ROSS CLARK: Electric cars are the future. But why don’t we support real green cars?



Diesel car owners know all too well the risks of falling into the trap of government incentives.

Tony Blair’s government has done its best to persuade us to switch to diesel, reducing taxes on fuel and introducing a new system of excise tax on vehicles based on carbon emissions per mile.

Those who, like me, have taken the bait are now treated as environmental vandals, effectively banned from driving in some cities by the imposition of exorbitant fees.

For example, it would cost me £ 12.50 to venture a yard inside London’s North Circular Road, in addition to £ 15 for congestion charges if I drove further into the city.

Now it’s the turn of electric car buyers to fall in love with government sales. Go for a pure new electric vehicle with a list price of £ 35,000 or less and the government will subsidize your purchase to the tune of £ 2,500.

Tony Blair’s government tried to take us to diesels and now if you buy an electric car for less than £ 35,000 the government will subsidize you £ 2,500. Pictured: Volkswagen’s ID 3 electric car in Dresden

We’re also encouraged by the promise of subsidized charging stations – and pushed by the announcement of a ban on the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars by 2030.

Still, it’s far from clear that electric cars really are the future – and there’s every reason to think they could possibly lose to hydrogen-powered cars.

Land Rover announced yesterday that it will develop a hydrogen prototype of its Defender model.

While not initially released to the public, the company clearly believes that in the longer term, hydrogen may be a better way to power an off-road car than electricity.

It is the most abundant element on the planet; it’s cleaner and greener than electricity; and hydrogen cars can go further without refueling than electric versions.

Yet the government has continued its campaign to make our cars fully electric, despite serious technological challenges.

In some circumstances, an electric car is the ideal answer – if you do a lot of short city trips, have a driveway to park in, and are fairly well off.

But there are three significant hurdles to overcome before electric cars can completely replace gasoline and diesel: their higher cost, reduced range, and the time it takes to recharge them.

Land Rover will develop a hydrogen prototype of its Defender model (photo).  The company thinks hydrogen might be a better way than electricity to power an all-terrain car

Land Rover will develop a hydrogen prototype of its Defender model (photo). The company thinks hydrogen might be a better way than electricity to power an all-terrain car

Costs should come down as they are built in greater volume. But you can’t count on it.

Right now, an electric car will cost you about half the price of an equivalent gasoline or diesel model.

Since their batteries are based on rare metals such as cobalt, no one can predict how costs will evolve in the future – a few years ago, cobalt prices more than tripled in a few months.

There is also a high ethical price to pay for cobalt, as much of it is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, primarily using child labor.

When it comes to range, it will take a big technological breakthrough before an electric car can compete with a gasoline or diesel.

Take the Nissan Leaf, the first mass-market electric car sold in Britain. When it was introduced a decade ago, it was advertised as being able to travel 73 miles between charges.

Now the base model on sale has an advertised range of 168 miles. Yet most of this improvement isn’t due to battery technology – it’s simply the result of filling more batteries.

Needless to say, 168 miles is what it will achieve under ideal test conditions. Nissan admits that in real life it can travel a lot less than that.

According to the company’s own “range calculator”, if you fill it up with four passengers and drive at highway speeds when it’s zero Celsius outside (electric cars perform less well in cold weather) , it will only travel 90 miles on a full charge.

It wouldn’t matter that much if it took two minutes to refuel. However, to fully recharge, the batteries take seven hours and 30 minutes.

If you can find a fast charger – a big “if” given how few of them on the roads – you can charge the batteries 20 percent to 80 percent in 60 minutes.

But it is still far too long. Several times a year I drive from my home in Cambridgeshire to the Scottish Highlands. For the moment I can do it, with stops, in nine hours without needing to refuel my Citroën C5 station wagon once.

With a Nissan Leaf it would take me six more hours, although I could find conveniently placed quick chargers. If I couldn’t, it would take me at least five days.

It’s one thing to charge an electric car on your own driveway, quite another if, like millions of motorists, you rely on parking on the street, perhaps some distance from your home.

It will take huge investments to provide electric charging points on every street and there is little hope that this can be achieved in nine years, when the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars is banned.

There are currently 42,000 chargers in the UK, including 10,500 fast chargers. This for a country of 32 million cars, each of which will need to be recharged almost every night.

This is why some car manufacturers have come to the conclusion that hydrogen could be the solution.

Much has been said about the rise of electric car maker Tesla – now worth £ 590 billion, ten times more than the Ford Motor Company, although it only makes a fraction of the number of cars.

What less people have noticed is that Toyota, the Japanese manufacturer who pioneered hybrid cars in the 2000s, doesn’t care at all about the UK market for pure battery-powered cars.

Instead, he invested his money in hydrogen fuel cell technology.

It is far from clear that electric cars are truly the future as it will take a big technological breakthrough before an electric car can match a gasoline or diesel car (stock image)

It is far from clear that electric cars are truly the future as it will take a big technological breakthrough before an electric car can match a gasoline or diesel car (stock image)

This burns hydrogen to generate electricity, which is used to power the wheels, like in an electric car. It is a very clean technology – its exhaust produces only water vapor.

Still, a hydrogen car can be recharged in five minutes and will travel 300 miles with a full tank. In fact, you can already buy a Toyota with a hydrogen fuel cell, but there are only 11 service stations that offer hydrogen.

Hydrogen cars are not without problems. It is an even more explosive fuel than gasoline and must be stored in heavy-duty tanks. And there is no freely available source of hydrogen on the planet: it has to be manufactured.

If the objective is to reduce carbon emissions, it will be necessary to develop an entire industry based on the production of “green” hydrogen by electrolysis, ie the passage of electric currents through water. Today, most hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, which rather defeats the purpose.

Still, it would be unwise to bet that hydrogen-powered cars are becoming a big part of the answer to cleaning up road transport.

There are already hydrogen buses in the UK and an aircraft manufacturer is working on its first zero-emission hydrogen aircraft.

The point is, not many people believe that the battery power will be enough for large vehicles such as trucks and excavators. Generally speaking, the bigger the vehicle and the more distance you have to travel, the better the hydrogen option.

Which begs the question: why is the government so determined to put us behind the wheel of electric cars?

It is not the first time that he has embarked on a policy without considering all the consequences.

Buying electricity may get you a slap on the head from the government now, but it could end up being a decision you will bitterly regret.

The Denial, by Ross Clark, is published by Lume Books.


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