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As Electric Cars Reach Europe’s Mainstream, Expect Some Inconvenient Facts

Sales of electric cars are booming in Europe and as they become ubiquitous, some home truths will be unavoidable.

According to Brussels-based green lobby group Transport & Environment (T&E), sales of mainly battery electric vehicles (BEV), and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles will account for 10% of sales in Europe this year, and 15% next year. That compares with just 3% in 2019.

The surge in mainly BEVs compares with the disastrous but probably temporary dive in internal combustion engine (ICE) powered vehicles. But the rapid acceleration in sales means electric cars are moving away from early adopter buyers who are rich, to more mainstream and value seeking sections of the market.  

These “cheaper” BEVs still cost more than twice as much as their ICE equivalents and are as good if not better in city, urban and rural driving. But the motorway range of the latest, more affordable electric cars is woeful, and is being ignored by green cheer leaders. The charging infrastructure across Europe is often poor, and when you can find one, don’t expect to be home free. If the sun is shining many of them are badly designed so you won’t be able to read the on-screen instructions. Maintenance is often neglected and out of order signs proliferate. The chargers available are provided by a wide range of companies none of which talk to each other, so you will have to assemble about 9 different apps on your smart phone and provide details on all of them if you are planning, say, a 300-mile, 4 or 5 hour drive across the motorway network and back.

Four or 5 hours that is if you were driving an ICE powered car. If you were planning such a drive in a diesel car, you could probably make it on one tankful of fossil fuel. But if you were driving a 50 kW Vauxhall Corsa E, a 44.5 kW MG ZS EV or even a 64kW Kia Soul EV, you would face big challenges. The Vauxhall manages about 85 miles at normal motorway cruising speeds of an indicated 80 mph, the MG 101.9 miles and the Kia 133.2 in my road-tests, (www.wintonsworld.com) and if we take the latter and best performing car, this is what you might face.

Recharge early

After about 1-1/2 hours and perhaps 80 miles you will probably have to start thinking about where the next charge will come from. In Britain, motorway service stations are on average about 30 miles apart, so the sensible driver will go for a recharge early, in case the first one doesn’t work. Kia says a 100 kWh charger will fill up the battery to 80% of its capacity in 54 minutes, so as the battery was by no means depleted assume 45 minutes, and the battery now offers 216 miles. Because at motorway speeds the available miles are gobbled up at about twice the rate of real miles, you’ll have just over 100 miles available and 220 miles to go. That means probably two more stops for a total journey time of at least 3 hours more than the ICE vehicle.  

T&E has said cars like the Tesla Model 3 have a real world highway range of 450 km (280 miles) and the Nissan Leaf 325 km (200 miles) but this is a theoretical claim which will come under pressure at highway cruising speeds in Europe of around 80 mph. At these speeds, the Tesla would be favored to do well, but according to user forum web sites, even a Tesla Model 3 will shed miles at a fast rate at these speeds.

According to a road test in “What Car” (www.whatcar.co.uk) magazine the most powerful 62 kWh Leaf can manage an overall 217 miles, but is unlikely to achieve anywhere near that at motorway cruising speeds.

T&E said despite the boom in BEV and PHEV sales in 2020 and 2021, they will stagnate for the rest of the decade because European Union (EU) CO2 targets for 2025 and 2030, are not tough enough. But data provider IHS Markit sees EU market share for BEVs and PHEVs of 22% (14.0%+8.0%) in 2025 and 34.9% (24.8%+10.1%) in 2030.

Huge changes are coming

These numbers hide the fact that auto markets will undergo huge changes for the rest of this decade. When European legislators realise current highway speeds are undermining the appeal of BEVs, expect pressure to lower the speed limit to, say 55 mph, which would make a huge difference to their competitivity.

The automotive industry has been making a strategic error, in my opinion. Electric cars in the lower price ranges can’t compete with the all-round qualities of ICE vehicles, which includes competitive long-distance cruising. Expect a move before too long for a more down to earth, cheap electric car designed for limited utility – shopping, local commuting, school runs – range 40 miles, top speed 45 mph, price say $5,000, featuring a small battery and consuming less expensive and rare minerals.

Slip-streaming option

There is also the truck slip-streaming option for drivers of electric cars worried about range on highways. Volkswagen, currently launching the ID.3, designed from the start to be an all-electric car, announced it had achieved 330 miles on a single charge on a trip from Germany to Switzerland, but admitted some of this was achieved by free-wheeling down hills, and following closely behind trucks to take advantage of the slipstream.

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