Electric cars: what do you need to know now?

The revolution may not come not with a bang, but with a whisper. Specifically, the whisper of tyres on tarmac and maybe the sound of an acoustic vehicle alert. In a decade or two, there’s every chance that electric cars will outnumber petrol cars on roads in the UK and around the world. Government mandates and manufacturer commitments to electric vehicle production over traditional fuel models are designed to be more environmentally friendly to combat climate change.

Five or ten years ago, you’d be hard-pushed to have seen an electric car driving around, but now they’re a common sight. Elon Musk’s Tesla company alone has sold over 800,000 Model 3 electric cars as of December 2020, and with companies including Nissan, BMW, Jaguar and Volkswagen committed to electric vehicle production, those numbers will only grow.

Will electric cars be embraced by consumers? They may not have a choice. In the UK, the government intends to outlaw the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 (with sales of those kinds of vehicle declining year on year as it is), while CO2 emissions are being cracked down on throughout Europe and in other parts of the world. While it’s very unlikely that petrol and diesel vehicles will be illegal to drive from 2030, this is the way the wind is blowing.

So what do you need to know about electric cars now?

History of electric cars

Let’s start at the beginning.

Electric cars have already taken the world by storm once, but it was over a century ago. Between the advent of electricity and the development of petrol and diesel cars, non-horse drawn carriages were powered by rechargeable batteries. An electrical engineer called Gustave Trouvé presented an electric car in Paris in 1881, while Andreas Flocken, a German inventor, produced the Flocken Elektrowagen in 1888. It wasn’t until 1897, though, that electric vehicles came into their own as taxis in London and New York. Their dominance lasted until the 1910s when the internal combustion engine was perfected which resulted in a dramatic reduction in the cost of vehicle production.

Then the rest of the twentieth century happened, during which electric cars were largely irrelevant but there were various scientific achievements that made their modern incarnations possible, like the invention of the lithium-ion battery. 

There was an aborted attempt at bringing electric cars to the mass market in the early 1990s in response to a push by the California Air Resources Board to reduce emissions throughout the state. A number of models were developed by companies including Honda, General Motors, Chrysler and Nissan, but all were eventually taken off the market. In 2004, Tesla began developing the all-electric Roadster, which eventually went on sale in 2008. It wasn’t until 2009, though, when a road-legal model in the Mitsubishi i-MiEV went on sale.

In recent years, hybrid and all-electric cars have been produced by all manner of manufacturers, winning awards and enjoying an ever-growing acceptance among drivers throughout the world. Among the aims for manufacturers in the next few years will be ensuring a greater range of travel and driving production (and therefore retail) costs down. 

What types of electric car are there?

There are three types of electric car: plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, hybrid electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs)

A hybrid electric car is a model that can be powered by both electricity and petrol. It’s a popular middle ground to ease customers into a transition to fully electric vehicles, offering the best of both worlds. 

Cars that run using a combination of a petrol or diesel-powered engine with a battery-powered motor are called plug-in hybrids. A PHEV is capable of travelling on its battery power for up to 70 miles, after which the petrol-powered internal combustion engine takes over to ensure the journey can continue.

Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs)

HEVs are capable of ‘self-charging’ by using the car’s braking system to power the battery. They work slightly differently to the other models mentioned here because you don’t need to plug them in. Instead, you fill them up with fuel and allow the regenerative braking system to boost efficiency. 

In the UK, drivers of hybrid vehicles pay the lowest amount of car tax and are exempt from the London congestion charge. The best-known hybrid vehicle is probably the Toyota Prius, with over 15 million units sold globally. 

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs)

A battery electric vehicle is designed to be powered exclusively by electricity. It operates using a battery-powered motor and is also called an all-electric or fully electric vehicle. In the latest models, drivers will be able to travel around 200 miles on a single charge.

How green are electric cars?

If you’re comparing electric cars to petrol cars, then electric cars are immediately and obviously the greener option because they don’t use fossil fuels that pollute the environment to run. In the context of the wider drive for green energy, though, are electric cars a good option?

Ultimately, it depends how the power you use to charge them is generated. Energy tariffs can offer electricity generated by coal-fired power plants or by more green methods like solar, wind or tidal plants, so even though the vehicle’s emissions will be lower whatever the source of the energy, it can’t really be called “green” unless it comes from one of those more environmentally-friendly sources. The pollution may not be coming from the car itself, but it will have come from the plant that produced the electricity it runs on, so the point of driving the car is moot. 

With this in mind, remember that it’s not enough to simply buy an electric car and think your green contribution is complete - the greenest drivers are those who combine the right kind of vehicle and tariff. 

What green energy tariffs are there for electric cars?

