tesla Roadster . 48 hours is a worst-case scenario, but that's the amount of time you'd be looking at if you plugged a Roadster into an ordinary 120 Volt, 15 Amp household wall socket in the US.

Let's do the maths: ordinary US household sockets deliver a maximum of 1.8kW (120V x 15A = 1,800W or 1.8kW) and the Roadster uses a 56kWh battery pack. 56kWh / 1.8kW = 31.1 hours to recharge -- but that's only a best-case scenario, assuming the Tesla's Roadster's charger and battery pack are 100 per cent efficient at receiving electrical charge. The reality is no device is 100 per cent efficient. Heat generated during the charging process, as well as the increasing resistance of a charging battery, means a full charge could take two full days.

We have things a little better here in the UK, but even so it'll take over 17 hours, again assuming peak efficiency, to charge your Tesla Roadster on a domestic 240V, 13A outlet. Fast chargers are available, but these only drop the charge time to 3.5 hours and if you run out of juice in an area where there isn't one (ie almost everywhere in the UK) you're up the creek without a paddle.

6. Quick charging can damage batteries

High-capacity quick chargers make it possible to charge the batteries of an electric vehicle relatively quickly. In the case of the Leaf, one can charge the battery to 80 per cent capacity in as little as 30 minutes. As attractive as quick charging is, however, it's not something EV owners should rely on exclusively, as excessive quick charging can affect a battery's lifespan.

After ten years of use, one can expect the battery in a Nissan Leaf to degrade to around 80 per cent normal capacity, meaning you can reasonably expect to be doing 80 miles on a single charge rather than the full 100. Frequent quick charging can degrade the battery to 70 per cent in the same space of time, according to our colleagues at CNET.com .

5. The driving range is pathetic

48 miles. That's how far you can drive a G-Wiz before it leaves you stranded in the middle of the road. More modern electric cars can go for twice this distance, but it's still not good enough, when you consider the Volkswagen Passat set a single-tank distance record of 1,527 miles on one tank of petrol. For a more realistic comparison, the Prius has a range of around 800 miles -- and can be refuelled at any petrol station.

4. EVs make other appliances more expensive

Owning an electric vehicle can increase your electricity bill, that's obvious. What's less apparent is that owning an EV can make your other electrical appliances more expensive to use. Many electric car advocates suggest EV owners switch to an Economy 7 tariff, which provides cheaper electricity for seven off-peak hours during the night. While this decreases the cost of charging your EV overnight, however, it actually increases the cost of using your ordinary gadgets if you switch them on at any time before bedtime. Economy 7 costs vary from supplier to supplier, but it could be as little as 2.5p per unit for the cheaper night rate and as much as 8p per unit for peak hours.

3. EVs could raise electricity taxes

The government taxes fuel very heavily. In September 2009, when unleaded petrol cost 105.64p at the pump, 56.19p of that was fuel duty, while another 13.8p was VAT, charged at 17.5 per cent. Currently, domestic electricity isn't taxed as heavily as fuel. UK residents normally pay VAT at 5 per cent instead of the usual rate, due to the fact us humans tend to rely on the stuff to keep us warm and fed.

If there was to be a massive uptake of electric vehicles that resulted in fewer people buying petrol, the government would have to replace that revenue -- presumably by taxing the electricity we use to recharge our EVs. A blanket tax increase on all electricity is very unlikely, but it's a distinct possibility EV owners would be required to have a dedicated meter, which would allow the application of a higher rate of tax to all electricity that ends up in a vehicle. 

2. Where's the resale value?

So you've bought your electric car, you've had it five years and you're bored with it. It's a simple case of selling it on or trading up, right? Wrong. As we've already mentioned, EV batteries slowly lose their ability to store energy over time. Buyers in the second-hand market will be aware of this and may balk at having to pay through the nose for an EV that's out of warranty and whose battery has lost nearly a third of its storage capacity.

The obvious solution in this case is for owners (or buyers) to replace the battery before a change of ownership, but doing so is hugely expensive. It's estimated that the battery in the Nissan Leaf costs $18,000 (£11,180). We can't imagine many people will want to spend that sort of cash on a five- or ten-year-old car. The price of a replacement battery will fall over time, but even if it's halved in the next five years, you're still looking at a £5,500 bill plus labour charges. 

1. They're useless for inner-city inhabitants

Electric cars are aimed at people who live in cities -- their short range and absence of exhaust emissions make them ideal for such folk. Sadly, most people who live in cities can't actually use an EV because only a privileged few have a garage in which to charge the car. Even houses with driveways, which are slightly more common, aren't ideal. Charging your EV on a driveway would involve snaking a cable from your hallway through your letterbox and outside, where mangy foxes and errant rats will gnaw at it.

And what are the rest of us supposed to do? Trail a 50-foot length of electrical cable down the side of our high-rise block? It's possible to install infrastructure to allow easy on-street charging, but at the moment that is very much in its infancy.

Conclusion

Electric cars have a long way to go before they're viable alternatives to cars that use internal combustion engines. We welcome their development and in many cases remain hugely impressed by the best examples of electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster. The simple fact, though, is EVs still have numerous flaws that seriously restrict their appeal.

All the problems we've mentioned above can be fixed, but some will take longer than others to solve. Until that time, it looks as if hybrids and old-fashioned gas-guzzlers are a much more sensible bet for the average punter.

 

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