Electric Vehicles

There is an increasing number of Electric Vehicles available, from 50cc-type moto-scooters, through cars and small vans to large commercial vehicles and buses. There are now EVs in most vehicle segments and new 'Extended-Range' Electric Vehicles (E-REVs) and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) combining electric drive with a combustion engine are further adding to the choice and diversity of vehicles.

Most vehicles enjoy concessions such as free Road Fund Licence ('tax disc'), free parking in some London Boroughs and other Plugged in Places areas and exemption from Congestion Charge, whilst those used by businesses or in commercial operations can benefit from 100% First Year Allowance reducing effective purchase cost and 0% Benefit-In-Kind for Company Car drivers (5% for hybrid vehicles) with nil National Insurance employer contribution, reducing ongoing costs.

'Pure' Electric Vehicles

Nissan Leaf
Nissan LEAF © ecodrive

There are now around a dozen EV scooters, cars and vans.  The handful of electric cars now available span from 2-seater urban compact vehicles to 5-seat family cars & MPVs and high performance sports cars!  Practical driving ranges over 100 miles mean that they can meet the daily needs of many drivers, especially as one of two or more vehicles in a household or business.  The Plug-In Car Grant scheme offers up to £5,000 off the cost of qualifying cars making them much more equitable with Internal Combustion Engined vehicles, especially when reduced running costs are factored in.

Whilst many households (or businesses) considering EVs will have access to other vehicles for longer journeys, manufacturers and dealers are aware of the limitations of EVs and are working to provide alternative solutions such as the use of conventional vehicles from dealerships for occasional use.  Often the perception of limitation of vehicles is not borne out in practice.

Commercial vehicles have, until recently, generally been conversions of existing vehicles.  Since the start of 2012, factory produced EV versions of smaller, well-known models are available to complement the larger vehicles from specialist converters.  Many vans now qualify for the Plug-In Van Grant giving up to £8,000 towards the purchase cost. 

Hybrids - they're EVs too, right?

Vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic hybrids have long claimed environmental kudos by supplementing their small petrol engines with an electric motor to boost acceleration using energy recovered when going downhill and during deceleration (called Regenerative Braking) as most EVs do anyway.  Some vehicles be driven in 'EV mode' for a few miles at low speed, but the current failure of these vehicles is that they still take all of their energy from fossil fuels: there is no way to recharge the battery from renewable energy.

Ultimately, the electric drive simply exists to improve on the inherent inefficiency of a combustion engine. Many smaller conventional vehicles, such as Citroen's C1, achieve better fuel economy and similar CO2 emissions than a hybrid for much lower cost - and if only half the difference was spent on energy efficiency measures and renewable energy technologies for the home/business, such as solar hot water or Photo-Voltaic panels, it would more than make up for the difference.

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs)

In early 2012 the first examples of the evolution of the Hybrid 'got a plug' allowing the vehicle battery to be recharged from the mains to gain many of the advantages an EV where the vehicle is used for short journeys.  Vehicles such as Toyota's Prius Plug-in generally have larger batteries than 'normal' hybrids to offer a better electric-only range than the existing versions, but will only be suitable for short electric journeys of around 10 miles at low speeds (not trunk roads since at higher speeds the engine will automatically engage too)

Volvo's V60 will be available as a diesel PHEV and Peugeot will extend their diesel Hybrid4 range to PHEV in 2013.

PHEVs should not regularly be recharged during the day (unless from micro-generation such as Photo-Voltaic solar panels) since this is when there is already a lot of demand on the grid - and the CO2 impact of the electricity is higher. But if most days' driving is relatively few miles at modest speeds and you desire the flexibility of unlimited range, a PHEV might be a practical solution.

Extended-Range Electric Vehicles (E-REVs)

Vauxhall Ampera

Vauxhall-Opel Ampera © ecodrive

Another solution is the "series hybrid" where the vehicle is primarily an Electric Vehicle which is recharged from the mains.

The principal means of driving the wheels is the electric motor but there is also a small combustion engine 'Range Extender', optimised to run very efficiently at a fairly constant revolution rate.

Attached to the engine are generators which provide electricity to drive the electric motor, recharge the battery, or both. There is usually no mechanical connection from the engine to the wheels since it is more efficient (less energy is lost) to provide that connection electrically.  Depending on the journey patterns and driving habits of the driver(s) the Range Extender might rarely be used: only on longer journeys beyond the range of the vehicle on battery power alone or at high motorway speeds.

With a larger battery than a PHEV, range on battery alone is better but only around half that of a similar 'pure' EV, although it may be a more practical solution for a household (or business user) that wants just one general purpose vehicle without limitations.

So-called Extended-Range EVs (E-REVs) offer a practical solution for the motorist who occasionally needs longer range from their vehicle, particularly outside of areas with suitable recharging infrastructure.  The first examples on the market are the Chevrolet Volt and Vauxhall (Opel) Ampera (similar cars, both built by GM) which have around a 40-mile electric-only range and around 300 miles from a full tank.