Fortunately, the tariffs that offer green electricity are increasing in number across all sorts of suppliers thanks to increased awareness and demand from customers. This is also because it’s much easier to reliably offer green electricity than green gas (which involves various complicated carbon offsetting measures).

It’s important to choose your energy tariff carefully if you’re getting an electric vehicle, because you’ll be doing most of your vehicle charging at home as opposed to at one of the charging points located across the country.

Fortunately, many energy suppliers have introduced specific EV tariffs to help drivers maximise their savings. These often work in a similar way to domestic Economy 7 tariffs where electricity is charged at a lower unit rate for seven hours during the night, allowing drivers to charge their vehicles during the night so it will cost them less and they’ll have a fully charged car in the morning. 

Look out for EV energy tariffs from the likes of EDF Energy, Shell Energy, OVO Energy, British Gas and Octopus. The number of tariffs on offer will only increase as the use of EVs becomes more widespread.  

What are the best electric cars?

The best electric car is the one that meets your needs at a price you can afford - the answer will be different for everyone.

The best-known electric cars are made by Tesla - Autoexpress and Whatcar both suggest that the Model 3 is the best electric car on the market. The basic model can do 267 miles on a single charge with a top speed of 140 miles per hour. Models like the Porsche Taycan, which skews towards the sports car side of the market and is even faster than the Tesla, and the more family-oriented Renault Zoe are also highly thought-of. 

Things to consider when choosing an electric car include:

  • The average length of your journeys - will a certain car’s distance per charge be enough for you?

  • Price and charging costs - you’d need to think about price regardless of the type of car you buy, but you’ll need to factor in the cost of installing a charging point and how much extra the charging is likely to cost you in energy bills.

  • Maintenance - it can be expensive to fix an electric car, especially if the battery needs replacing (which can come to thousands). Think about whether you’ll be able to cover this sort of cost unexpectedly.

  • The type of electric car you opt for - do you need a fully electric car or would a hybrid be a better choice for now so you can ease into the idea of an electric car without being fully committed to it? 

Ultimately, there’s no substitute for research in the same way that you’d (hopefully) thoroughly research a petrol car before you buy it. Think about how an electric option would fit into your lifestyle and budget, and remember that hybrids are available so you can see what an electric car is like without sacrificing petrol power (yet).

What incentives are there for electric car purchases?

As we’ve already noted, the upfront cost of an electric car is usually greater than that of a petrol or diesel car, though the ongoing running costs will even things out. With that in mind, purchasers may be interested in the incentives that are available to help reduce the initial cost of an EV.

Plug-In Car Grant

Available via dealerships and manufacturers, the Plug-In Car Grant is a scheme whereby the government pays 35% of the price of a low emissions vehicle up to a maximum of £3,000. To take advantage of the Plug-In Car Grant, customers must ensure that their car costs under £50,000 with CO2 emissions of less than 50g per km. It must also be able to travel a minimum of 70 miles without any emissions.

Home Charger Grant

As the majority of electric vehicle owners would need to install a home chargepoint, the Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme provides 75% of the cost of the unit and its installation up to a maximum of £350. The scheme is only available to those who have off-street parking, though.

Workplace Charging Scheme

The Workplace Charging Scheme is designed to help businesses encourage their employees to choose lower-emission vehicles by applying for vouchers worth up to £350 to help with the cost of buying and installing a charging point at their premises.

Electric car FAQs

Are EVs safe to drive?

Yes - they pose no more of a risk to drivers’ and passengers’ safety than petrol cars and each model is naturally put through rigorous safety tests, both by manufacturers and independent safety bodies. There have been a small number of fires caused by the lithium batteries in Tesla cars, but data has been published showing that these are no more common than fires caused by regular cars.

What’s the difference between “fast” charging and “rapid” charging?

“Fast” charging units charge vehicles from 7kW to 22kW and tend to be confined to domestic properties, while “rapid” charging units charge vehicles from 43kW to 150kW and are usually found in public spaces like service stations or supermarket car parks. 

How long do electric car batteries last for?

Most electric car batteries are guaranteed by manufacturers to last for eight years or around 100,000 miles, which should be enough for most people.

How do you service an electric car?

Because electric car servicing is still specialist knowledge to an extent, you won’t be able to take it to any garage when it needs looking at - make sure you go to a dealer or garage where EV maintenance is specified.

Do you need a special license for driving EVs?

No, you can drive an EV if you got your license driving a petrol car. However, if you pass your test in an EV, you’ll only be qualified to drive automatic petrol cars because EVs don’t have gears.

Are EVs only suitable for urban areas?

EVs can handle driving in any area with ease, but urban areas may have more charging points in locations like supermarkets than rural areas do. Use a charging point map to see how many charging points are near you and where they are so you can assess whether an EV is a sensible choice for your location.  

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Published on Tue 25 May 2021 02.16 GMT