Petrol and diesel might not run out in our lifetimes, but alternatives are beginning to make inroads, largely thanks to rising fossil fuel costs and concerns about the planet's wellbeing. At some point we will have to change our wasteful ways, whether we want to or not. See also: 5 reasons to buy an electric car and 5 reasons not to
Hybrids such as the Toyota Prius have been around for longer than most people realise, but fully electric vehicles (EVs) with no petrol or diesel engine are still pretty new. New, that is, in the sense they are being re-explored after their hay day in the 1900's ? before the combustion engine's rise to prominence.
It is, therefore, strange that such an old and reliable technology is now playing catch up. But with advances in lightweight materials, car construction and battery technologies the electric car is more viable than ever.
The government offers some hefty incentives to switch to all-electric, but is it enough? In this feature we’ll look at the tech inside EVs (including tech and convenience features such as apps for controlling and monitoring charging) as well as the proliferation (or lack) of charging points and options.
Electric cars in the UK: State of the market
Electric cars are wonderful in theory, especially if the electricity used to power them comes from a renewable, clean source such as wind or tidal power. But they are hamstrung by a few main issues, the first of which is range. The majority of electric cars have at best a 150-mile range before running out of juice.
That may sound plentiful, but most manufacturers are presenting best case figures. A number of variables such as temperature and driving style can and will bring that total figure down. Assuming a perfect range is achievable, 150 miles means you can only go 75 miles before the return journey becomes impossible without stopping to charge. A far cry from the hundreds of miles a diesel can manage, then.
At this point the next issue comes into play. While Britain's electric car charging network is getting better, some journeys really do require forward planning or you could end up stranded by the roadside.
It helps little that your average electric car takes a long time to charge by a conventional socket. Think days, not hours. See how your boss reacts when you tell him you couldn't make it in because your car was only half charged. Luckily most manufacturers offer a 'fast-charging' system for your home for a fee, which speeds up the process to overnight.
There's also the option of applying for a domestic charging grant, which if eligible would give you a permanent solution to recharging your car quickly at home.
The last major hurdle is price. Electric cars are inherently expensive, even though the government offers a £5,000 plug-in grant. A Nissan Leaf and full ownership of the battery will set you back £21,490 after the grant is factored in. A VW e-Up, meanwhile, is £19,270 ? nearly double the £8,635 1.0-litre petrol model.
That assumes you buy the battery outright. Some manufacturers may only let you lease the battery, others will give you a choice. The battery lease option for a Nissan Leaf starts at £70 a month, but soon ramps up if you plan to do a higher number of miles per year.
Battery leasing does have some benefits. At any point if the battery goes wrong or stops charging for whatever reason, the car manufacturer will swap it for no extra cost. This is unlike buying the car outright, which would land you with a hefty bill to replace the batteries at the cost of thousands. Around £8,000 in the case of the Nissan Leaf, in fact.
Electric vehicles may be inherently expensive, but they can work from a financial perspective. The most obvious point is their fuel. Rather than pay £1.50 per litre for however many miles your car can manage, an electric car needs only electricity. Depending on your electric tariff and charger type, you can pay as little as £2 for a full charge. That is pretty cheap motoring for a 150-mile range.
Then there's the CO2 emissions (specifically, the complete lack of any). Zero emissions means exemption from Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) and London's Congestion Charge, saving you £10 a day in the case of the latter. All you have to worry about in the case of London is the annual £10 registration charge.
Maintenance is another plus point. Electric motors run without oil and are simple to repair. The electric motor is, after all, a relatively old invention. In addition, there's no need to replace something like the exhaust or clutch because there isn't one.
The garage cost will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but it is usually at least on a level with a comparable fossil fuel equivalent. Servicing is needed as frequently as a petrol or diesel engine, but far fewer moving parts means, in theory, less time needed to check everything over.
Sadly the necessary expertise means you will have to go to a main dealership to get any work carried out, as electric car repairs are going to be out of the reach for most garages. Dealers (sometimes referred to as 'stealers' because of the prices they charge) will likely charge a premium. A Tesla Model S service, for instance, costs £500.
