The Pros and Cons of Electric Cars

So, you live in the UK and for whatever reason you are thinking of replacing your old car or just buying a new one and you’re wondering if an electric car might be the right option? There are a whole load of things which will influence this decision, however to help you along we have compiled a list of the pros and cons of buying and running an electric car in the UK. Factors will change over time.

Pros, advantages, the good stuff

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The Pros of electric cars are all about the environment at the moment, emissions, recycling, noise etc. There are some elements which are more cost effective then regular transport and it is this aspect which should come to the forefront as the technology and market matures. Electric cars are good and this is why….
Zero Emissions – electric cars produce zero CO2 emissions when running, they don’t emit nitrous oxide or other particle emissions either. As Th!nk like to point out – they’re not counting grams coming out of their tailpipes… they’re cars don’t even HAVE tailpipes! Regular fossil-fuelled road transportation is widely cited as being responsible for around a fifth of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

Fuel Costs a full tank of fuel, namely a fully charged battery will cost not much more than a pint of milk.
Recyclable  many electric car designers e.g. Stevens are looking at the full life cycle of design and manufacture and it’s impact on the environment. So they ensure that not only are their cars highly recyclable, they’re also often actually made from recycled material.
Energy Efficiency  the trouble with conventional combustion engines (i.e. petrol, diesel, veg oil, etc) is that they’re horribly in-efficient – as much as 80% of the energy produced when the oil is burned is lost as heat! That means for every £ or $ worth of gas you use, you’re throwing away 80p (or cents) of it!! Sure there is still loss in an electrical engine too but its more like 10 or perhaps 20% loss. Given this one single fact it actually seems pretty amazing that electric cars lost out to oil based engines all those years ago (see our section on technology).
Noise electric cars are quiet, very quiet. In fact in Japan, they are having to introduce artificial noises to ensure those with visual impairments can hear the cars.
Renewable Energy  obviously electric cars are only ‘actually’ zero emission if they derive their electrical power from a renewable source – that is, if you charge your battery up at your house and your house is powered from a coal power station, then the end result is still emissions – however, as discussed already, electric engines are way more efficient, so even if charging the batteries from non-renewable sources, an electric car can still result in halving the amount of CO2 than that produced by a conventional engine. The real potential will be realised when electric cars are coupled with renewable power generation.
Health  emissions from the combustion of diesel and petrol (carbon-based fuels) which power road vehicles (cars, lorries, vans, motorbike) create a pretty nasty mix of exhaust fumes which contain: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, suspended particles, PM-10 particles less than 10 microns in size, benzene, formaldehyde, polycyclic hydrocarbons. Although conventional fuels have been cleaned up, for example, in the UK with widespread ban on leaded petrol they still contain a range of chemicals which are less than good for the environment or human health. Electric cars produce none of these.
Savings finally there are those financial incentives: no congestion charge in London, free or discounted parking in many places, no road tax, free charging bays in selected cities (see our article on Costs for more information).

In summary  electirc cars are great for regular, local trips <40 miles if you have access to easy / free power. Makes complete sense in London, good cost savings after the initial purchase and good, very good for the environment.

Cons, disadvantages, the not so good stuff

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The Cons of electric cars generally fall into two types: issues with the cars themselves; running them; the performance; how they look; and then issues with the wider infrastructure needed to support an electric car industry in the UK, where you can charge and service the car.  Electric cars are not so good (at the moment) and this is why….
Costs the upfront purchase of a new electric car is expensive in comparison to what you would get for your money with a regular petrol or diesel car.  Consequently, second hand electric cars are not much cheaper (see our article on Costs for more detail).
Speed and Performance  electric cars can cover the full range of speed performance, from neighborhood electric vehicles that only get up to 25 mph to high perfomance cars like the Tesla Roadster which can reach 85-90 mph.  However, the average electric car available in the UK will comfortably reach 50-55 mph.  This is lower than even a small 1.1L petrol car although arguably in the city this more than adequate for the top speeds you will be legally allowed to do.  Another issues is hills.  Electric cars have good torque and will climb hills but the trade for this is a greater drain on the battery meaning you will need to recharge sooner.
Distance range is obviously determined by many things, vehicle weight, battery pack voltage, type and driving conditions.  However, on the whole, electric cars are pretty limited in how far they can go on one charge (so although a full battery is cheap to charge it might not get you very far).  The G-Wiz is right down at arond 50 miles although you get more from the ZeCar at around 100 miles.  Cold temperatures will effect batteries but you can obviously extend the ranges with top up charging.
Charging time the full recharge time for batteries can be upwards of 7-8 hours, although most can achieve 70-80% in around 2 hours.
Batteries as detailed above, batteries have a relatively short trip capacity, they only survive so many recharges before they require replacement (although this is not unlike a normal car battery), they aren’t cheap (yet) and they also contain fairly environmentally unfriendly chemicals that must be handled properly.  One positive is a battery doesn’t run out all at once like a petrol car. You will begin to notice sluggishness, slowing and a loss of power e.g. on hills before it stops altogether.
Aesthetics  now this is a controversial one and could be a pro or a con depending on your viewpoint.  Electric cars are on the whole a little different!  Certain manufcaturers such as Think and NICE have gone for the more regular car look (think the Renault Clio for the Mega City or the Nissan Micra for the NICE e500 – you get the picture).  Meanwhile, Stevens and Reva are slightly different, right up to the concept electric cars such as the Aptera Typ1e and 2e.  We could endlessly debate this…..
Lack of Infrastructure  the Electric Car Industry will go no-where quickly without widespread infrastructure improvements.  Availability, charging points, servicing etc are all concentrated in the cities and within that, in the UK, that means London.  In particular, for electric cars to be viable for making longer journeys they need to be able to stop and fill up in the same way as a conventional car user can.  Since batteries will always take time to charge the only obvious solution we can think of is for electric car users to be able to « Stop and Swap » their batteries – exchanging their run down battery for a fully charged one.  That sort of infrastructure across the country requires major investment and help from the Government.  Perhaps its right to let the technology mature in cities first before leaping into this aspect of electric car development, but the time to start planning for it is now!

Servicing and maintenance tied to the issue above.  To keep in warranty you can’t just take your electric car into any old garage for servicing.
Electricity demand  as alluded to in the ‘pros’ section, electricity generation in this country is hardly fully environmentally friendly.  We also already place significant demands on the electricity which is available.  For the sake of arguement, if everyone suddenly bought an electric vehicle, the UK grid could not even come close to supporting this new demand.  We need a number of things here: more renewable energy production, smart technology which can maximise the charging of electric vehicles overnight and outwith peak times and improvements in energy efficiency across all aspects of life – housing, services, transport etc.   Electric cars are part of a portfolio which will help us move from a reliance on oil.  A number of infrastructural developments need addressed at the same time to make electric cars realise their true potential.

In summary electric cars are not for someone who likes cruising the open road in a performance sports car, or who likes run of the mill, easy stuff e.g. a fuelling station or garage every few miles.  Buying an electric car is still probably more of an ethical decision than a practical or financial one unless you live in London.  However, this will change in time.