Electric cars not reaching top gear

10th August 2011

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Top Gear's bias against electric cars stops it from debating the real issues with the technology, argues Sarah-Jayne Russell

There has been much debate over the last week over Top Gear’s recent “test” of two electric cars - the Nissan Leaf and the Peugeot Ion. Unsurprisingly, for anyone who knows Jeremy Clarkson and his crew’s views on electric vehicles, the cars did not come across well in the programme.

Viewers were treated to images of Clarkson’s Leaf being pushed around Lincoln after running out of charge, miles from his planned destination and from a public charging point. However, it has since become clear that those watching the programme hadn’t been given the full story.

Nissan say that the car’s battery had been run down to just 40% before the filming started and there have been claims that the Leaf was deliberately driven for 10 miles around Lincoln to ensure the battery died. While this makes entertaining telly, it clearly produces a negative impression of electric cars and their range.

The show’s executive producer, Andy Wilman, however, denies this saying that they had not set out to test the cars’ ranges and had not made any claims in the programme that the batteries were fully charged at the outset of the journey. Instead, he argues, the programme was created to highlight the expense of electric cars, the issues with regards the long-term life of batteries (especially if charged quickly) and the, as yet, incomplete charging infrastructure.

The thing is, these are important issues that deserve to be debated seriously, but the show’s clear bias against electric cars means that they are lost in the debate over shoddy journalistic standards.

Creating an adequate charging infrastructure is not a simple or quick exercise, but there are around 750 charging points across the UK and a new privately-funded scheme launching in September plans to have another 4,000 up and running by the end of 2012.

Admittedly two-thirds of the currently available electric hook ups are within London and outside of big urban centres there are very few, but Top Gear chose Lincolnshire to drive around because they knew it had none. Once again, entertaining telly, but not really the whole picture, especially if you consider that electric car owners are unlikely to wander off into the countryside without considering where the nearest charging point is.

One inescapable fact presented by the programme is that electric vehicles are more expensive than their petrol-powered equivalents. Not even the government’s £5,000 grant seems capable of tempting buyers, with applications for the funds dropping dramatically just nine months into the scheme.

Figures from the Department for Transport released at the end of July reveal that only 215 electric vehicle grants were issued during April, May and June compared to 465 in the first quarter of the year. This brings the total number of electric cars in the UK to just over 2,500, a tiny proportion of the 28 million vehicles currently on the road.

But in tough financial times, there are simply not enough incentives to spend extra cash on greener vehicles. The government has been rapped on the knuckles by the European Commission for failing to implement a Directive aimed at helping to stimulate the low-carbon market, by ensuring public-sector procurement considered low-carbon vehicles. While the Directive doesn’t force governments to buy electric cars, they must demonstrate that public sector bodies are considering the environmental impacts when making vehicle procurement decisions. The UK government was given until 16 August to prove that they are making changes to ensure this is taking place.

On top of this there is the real issue of the viability of battery life over the long-term. The ability of all batteries to retain charge degrades over time, a problem exacerbated by fast or rapid charging which can provide an electric car with up to 80% charge in 30 minutes, rather than the recommended 12 hours.

According to Wilman, electric car manufacturers are not revealing the impacts of fast charging to “severely shorten battery life” which could in the end lead owners to an expensive battery change very quickly. And it’s true, people thinking of investing in an electric car do need the facts, but that isn’t what the Top Gear programme really sought to show.

Some manufacturers are working on ways to tackle both the battery and the cost issue. Renault, for example, has become the first to announce plans to lease the batteries for their forthcoming electric cars, bringing down the initial cost of the vehicle. So owners will play less up front and then pay a small monthly fee to rent the battery. This will enable the firm to upgrade the batteries as technology improves and help ensure cars retain their value better over the long term.

If the government is to meet the Committee on Climate Change target of 1.7 million electric vehicles on the road by the end of the decade, a lot more work needs to be done to tackle the issues of battery life, car cost and infrastructure. And it’s sad to see that instead of getting behind the cause, one of the BBC’s most popular shows is mocking the whole idea.

Do you agree? Why not start a discussion in the IEMA LinkedIn Group and have your say?


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