On this subject, breakdowns will probably be an issue for most electric cars. Specialist tools and knowhow makes roadside recovery and repairs a problem. At least roadside recovery providers are upping their game, with the AA offering access to a fast portable charger if you run out of juice.
While many of us love the roar of an engine, there is a real novelty when riding in an electric vehicle. It's eerily peaceful, with only the hum of other cars cutting through the air, rubber on tarmac and your passengers breaking up the silence.
Even with all the savings, the initial financial outlay will take some time to recoup. Years, in fact, unless you really drive serious miles. But there will be a point where you start to see a return providing you keep the vehicle for a long enough time. That's before you factor in the decreased reliance on fuels that will eventually run out.
Electric cars in the UK: List of cars and prices
There are a number of electric cars on the market. Perhaps the best known is the Nissan Leaf, which in its latest form offers a range of 124 miles. It starts from £21,490 if you buy outright or £16,490 plus at least £70 a month on the battery lease, depending on your mileage requirements. The government plug-in grant is included.
The all-electric version of the VW e-Up supermini is one of the better options on the market. It costs from £19,270 before any extras and has a range of 93 miles, which is enough for cruising about town.
Ford Focus Electric
Exactly like a petrol or diesel Ford Focus, only it has an electric motor instead. While very smooth and practical, the £28,580 price is very steep given it has a 100-mile range.
Tesla Model S
A shining beacon of what electric cars can do, the Tesla Model S is fast, frugal but mighty expensive. In its 60kWh battery form, it can do 240 miles. Go for the pricier 85kWh model and you can expect 300 miles. It has a gigantic touchscreen display and, in its Performance guise, absurd performance. 0 to 62mph takes 4.2 seconds, for example. Prices start from £49,900, which isn't that bad, considering.
Technically this bizarre two-seater looks more like a bike than a car, especially when windows are an optional extra. Still, this is an incredibly cheap electric car for those who need a runaround, with prices starting from £6,895. A range of between 30 and 50 miles is hardly plentiful, but okay for urban life.
Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive
Mercedes is no stranger to electric cars, as the bright green SLS AMG Electric Drive supercar proves. On a more realistic scale, it released an all-electric version of the B-Class, which is a premium attempt at electric motoring. Prices are reportedly going to start from £32,000.
Some manufacturers are turning existing cars electric. BMW has gone in at the deep end with two cars built from the ground up that look, quite honestly, like they are from a different planet. We'll ignore the impressive i8 because it costs £100,000. The i3 is a more realistic proposition, although the £30,680 entry price is hardly cheap. Without the range extender it can do up to 100 miles on a single charge.
Another solid option for wannabe electric car owners is the Renault Zoe. Apart from being stylish and practical, it costs from £13,995. Not bad considering it has a range of up to 130miles, although you will need to pay a minimum of £70 a month to lease the battery.
Smart ForTwo Electric Drive
A smart choice for frugal motorists. The Smart fortwo electric drive costs from £15,395 in coupe form and £16,895 for the cabrio. Again, there is an option to buy outright or rent the battery.
Electric cars in the UK: Buying a used model
Electric cars should be cheap because of the fear you may have to replace the batteries one day, even if they are expected to last up to a decade. There are some good deals around if you are tempted and slightly brave. A used 2013 Nissan Leaf, for instance, could be yours for £13,995.
If you go down this route check the warranty and make sure it carries over to another owner. Ask to see the maximum charge capacity if you can so you have an idea of the battery condition. With so few electric cars on the road, it is hard to judge the second-hand market at this time.
Electric cars in the UK: Charging options
Your first option for charging is at home, but as previously discussed this can be a slow process if the battery is quite large. It is, therefore, usually a good idea to get a fast charger from the manufacturer if you have the option.
When out and about, Zap-Map provides a map of charging points. It displays each charger using a colour so you know whether to expect a slow, fast, rapid AC or rapid DC charge. You can search by vehicle if unsure what your vehicle needs. A rapid charger can charge a compatible electric car by 80 per cent in less than half an hour so you need not wait too long to go again. Bear in mind that rapid charging is often an optional extra (it's a different connector) at the time you buy the car.
Tesla owners can make use of the growing supercharger network for free. Superchargers are being installed across busy routes, including the journey to Europe, enhancing the usefulness of its cars.
