transport

Guest post: is it time to switch to an electric vehicle?

I recently wrote about how the electric transport revolution in India and China has begun with the poorest. Not so in Britain, where ditching the petrol driven car is still pretty expensive. My brother Paul attempted such a thing recently, and shares his observations:


We’ve been in the market for a family car recently, and we looked at all the options. We already drove a hybrid so had ruled out going back to an internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV). It needed to be secondhand, and it needed decent range. We live in Scotland and we’ve ditched internal flights to visit family and friends in England, so it has to be convenient on long drives.

Our options were to go full electric (EV), electric with range extender (EVRE), plug-in hybrid (PHEV), or hybrid.  Let’s take a look at each of those categories of vehicle in turn.

Hybrid: Looking at newer hybrid vehicles, we discovered improvements on the system we already knew and liked. With our 2011 reg, we’d already learnt to drive differently and even managed to squeeze 450-480 miles out of a single tank on long journeys. Economically speaking it was achieving diesel-like mpg without the diesel – which is only a good thing.

Newer model hybrids would give a like-for-like system with improvements in technology and efficiency, but little else.  Each new model boasts improved mpg but still loses out on boot capacity making them less useful as a ‘family’ vehicle. Larger hybrids are available but their size and weight makes the small battery work harder and this compromises mpg. The larger vehicles are also more expensive, making it harder to justify the price against the diesel equivalents.

With a few exceptions (ie. Prius) hybrids tend to be ‘converted’ versions of a petrol/diesel car and thus are not space efficient.  They also tend to be smaller vehicles as even the best hybrid systems on the market struggle in when powering larger cars.

Full Electric (EV): There is a lot of talk (in Scotland at least) about electric cars becoming ‘more affordable’. It’s a relative term, so we set out to see if we could afford one. We couldn’t.

That’s not strictly true – we could, but the compromises were too numerous. Firstly, the grants and interest free loans available (in Scotland) do not apply for buyers of second-hand vehicles. So they are ‘affordable’ if you are the type of person who normally buys cars new. That ruled us out pretty quick. Secondly, we could only afford a small one with short range and limited space. EVs can have a lot of boot space, but we couldn’t afford the newer models that do.

Secondhand electric cars we found that they hold their value well. Great if you are trading one in for a newer model, but not much help if you’re entering the market without interest-free loans.

Electric with range extender (EVRE): An EVRE is an EV with a small petrol generator onboard to charge the battery when it gets low – thus increasing range. You still fill up at the pump, but only use a minimal amount of fuel. We looked into EVREs, but the increased range comes with further reduced carrying capacity as the vehicle needs to include a small petrol tank and generator to charge the battery.  It varies between manufacturers but most EVREs are, like many hybrids, modified versions of a car designed as an ICEV.  Small on the inside, expensive, and few on the second-hand market. There are next to no ‘affordable’ EV or EVRE family cars that we could find.

EVs and EVREs make much more sense if you can afford to buy one new and don’t need a lot of space. Even then, get one that’s built as an EV – not retro fitted from an ICEV model.

Plug-in-Hybrid (PHEV): Perhaps not surprisingly, the plug-in hybrid is the middle ground between the hybrid and the electric. It is not perfect, but it is a system that can fit in a family car with fewer compromises. EVREs are similar to PHEVs, but the latter have greater combined range and there are more on the market.

The plug-in hybrid is essentially a short range electric and petrol car combined to make a medium range vehicle. It can be charged and driven 100% electric, 100% petrol, or both. It is capable of a set number of miles on electric power alone, greatly reducing or eliminating your petrol consumption. At this point mpg is irrelevant and you’re working to miles per kilowatt. When the battery is depleted, the petrol engine will seamlessly kick in and mpg becomes relevant again (Some models even allow you to charge the battery off the petrol engine, just like in an EVRE). The efficiency of any one journey varies enormously depending on all the different variables at play (fuel/klw combo, temperature, speed, elevation, distance, etc) however once you’ve mastered your regular short trips, you’ll be squeezing the best out of the vehicle pretty quickly. For the purposes of short trips of 20-30 miles, it is superb.

The downside is in overall range. Compared to an ICEV it has a small petrol tank, and compared to EVs it has a small battery. Combined it has a range that sits between an EV and ICEV-hybrid (it won’t be doing 400 miles on one tank). If you drive a PHEV exclusively in EV mode, you’ll get fewer miles per kilowatt than a full EV would because you’re carrying round an engine and petrol tank you’re not using. (Same goes for driving in ICEV mode exclusively, and pulling a battery around). The advantage however is that you can eliminate your reliance on pump visits for short trips entirely and range anxiety can go with it.  The petrol is there if you need it but the PHEV is best used to give confidence to test and push an EV system without all the compromises associated with an EV, or the petrol addiction of an ICEV.

Test home and public charging, cables, charge speeds, motorway charging, regenerative charging and the variability in battery range. Seek the cheapest electricity deals, and learn to drive differently. Then the next car you buy can be an EV and you won’t think twice about it.


Paul went for the plug-in hybrid. When they’ve had it for a little while, I’ll get him to write about how it has changed their driving habits.

2 comments

  1. We’re thinking about an EV or hybrid but have on street parking with no charging facilities nearby (and a local council strapped for cash and unable to install any they say). My wife needs to be able to travel 50-80 miles each day for work. I’d be interested to hear your brother’s experience. We think it would probably need to be a hybrid (but probably not a plug in hybrid until more charging points exist). Thanks for the blog

    1. That is a problem, and until there is serious government funding and/or some business investment in charging points, those without off-road parking are going to have a problem.

      I have a hybrid myself, and the hybrid Toyota Yaris might be worth looking at. Two different family members have owned those and been very happy with them, and there’s a decent secondhand market for them.

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