2040: The all-electric Utopia as carbon fuels fizzle out
So Britain has joined France and other nations in announcing a definite final exit for the internal combustion engine. As from 2040, petrol and diesel cars will no longer be sold in this country. This means (presumably, based on current technology) the electric car will rule the roads. But who knows, before 2040 there could be entirely new forms of propulsion we haven’t yet thought of. Beam me up, SsangYong….
There are two ways of looking at this. The first is that driving an electric car is no hardship. In fact, it is positively fun. I leased a Nissan Leaf for eighteen months as part of a national market survey on the impact of car charging on the electricity infrastructure. I’m not sure what the infrastructure thought about this (or concluded at the end of the year and a half) but I had a whale of a time.
Did I mention range?
So why did I not buy another electric car? It wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm. Indeed, I almost persuaded myself it would be a good idea, so much did I like the Leaf. But the big problem, as everyone knows, is range.
At the time, the Leaf had a headline range of 85 miles but its real-world range was nearer to 50 miles. The full 85 miles was possible in ideal conditions, driving relatively slowly without air conditioning or heating (as appropriate) and eschewing the inherent accelerative delights of the electric motor.
At 75 mph on the highway the Nissan supped juice like a 1930s 15-litre racing car. The range is also calculated without taking into account the angst factor. With a petrol or diesel car there is a reserve where you are bombarded with dire warnings. But you don’t mind because you know you can pull into the next filling station and be back on the road in minutes.
Not so with the Leaf or other electric cars. You start worrying big time when the range gets to 25 miles. At 10 miles the angst is all pervading and images of a stranded Leaf by the side of the road remove all pleasure from driving. It was on one such occasion, driving back across London late one rainy night, that I finally realised that electric cars are not yet ready for the mainstream. I had to make an unexpected detour because of an accident and arrived home with the meter on zero. Phew! But never again. I went out and bought a polluting conveyance the next week.
Turning over a new Leaf
Later Leafs (Leaves?) have longer ranges and 130 miles is now commonplace. Tesla can stretch this to over 200 miles but you pay the penalty in having to drive a massive vehicle which has enough space for the batteries. Yet however long the range, when the music stops the prospect is not so rosy.
With the Leaf I did attempt a couple of longer journeys. After all, there are charging points at all motorway service stations and, at the time, fuel was free. At first it was fun: Roll up, plug in and go for a coffee. Thirty minutes later the car had an 80% top-up thanks to the rapid-charge technology and off I whisked again. Yet 50 miles later the angst set in once more. I soon came to realise that refuelling on the motorway wasn’t all that reliable. I began to find both the bays occupied. What a cheek! These damned electric vehicles were getting too popular! Sometimes a driver had gone off for a long lunch break, leaving his fully charged car blocking more needy applicants. Other times the chargers were out of order, leaving me up the M4 without a paddle as it were.
By 2040, no doubt, all these problems will be behind us. They’d better be. Service stations will sell no carbon fuel but will consist of several hundred pods where as-yet undeveloped rapid charging technology will have you on the road in ten or fifteen minutes. And ranges will have improved, perhaps to 400 or 500 miles. This has to happen if a country is going to be able to function on electric power alone.
Holy grails are needed
There is also the search for the holy grail of better battery technology. So far, despite lots of promises, there have been no big breakthroughs. Our phones still need charging every day and our cars continue to demand a top-up every 100 miles or so.
Make no mistake, though, given an extended range and better charging facilities, I would buy another electric car in a heartbeat. I’d buy a Tesla now if it weren’t such a monster around town (and, perhaps, were not quite so expensive).
The little Leaf, which was my introduction to electric cars, is decidedly fun to drive. Acceleration is impressive and the smooth linear transmission, sans gearbox, makes the car feel like a mini Porsche (although the on-paper figures don’t seem to support this impression). I’ve since driven the misbegotten Mercedes B-Class electric — an even more impressive car if it weren’t for one big glitch: It doesn’t support rapid charging, so that half-hour coffee break at the Membury Services would extend to a leisurely four hour slap-up gourmet meal — enough to ruin any journey and incense fellow electric car enthusiasts. Whatever were Mercedes thinking of? I didn’t buy it for that reason alone.
I’ve also considered hybrids with their typical electric-only range of 30 miles before the internal combustion engine need be used. A good idea, and that 30 miles would cover most of my regular trips. But the snag is the cost; they tend to be much more expensive than an equivalent petrol or diesel car and it is hard to justify for my style of motoring. No, given the right infrastructure, the all-electric car is something worth aiming for.
I’m currently running a small, economical petrol engined car but I will certainly be in the market for an electric replacement if technology continues to improve. It’s just that range that worries. Yet none of this seems to worry governments. It's a case of legislate now and hope that the technology will be ready in time. On the other hand, it could be a case of wishful thinking.
Not to worry. By 2040 I’ll be past caring, so I shall not be losing any sleep over the transition.
More of my adventures with electric cars: