Plugging in to electric cars

An ever-increasing range of electric vehicles is making it easier for buyers to move away from the internal combustion engine, but there are still challenges to be overcome

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Some of the very first cars were electric and in 1900 accounted for about a third of all vehicles on the road. But it wasn't long before the internal combustion engine took over and it has dominated ever since. Now the tide may be turning, though, as manufacturers expand their range of electric vehicles – even trying to tap into the equivalent of petrol-head passion to drive sales.

Plugging in to electric cars
Plugging in to electric cars

Brands such as Cadillac, Mercedes, Porsche, Jaguar and Audi are all launching high-end electric vehicles that could help kindle the enthusiasm usually reserved for cars powered by internal combustion engines. Porsche's Taycan, for example, which goes into production this year – with technology direct from racing, four-wheel drive, up to 600hp and a 0-100kph capability of less than 3.5 seconds – will breathe more fire than many petrol rivals. Meanwhile, Pirelli's engineers are working with a number of car manufacturers to develop tyres that can meet the particular demands of luxury electric cars, including their more rapid acceleration caused by the increased torque – or rotational wheel-driving force – produced by their electric motors.

Other electric car launches expected soon include a raft of SUVs aimed at US buyers reluctant to move to smaller cars. 

Car manufacturers around the world have a slew of new models planned, with special focus on improved battery technology and smarter, quicker charging as they gear up for drastic changes in the regulations governing the types of vehicles they are allowed to sell. Norway aims to allow only sales of fully electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles after 2025. France and the UK are to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars and vans, including hybrids, from 2040. These and many other countries have cited concerns over air quality as reasons to crack down on internal combustion engines. Volvo has already said it plans to end production of all but electric and hybrid vehicles from this year.

The growing electric fleet
Sales look healthy. New electric and plug-in hybrid cars and light vans accounted for 2.3 per cent of the market in Europe last year, at 408,000 vehicles, according to EVvolumes.com. That may sound small, but it was up 33 per cent on the previous year and close to zero at the start of the decade. 

The global rise is also steep. Sales of electric vehicles will increase “from a record 1.1m worldwide in 2017 to 11m in 2025 and 30m in 2030 as they become cheaper to make than internal combustion-engine cars,” according to Bloomberg's Electric Vehicle Outlook 2018. “China will lead this transition, with sales there accounting for almost 50 per cent of the global EV market in 2025.”

In 2040 the report expects 60m electric cars to be sold worldwide, amounting to 55 per cent of all new car sales. At that point “thirty-three per cent of the global fleet will be electric” – back to those 1900 levels.

China is also leading the market in the production of electric cars, according to UK-based transport policy expert Christian Wolmar. The advantages are two-fold – tackling high levels of pollution in cities as well as building a world-leading expertise and manufacturing capability. 

The US market
The US, however, is in a slightly different place – and the arrival of luxury electric cars Cadillacs and other new models may not be enough to shift it.

Last year sales of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in the US were 361,307 – up 81 per cent on the 2017 total, according to the website insideevs.com. That was a vast jump over the 26 per cent rise that the 2017 total made on the previous year. 

Breaking through
Then there are challenges common to the sector – despite the pioneering technology of car manufacturers. And Wolmar is one who believes that while the rise of electric vehicles is unstoppable, infrastructure weakness is preventing their adoption from really taking off.
The energy density of batteries has risen by up to 7 per cent a year and the cost of battery packs has fallen even faster, but how far an electric vehicle can travel on a single charge is still a major concern. “Although cars now have very accurate mileage countdowns, people still worry about range,” says Wolmar. Even though 200 miles of single-charge range is becoming a new benchmark, for the moment electric cars often make more sense as second cars in a household, he says.

Coupled with that is slow and uncoordinated growth of the necessary charging infrastructure. “There's a mix of providers and mix of types of charger and adapter,” says Wolmar. “In London and other big cities, it's hard to see how there can be a move to mass electric-car use when so many people live in blocks of flats and can't park outside their front door.” There is also a concern about charging capacity; if everyone wants to top up their car battery in the evening, at peak time, electricity generating infrastructure will creak under the strain.

Despite the concerns, a considerable head of steam has built up behind electric cars. And it's not just vehicles straight off the production line. Every classic car show these days seems to have one or two old cars converted to electric. From the sleekest 1960s Jaguar sports car to the most utilitarian Volkswagen Beetle, the oldies are getting in on the act, too. Such conversions may confuse archaeologists in millennia to come, but right now they are more evidence that a tipping point in favour of luxury electric cars might well have been reached.