Written by: Fabienne Ruttledge

You’ve probably heard about the push towards upgrading to an electric car, with many governments and organisations regarding them ‘the future of motoring’. But what exactly is an electric car and how do they differ from vehicles which run on fuel? Electric vehicles have an electric motor which is powered by a large battery pack as opposed to an internal combustion engine. Such electric vehicles need to be plugged into the mains supply to recharge the battery, either at a public charging station or a home charging unit. Perhaps more common are hybrid vehicles, which use two or more distinct types of power, such as the combination of a petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor.

In 2019, sales of electric vehicles rose by 144 per cent (1), whilst sales of diesel vehicles fell by around 2.3 per cent. You might be wondering what exactly is causing this trend towards purely electric vehicles in the UK? This is partially attributable to Government plans to bring forward a ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles from 2040 to 2035. A survey found that almost half of UK businesses are planning to invest a total of more than £12 billion (2) in chargeable vehicles in advance of the government’s ban.

Benefits & Advantages of Electric Vehicles

There are three main benefits to electric vehicles: environmental, financial and health.

Environment

The main driving factor towards electric vehicles is the fact that they are much better for the environment than vehicles which run on fuel. The world is becoming more environmentally conscious and many individuals are becoming concerned with reducing carbon emissions and pollution. There are four main environmental factors which make electric vehicles so appealing:

  1. zero exhaust emissions;
  2. use of renewable energy to recharge the vehicle’s battery;
  3. eco-friendly materials used for their production; and
  4. reduced noise pollution.

Firstly, vehicles which run on petrol or diesel emit substances such as carbon dioxide (CO2) which contribute to air pollution. Studies have shown that just one electric car on the roads can save an average 1.5 million grams of CO2 per year, which is equivalent to four return flights from London to Barcelona.

As well as having zero exhaust emissions, renewable energy can be used to recharge the vehicle’s battery to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even further. In other words, if you were to install a solar energy system on your home, you could charge an electric car with solar panels. Even a small solar panel array with merely 10 solar panels would provide adequate power to charge an electric vehicle’s battery.

Furthermore, electric vehicles are often eco-friendlier in terms of the materials used in their production. For example, the Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf are both made up of recycled materials such as plastic water bottles and plastic bags.

Finally, electric cars can also significantly reduce noise pollution, as such vehicles are far quieter than their internal combustion counterparts. Driving electric thus creates a more peaceful environment for everyone.

Financial

Another reason why electric vehicles are becoming more appealing is because they can save you money. Electric cars cheaper and easier to maintain than internal combustion engine cars. Those who drive electric vehicles will ultimately save costs on fuel, road tax and even residents parking permits.

The biggest and most obvious saving with electric cars is the cost of fuel. Petrol and diesel prices have been on the rise. In the last 5 years petrol has risen from 99p per litre to £1.25. In contrast, the average domestic electricity rate is around 14p per kWh. This allows for electric cars to provide greater transparency with regards to running costs, as car companies often advertise fuel cars as having miles per gallon well above real world economy. Meanwhile, the cost of running an electric car can be easily calculated based on the cost per kW for charging the car. This has become particularly appealing to businesses, many of which have opted to lease or even buy electric cars for their workers to use, as the running costs are next to none.

Another saving is road tax, as it charged based on tailpipe emissions, specifically CO2 emissions. The more your car pollutes, the more you have to pay. As electric vehicles do not emit CO2, drivers of such cars are therefore exempt from paying road tax. To put this saving into perspective, for cars registered on or after April 2020, the highest annual rate is £2,175.

Furthermore, many London boroughs provide cheaper permits for drivers of electric or hybrid vehicles. For example, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea charges residents’ parking permits for electric vehicles at the lowest permit tariff. Similarly, residents in Westminster whom own an electric vehicle are provided with a free parking permit, whilst drivers of fuel cars bare a cost of £110 – £155 annually.

