Green cars are going to be bigger than renewable energy, we heard yesterday. HSBC reckons 8.65m electric vehicles and 9.23m plug-in and hybrid electric vehicles will be sold globally in 2020, up from around 5,000 and 657,000 respectively last year.
But what are these cars actually like to live with? Recently I borrowed Toyota’s latest Prius, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), to find out.
It’s effectively a normal hybrid car – ie it runs on both a petrol engine and electric motor – but as the name suggests, has a plug so you can charge it from the mains too. The bonus is that the plug-in can go for nearly 13 miles on electric-only, far more than the one mile of electric-only the normal Prius manages.
In other words, you can do most of your local journeys in a fashion that’s uber-green – and ultra-cheap. And you don’t suffer from the “range anxiety” that besets electric cars, most of which, even the fancy new Nissan Leaf, manage no more than 100 miles on one charge. A Ford Focus manages around 370 miles on a tank of petrol.
Government studies suggest electric cars have 40% lower carbon emissions than petrol ones, even with UK’s fossil fuel-heavy electricity generation. And at 2p per mile when powered by electricity, versus around 14p per mile for petrol, you can see how driving all your local trips on electric-only could be cheap too.
Driving the plug-in Prius is incredibly similar to the normal Prius, albeit a little slower to accelerate. It’s smooth, quiet, comfy. The only bad bit is the boot, which is noticeably smaller than the normal Prius, due to the raised floor that accommodates the battery – which might put off families .
In London, I dropped some friends off, delivered a parcel and ran some errands on electric-only mode before driving the car off to Oxfordshire – at which point the petrol engine and hybrid battery kicked in automatically. On my return journey I popped into the colossal Westfield shopping centre in West London which with 30 electric car charging points is second in the UK only to the 100 at the Highcross Centre in Leicester.
Plugged in via the leads in the boot, the electric battery was topped up for free in an hour and a half. While Westfield’s developers deserve credit for installing the points in the first place, they also warrant a raspberry for allowing any car to take the charging spaces – they’re not reserved for electric vehicles.
And here lies the only real drawback to PHEVs: there are not enough places to charge them, even in the urban areas where they’re best-suited. Home-charging, in particular, is tricky in cities because of the lack of driveways and garages. Of course, because you have petrol as a backup, you don’t have to panic about recharging as you would with a 100% electric vehicle. But by not being able to charge out and about, you lose the unique environmental and financial benefits.
There are plans to fix this roadblock. The government’s ‘plugged-in places’ scheme is meant to install thousands of points across the UK, but it won’t be confirmed (or cut) until the government publishes its comprehensive spending review on 20 October. Rumblings suggest it’ll survive the axe.
Nevertheless, the Royal Academy of Engineering thinks plug-ins are a likely short-term alternative to the problems faced by fully electric cars. I’m in agreement – provided the car-makers sort out the boot space and the car park owners keep the sockets free.
Article by Adam Vaughan, appearing courtesy Crisp Green.