The current wave of enthusiasm for electric vehicles only really kicked off in 2011, but inventors have toyed with battery-powered automobiles for almost 200 years. Concerns about carbon emissions have fuelled this rise, with the government offering electric car buyers a 35% discount up to either £2,500 or £4,500 depending on the model.
Manufacturers like Tesla have changed what an electric car can be. Once perceived as an ugly niche, an electric car is now a premium product that will earn you kudos. This is typified by the ultra-stylish Tesla Model S, which can go 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds without emitting any carbon dioxide at all.
As technology has advanced, the dominance of petrol- and diesel-powered engines is now being challenged by three car categories which are principally powered by electricity:
• Plug-in electric: Powered purely by rechargeable batteries.
• Plug-in hybrid: Uses a rechargeable battery until the cells run dry, before switching to petrol or diesel reserves.
• Hybrid: Alternates between a rechargeable battery and fossil fuels, depending on usage.
So, are electric cars about to go mainstream, and if so, should you invest one now? We’ve rounded up some of the key points below to help you decide when is the right time for you to jump on the battery-powered bandwagon.
Today, there are 95,000 plug-in cars registered in the UK, a huge leap from just 3,500 in 2013. The global market looks good too: EV sales were around 462,000 in 2015, up by 60% from 2014.
China buys the most EVs, followed by the US, Norway and the UK. However, behind these headline figures, just 1% of new cars sold worldwide are actually electric.
The UK needs 60% of vehicles to be electric by 2030 to meet climate change targets, but it is still someway behind early adopters like Norway and the Netherlands.
With prices starting from £26,000, the Nissan Leaf is the best-selling EV of all time, with 186,000 models sold since 2009. The Tesla Model S, which has a longer range than any other EV, was the best-selling electric car of 2016, with 51,000 sales. However, as prices start at £66,500, it's certainly not a car aimed at the mass market.
If we include hybrids, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is the UK’s highest selling EV, with the Mercedes Benz C 350 e and Volkswagen Golf GTE popular too. The cheapest EV on the market is the funky Renault Twizy at £6,995, although it might fetch you a few funny looks – the compact EV looks more like a golf buggy than a Tesla.
In the coming years, manufacturers expect to sell long-range electric cars in the £25,000 range, costing less than £17,000 by 2040. As prices fall, consumer perceptions seem to be warming to EVs too: a recent survey conducted by BMW found that 20% said their next new car would be electric.
Electric vehicles have a reputation for being pricier than conventional cars. The main culprit here is the battery pack: the battery that powers the Tesla Model S makes up around 25% of the purchase price, whereas it could cost you £5,000 to replace the battery in a Nissan Leaf.
Measured by the cost per kilowatt-hour, battery pack prices fell by 80% from $1,000/kWh to around $227/kWh between 2010 and 2016. It is widely believed that this cost needs to fall below $150 per kWh (around £120) for EVs to become truly cost-competitive with petrol-powered cars. This is estimated to happen by 2025 according to independent reports, but Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk is more bullish, saying this could happen as early as 2020.
One problem with batteries is that they can be a nuisance when it comes to resale: poor perception of used batteries – and the fact that they wear out – is a major factor behind the rapid depreciation rates of EVs on the used car market. At WeBuyAnyCar.com, we have seen used Nissan Leafs sell for as low as £2,500.
When it comes to running costs, EVs can actually be cheaper than conventional equivalents. At today’s electricity prices, you can expect to pay as little as 2p per mile, whereas even the most economical driver will struggle to get anything lower than 10p per mile on a tank of petrol.
EV drivers are also exempt from road tax and other 'hidden costs' like the London Congestion Charge. What's more, as EVs have fewer moving parts than internal combustion engines, you shouldn't have to visit the mechanic as often.
By most measures, today’s EVs do not offer a markedly different driving experience to conventional vehicles. New owners report being surprised by how fast they accelerate and are generally pleased with handling, although the brakes can be surprisingly powerful. Most drivers also come to appreciate the quiet engine.
Perhaps the biggest performance challenge for EVs is the issue of range. Looking again at the best-selling EVs, the Tesla Models S offers 250 miles of range, whereas the maximum range of a Nissan Leaf – at least according to Nissan – is around 125 miles . By contrast, most standard cars will take you well over 400 miles on a full tank. Add to that the fact that range suffers further in poor weather conditions, and EVs still have a way to go before becoming truly competitive.
Another common concern is charging capability. The lithium-ion cells that power EV engines wear out over time and can be very costly to replace. What's more, recharging an EV is also time-consuming: a full charge using a standard UK plug will take most of the night, and even the most efficient chargers take 20 minutes to power-up your car.
For most drivers, the deciding factor for when to buy an electric car is how you intend to use it. If you mainly use your car for short, urban commutes, and you have access to chargers at both ends of your journey, the low running costs of an EV make the prospect of going electric on your next car purchase extremely appealing, particularly if you are looking to reduce your carbon footprint.
If you have a long daily commute or your regularly drive on motorways, it's likely that buying an EV doesn't make sense right now. However, it shouldn't be too long until car manufacturers offer advanced capabilities at a much lower price tag.
Equally, there’s an enormous amount of innovation going into finding alternative energy sources right now, from biofuels to oil-producing algae. While the electric car market looks set to expand rapidly over the next decade, it's possible that emerging technologies may disrupt the car market in entirely unpredictable ways. What we do for sure is that it’s a very exciting time to be a driver right now.