Electric cars - scepticism finally starts to fade

Those who follow unusual ways of forecasting the future have got an interesting new source of information for assessing the prospects for electric cars. The first production Chevy Volt electric cars have just rolled off the production line in Michigan for sale in a small number of US markets from early next year. The first of these extraordinary vehicles has gone to the GM museum and the second was put into a charity auction, closing on 14th December. After three days, the bidding has reached $180,000, over four times the forecourt price of the car. For fans of electric vehicles, this little nugget of data suggests that at least some bidders see the Volt as potentially a stunning success. You wouldn’t bid much if you felt the car would fail lamentably. Also this week, National Grid CEO Steve Holliday said that his company’s base forecast is for 1 million electric cars in the UK by 2020. Electric cars will be about a fifth of UK car sales from 2016 onwards, he said. Note: these numbers are not consistent – current UK sales are about 2 million a year, so one fifth is about 400,000 cars, or 1.6 million vehicles sold from 1.1.2016 to 31.12.2019. But his enthusiasm was nevertheless clear. Since he is partly responsible for ensuring the UK has the electricity system available to charge these cars, his opinion matters. Other forecasts, such as from strategy consultants BCG in January of this year, also see electric and hybrid cars representing a quarter or more of total sales by the end of this decade.

The Chevy Volt wins praise from almost all of those who have driven it. Luxurious and well-styled for the American market, reviewers uniformly call it a ‘real’ car. Its European version, the Vauxhall/Opel Ampera, is similarly highly regarded. The engineering of this vehicle makes it unique. The car is always powered by electricity, as will be the Nissan Leaf, but when the batteries run low a small petrol-powered generator recharges them as the car drives. The 16 kWh battery gives about 25-50 miles of driving, depending on the temperature and how you drive, and the generator kicks in automatically after this point. A full battery and a full tank gives the driver about 300 miles of range. Farewell ‘range anxiety’.

I looked at the patterns of driving of UK cars to estimate how many miles a year the average Volt/Ampera will be powered by electrons and how many by petrol. The National Travel Survey’s 2009 figures gives estimates for the number of miles driven each year by the average UK car and splits this into journeys of various lengths. Typically a car is driven about 8,400 miles a year (and this number is now falling). My estimate is that about 1,600 miles will be travelled using petrol, less than 20% of the total. (These figures assume that the driver typically gets 40 miles of driving before the petrol engine starts). If this figure seems surprisingly low, consider the research finding that the average driver (not the same as the average car) only takes 7 trips a year, on all modes of transport, over 100 miles.

Very roughly, and assuming that the Volt/Ampera is charged on overnight cheap electricity, the savings will be about £600 a year in fuel costs. The list price of the car in the US is about $41,000. Translated directly into UK £, and VAT added, the figure is about £32,400, substantially more than a Nissan LEAF. A £5,000 subsidy for early buyers brings the figure down to £27,000 or so. Making a direct comparison to an equivalent internal combustion engine car is difficult because of the high quality of the Volt’s fittings. But it is probably about £7,000 above the fossil fuel competition. (Knowledge of cars is not my strong suit – different opinions very welcome). Apart from the fuel savings, there’ll be no excise duty to pay and insurance for electric cars is looking as though it is less than equivalent petrol vehicles. Industry people suggest that depreciation rates should be lower – there are far fewer moving parts and mechanical wear will be very much less.

Nevertheless, electric cars are still not quite direct competitors to internal combustion engines. The key problem is the battery, currently costing over $1,000 per kilowatt hour of storage. The Volt has 16 kWh and the Leaf 24 kWk, so the cost problem is obvious. The association for the promotion of electric car batteries in the US has set a target of $250 per kWh, but consultants BCG see a realistic number as $360-440 kWh by 2020. If the BCG figures are achieved, the cost of the Volt’s batteries will fall by about $9,000 (just less than £6,000) by 2020. Optimistic forecasts from GM’s Chevy division seem to indicate that other components will also fall in price substantially, implying that by about 2020 the forecourt price of an electric car will be little more than a petrol-engined vehicle. And then there are the fuel savings.

What about CO2? The Volt is only moderately low emissions when in petrol mode, delivering about 145 grammes of CO2 per kilometre. The lowest emission models are now tipping below 100 grammes in Europe. So for the typical mileage and average UK CO2 emissions from electricity generation, the saving are negligible when compared to a small fuel efficient car such as the Citroen DS3. Against a new business salon car with emissions of 160 grammes per kilometre, the savings are about 0.7 tonnes a year, or about a third. As the percentage of low carbon electricity supplied to the Grid rises, the CO2 savings increase.

If the Volt is as successful among users as it has been among motoring journalists, the huge investment in this vehicle may help GM finally return to being the technology leader among world car companies, a position it probably lost in about 1965. Perhaps as important, it will provide a signal to all other manufacturers that the era of the electric car is finally here. Or rather back again since many of the most interesting vehicles of the early 20th century ran on electric batteries.