A one-hour stop for every two hours’ driving. Why the electric car’s not arrived, yet.

Considering a change of car led me to dig deeper on electrics. Here’s where I arrived.

The rush to roll out electric car charging points is missing the bigger point.

Range anxiety is, rightly, identified as one of the main barriers to widespread adoption of electric vehicles. But, concern about distance isn’t as simple as how far you can travel on a given charge. It’s not purely about distance, but about time, too.

Real range is not as far as you think…

The average, full-charge range of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) currently available in the UK is 193 miles. However, it’s recommended that, using a public charger, you recharge to only 80% capacity. The final 20% is automatically much slower in order to protect the battery. Therefore, on a long trip, each subsequent charge takes you only a further 154 miles. If you’re on a round trip, then your effective range is only 154 miles unless you plan for a second recharge on the way home.

If you’re travelling in winter, when cold temperatures adversely affect battery capacity, the average range is only 164 miles, and 80% of that is just 131 miles. And, of course, that’s the average across all models. “Non-luxury” models typically have much lower ranges. The average, non-luxury, winter range at 80% charge is just 102 miles.

…but the real problem is time.

Topping up every 1½ to two hours might be bearable if it involved a five-to-ten minute pit-stop, like traditional petrol or diesel cars.

The problem with battery-powered electric cars is that even a “rapid” charger (which represent less than one in five of all public chargers) takes around 45 minutes to one hour to reach an 80% charge, according to the RAC.

A one hour stop for every two hours of driving. That’s the real problem, and it’s one that adding more infrastructure doesn’t fix.

Of course, most journeys are local and even a 100-mile range is fine for most situations. But people don’t buy for the average. They evaluate their needs, including the six times a year back-and-fore trips to university, the monthly visit to a client in Cambridge or four times a year to see parents. In fact, the average car driver in England makes eight trips per year with a one-way distance of 50 miles or more.

No-one wants to buy an everyday car and regularly rent another for long journeys.

What are alternatives to today’s battery electric cars?

So, what are the alternatives?

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have a refuelling time similar to petrol and diesel vehicles. They use the hydrogen fuel to generate electricity for an electric motor and have zero exhaust emissions (aside from water). But, currently, there are very few hydrogen filling stations (just 13 in the UK as at February 2020). While many manufacturers, including BMW and Toyota, are investing in the technology, it is currently hampered by the expense and inefficiencies of producing and distributing hydrogen fuel.

Instead of lengthy recharging, another approach is simply to swap out the flat battery for a fully charged one. But, like your laptop and mobile, most electric cars are not designed for an easy battery change, nor are batteries standardised across manufacturers. However, in China, where electric vehicle sales are over one million per year, car manufacturer NIO is building infrastructure that promises a forecourt battery swap in just three minutes. That sounds attractive, but it seems an unlikely approach for the UK in the near future.

Perhaps the simplest answer is to wait a few more years. In November, General Motors announced a breakthrough in battery technology that promises increased range of 450 miles per charge, and at a lower price, too.

In the same timeframe, StoreDot, an Israeli company, promises batteries that fully charge in just five minutes.

The future will be some form of electric car, but until the time/distance challenge of longer journeys is solved, many people won’t see it as a viable solution no matter how many recharging stations are installed.

Photo by Andrew Roberts on Unsplash