Another supplier, Ecotricity, offers its Electric Highway located on motorways to anyone for free. All you have to do is swipe a card, which you can register for free, and you have access to various charging point types. Just bear in mind you will have to pay for parking if the service station is anything but a Welcome Break.
Another charging option is Source London. For £10 a year electric car owners can 'refuel' at hundreds of charging points throughout the capital. All it requires is an annual membership.
Sadly, as you are unable to book a public charging point, you may have to wait while a fellow eco-friend finishes charging their vehicle. With electric car numbers low, this could be a non-issue but increasing popularity will change that.
A little prior research into the charging plug for your car will ensure you can fill up on the move if you are ever caught short. Just ensure you keep an eye on the car ? it is not uncommon for someone to pull out the plug for fun. Some models have locks which prevent this, but it's easy to forget to enable it.
In terms of the energy cost, Ecotricity is offering car owners 1,000 miles of free electricity, making a nightly charge even cheaper. The actual cost to charge a vehicle will depend on your usage, battery capacity and your energy rate. This could range from £1 to £4. Still far cheaper than filling up with petrol or diesel. Check with your energy supplier to see if they offer an electric car tariff.
Certain places in the UK offer free parking for electric vehicles, Westminster and Islington being two examples.
Electric cars in the UK: technology
Batteries will last up to ten years for most current electric cars. Tesla guarantees its battery for eight years on the 85kWH model. It is too early to say how reliable the batteries will be, but most manufacturers will cover a drop in capacity under the warranty ? 70 to 75 per cent, usually. It's worth noting this point: battery capacity won't remain at 100 percent forever. If the manufacturer claims a range of 100 miles, that's with a battery in perfect condition (and also with the ideal weather conditions).
After some years, the capacity could drop to 70 percent - that's 70 miles in this example - but it could be even lower in winter when it's cold. Plus, in cold weather you'll use up more energy by using the car's heater, lights, heated screens etc.
Early indications from electric car owners suggest the range of a battery changes little, if at all, but the real truth may emerge over the next few years. Or, of course, they outlive their shelf life and everyone will be happy.
A number of apps exist that allow owners to do some pretty cool stuff with their car. Planning an early morning? You can pre-warm or pre-cool a car's cabin. Lost your car? Some apps will show you on a map where you need to go to be reunited.
The Tesla app available for free can even tell you your remaining range and where to charge up without you being in the car, which can help you plan your day more easily. It can even flash the lights, honk the horn and, in the case it is stolen, track the vehicle's whereabouts.
Some manufacturers offer the ability to send route destinations to your car from a computer using Google Send to Car. No need to write a post code down on a bit of paper anymore.
Electric cars in the UK: Why you shouldn't buy an EV
The Tesla Model S is obviously only for the wealthy, but change has to start somewhere. In many ways the Californian company has shown the world you can have a comfortable, practical and extremely fast all-electric vehicle, which is a good thing.
However, look at more realistic vehicles such as the Renault Zoe and the price is still a big barrier to entry. You could buy the equivalent new petrol or diesel model - many now have extremely small engines with turbos for decent performance and economy - and still have thousands and thousands in your pocket. Use that difference in cost to pay for the fuel and you'll still save money even in the long run. If you don't do many miles per year, you'll save even more.
Whether you should buy an electric car is therefore highly dependent on your situation. Those who wait for the next-generation of electric vehicles will probably benefit from bigger ranges, cheaper batteries and increasingly efficient production processes that will further reduce the cost.
If you drive tens of thousands of miles per year (on short journeys) and can afford the initial outlay, an EV could just save you money. Anyone needing to drive the length and breadth of the UK will have to look at the hybrid route or stick with a solid diesel or petrol, because electric cars simply don't have the rangeyet, and it really isn't feasible to sit for hours while your car recharges part way through a journey.
Hopefully all-electric cars will bring affordable, greener motoring to the masses currently crushed by ridiculous fuel prices, rising insurance and other costs. But there is still a long way to go.
Really, though, we should all encourage people to buy EVs: the more electric cars sold, the more car manufacturers will put effort into developing them, leading to greater affordability and improved technologies.