Electric cars – Are they a realistic option yet?

I had a long phone conversation this week with an evangelist for electric cars. With fuel gone through the roof, and neither a domestic oil industry nor a domestic car industry to keep happy, Ireland ought to be the perfect location for electric cars.

They do have real potential. I had the opportunity to take one for a one-month trial as part of an ESB research project in Autumn of 2010 and it was an eye-opening experience.

I was excited because in a sense we have all been waiting for the electric car for years. We know it is possible and we read about it, but here was a shiny little Misubishi iMiev all ready for me in my driveway. I loved it, like the big kid that I am.

ESB installed a special meter at my home and an exterior socket on my garage wall which meant it was extremely easy to charge. In total I managed to cover over 900 kms in the month. Most of that was urban driving, pottering around the environs of Dublin city.

The total cost in electricity was just €15.88. This is a mightily impressive figure given that it is based on genuine city usage by a bog-standard real life driver. At 40mpg for an equivalent petrol engine from Mitsubishi, the same distance would cost me €104.76 in today.

Put it another way, I was getting the equivalent of 264 miles per gallon.

Electric cars are almost exactly the opposite of an internal combustion engine. When you’re stuck in traffic a conventionally fuelled car is simply burning cash. In comparison the electric motor is a miser, only using power when you are actually moving.

It takes off from rest at an amazing pace – something I wasn’t expecting. I was astonished the first time I tried it. Put the foot down when the lights turn green and you will leave most petrol engines standing.

It is also eerily silent. It makes almost no noise at all when moving off and I found myself startling pedestrians who caught me out of the corner of their eye but who never heard me coming.

But it has serious range limitations on the open road. I took the Mitsubishi out for a run on the motorway and while an internal combustion engine is at it’s happiest cruising along at 120km/h speeds, I watched the battery indicator in the iMiev wilting before my eyes.

I liked the iMiev and I think electric cars have a serious future. But in its current form it may struggle because of that range limitation. Very hard to sell a car in rural Ireland if it won’t do high mileages. But there are interim technologies that could fill the gap.

Toyota have produced a Prius ‘plug-in’ Hybrid that runs partially on a petrol engine. This gives fantastic mileages and runs mostly on electricity but the petrol engine means that you won’t be stuck for want of a charging point.

And to be fair, ESB are doing their bit. They have now installed 350 public charge points and 30 ‘fast charge’ points to serve the Electric car market. The AA has also invested in technology to charge them on the spot and carry out repairs.

It is not much of a market yet. Only 46 electric cars were sold in Ireland last year. But let’s not knock it because it is a youngster. You have to start somewhere.

You may remember the first time you were shown a mobile phone twenty years or so ago. The enormous gadget was twice the size of your pint and didn’t last as long. We got from there to the iPhone in about 15 years.

If we see anything like that rate of progression for electric cars then I do not think it at all fanciful that they might become very common on our roads. If the price of normal fuel keeps going the way it is then this may happen sooner than people think.

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