Oxford, 19/05/2020. Having just taken part in an alternative-investment seminar typical of the kind so prevalent among the more eco-minded, I’m thinking more and more about the kind of personal transport I might want to buy in a post-Covid19 future.
As a frequent cyclist and believer that short-distance journeys of three miles or less are best accomplished on two wheels, I’d certainly like to see more electric vehicles (EVs) on the roads. The Coronavirus lockdown has been a revelation to me (and I suspect to many others) in how clear the air in city and suburban environments can be.
It’s been wonderful to be outdoors in early spring, walking and cycling without the fumes of vehicle exhaust tainting the air. Air pollution has become so everyday for most of us that I don’t think we realise how bad it is getting, and just a few weeks without makes me realise what a stink is produced by constant traffic.
So should I buy an electric vehicle myself? I should, but probably will not. Because although I come from a cycling city, and have been steadily reducing my own environmental footprint (in transport terms) since 2007, electric vehicles still do not offer the answer to my personal transport needs.
Let me explain. Right now, as the Covid-19 lockdown is easing, I drive my car about once a fortnight; I do more more miles on the bicycle. But that is within the city limits of a reasonably small town in the south-east of England. My car sits forlorn on the drive – it has been driven about 800 miles since I bought it last December.
Well, great for the environment, you may say. And that’s true, it is healthier for myself and for my neighbours not to drive. I have noticed the benefits to the local environment from a general lack of vehicle use almost immediately.
However, once the world begins to return to more normal patterns of behaviour (even if a new kind of normal), I will expect to drive more. Most probably on occasional trips to the north of England, Scotland and across the channel.
That is to say that my car is principally used for medium to long-distance journeys, or for transporting heavier items. Fortunately I don’t have the demands of delivering spouses or family members to take into account. My personal transport needs are very simple, and I have the luxury (mostly) of being able to plan them ahead.
But it is this medium and long-distance requirement that counts, for me, against electric cars. I would love to be able to swank about in an environmentally correct electric car and display my moral righteousness for all to see.
But I cannot, unless the vehicle is a hybrid. The chances are too high, and will probably remain so for some years yet, that I would get stranded in some part of the country I don’t know, even with the godlike abilities of Google to guide me. I should probably add at this point that a friend of mine drove an EV across Europe a few years ago for a BBC Radio 4 programme. His crew had a backup vehicle, a Toyota pickup diesel, that they had to use more than once.
The problem was not so much the car running out of juice, as the availability and functioning of charging points. Typically they would have the wrong kind of connector, or the cable couldn’t quite reach, or the chargepoint just wasn’t functioning at all.
Of course that was a few years ago. EV batteries have improved enormously since then, and more chargepoints are starting to appear. But neither are good enough yet to meet the needs of people like me.
Distance and charging availability remain key issues. True, some luxury vehicles such as from Tesla can answer the distance need. But you are not likely to want to risk your expensive car on a small shopping car park in some areas of certain UK cities, or anywhere that makes you feel uncomfortable or nervous about your temporary neighbours.
Take that same scenario further afield, to to the outlying suburbs of Paris, say, or Marseilles, and you can add language problems to any potential difficulties. Imagine trying to explain connector incompatibility on the phone to a vehicle breakdown service in Portugal.
It is no surprise then, that given drawbacks like these, most private-vehicle purchasers will choose to continue with the devil they know. Fossil fuel may be frowned upon, it may have environmental penalties, but at least it works.
And for me, the most important consideration of all remains connector standards. Even now, with governments, city councils and industry urging us to choose electric, there is still no one agreed standard for EV charging connectors.
The Type 2 connector may be accepted by most European manufacturers, and is indeed an EU standard. But for some strange reason the UK has refused to accept it (Brexit or not), and certain mostly Japanese manufacturers use a different type.
While different auto-industry lobbyists can argue the finer points of charging efficiency, people like me see only one thing – no standard. And since I am not going to be organised enough to have two or three different types of cable in the car when my battery runs low in a strange place, then I’ll just reject the whole idea of buying an EV vehicle as impractical.
And if there are doubts about personal purchase, these concerns apply equally to investing in EV infrastructure. Some of the organisations promoting community-lead initiatives are expanding fast, and already benefiting from industry-innovation grants. Yet how can private investors like myself, especially in the UK, risk their own funds when the UK has not accepted the EU Type 2 connector standard, meaning I could still encounter the ‘wrong kind of connector’ syndrome when I’m lost on the outskirts of Glasgow.
One day the auto industry may bang heads together and accept a universal connector standard, or at least a Europe-wide one. One day the EU Commission may also come up with another standard, this time for clear signage that shouts, in large text and bright colours, “Universal EV charging here – only credit card needed.”
Until then, I’m afraid I will probably continue to use petrol.
© Philip Hunt, 2020.
Postcript. I should probably add that I have little doubt that alternative-fuelled cars are coming, be they electric or hydrogen fuel-cell (see this piece about hydrogen vehicles).
For more information on how some are pushing for a more green-oriented recovery from Covid-19, I recommend the Cuppa Club webinars run by Ethex, the positive investment (i.e. green) people. Watch for example this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClUSwXw7DHk&feature=youtu.be&mc_cid=cfc6f1ac86&mc=