Public health

It goes without saying that a reduction in harmful exhaust emissions is better for our health. Cleaner air will result in fewer health problems caused by air pollution, ultimately putting less of a strain on public health systems, hospitals, etc.

In March 2019, Public Health England (PHE) published a review of evidence on how to improve air quality in the UK. The review recommended that local authorities set ‘more ambitious targets for electric car charging points, as well as encouraging low emission fuels and electric cars’ (3). The review suggested incentives for the use of electric vehicles (such as priority parking and reduced fees) in order to minimise air pollution and maximise health gains.

UK Government’s Plug-In Car Grant

The Plug-in Car Grant (PICG) programme started on 1 January 2011 and is available across the UK. The grant is administered by the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) and was designed to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles in the UK by reducing the initial expenditure to drivers. The grant provides a discount on the price of brand new low-emission vehicles in six categories: cars, motorcycles, mopeds, vans, taxis and large vans and trucks. When it launched nine years ago, the grant offered to pay £5,000 toward the price of a new electric car. The maximum grant available for cars has since been reduced to £3,000. This was recently lowered from £3,500 on 12 March 2020.

However, not all low-emission vehicles will warrant a grant, as other criteria must apply for such eligibility. For example, cars must have CO2 emissions of less than 50g/km and must be able to travel at least 112km (70 miles) without any emissions at all. Models must also cost under £50,000 to be eligible for the grant. The grant does not apply to second-hand vehicles, making it practically inaccessible to many people.

Disadvantages of Electric Vehicles

Lack of charging stations

Over a third of local authorities have ten or fewer public charging stations where drivers can plug in their vehicles. The RAC stated that the lack of charging stations was one of the main deterrents for consumers considering a switch to electric cars.

Research shows that the UK’s shortage of charging points has resulted in many drivers taking risks to charge their electric vehicles. 75 per cent of electric vehicle owners confessed to using domestic multi-socket extension leads to charge their cars from the mains in their home. Additionally, over half admitted to using an extension lead when it was raining, despite the heightened risk of electric shock and fire.

There are notable gaps in provision across the UK. Greater London has the most charging points followed by the South-East and Scotland, whilst Wales and the North-East have the least charging points. However, Ben Lane, co-founder at Zap-Map.com insists that they are “doubling the number of charge points in the UK over a two-year period (4).”

Impractical for long-distance driving

Having to wait somewhere whilst charging your vehicle is nowhere near as efficient as filling it up with fuel. In simple terms, the time that it takes to charge an electric vehicle will depend on the size of the battery and the speed of the charger you’re using. The average electric car with a 60kWh battery takes just under 8 hours to charge from empty-to-full with a 7kW charging point.

However, most drivers top up charge as opposed to waiting until their battery is completely drained. And although higher end, Tesla’s ‘superchargers’ can charge a Tesla 80 per cent in just 30 minutes.

Expensive to purchase

There is no denying that electric cars are more expensive to buy upfront than cars which run on fuel. The cheapest (used) electric cars start at around £7,000. Furthermore, the UK Government’s Plug-In Car Grant is only available for new cars. Even with a £3,000 discount, new electric vehicles are just too expensive for most people to purchase outright.

Short-term cost savings

Many of the cost savings are arguably short-term. As electric vehicles become the norm, many of the incentives such as the Government Grant and cheaper permits may cease to exist. This point, however, is very much speculative.

Conclusion

For now, hybrid vehicles seem to be more popular than fully electric vehicles due to the impracticalities that come with the latter. However, given the Government’s recent decision to outlaw hybrid vehicles by 2035, we may see a shift towards fully electric vehicles sooner than first anticipated. As the number of charging points across the UK increases, specifically in rural areas, the uptake in electric vehicles is likely to rise. Individuals may turn to alternative sources of finance, such as loans to take advantage of the Government Grant. Overall, this trend towards electric vehicles will be undoubtedly beneficial for the planet and our public health.