Debunking some of those EV myths and seeking the truth.
I’m not sure whether owning an EV is more or less interesting than the questions, myths and rumours I hear whenever anyone finds out I own one. Having owned a Nissan Leaf for just over a year (a 2016, 30kWh for those interested), I’ve got a good handle on how it works, its advantages, flaws and characteristics. As an engineer I also take an interest in the bigger picture surrounding EV’s including efficiency, battery developments and the amazing opportunity they provide to interact with a smart electricity supply grid. I thought this would be a good time to answer some questions, counter the myths, squash the rumours and expose the downright fallacies
How Far Will They Go - Range
Lets start with the big one. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to view the comments on articles or videos about a new EV release, you’d be led to believe that most drivers storm up and down the motorways on 600 mile epic road trips without stopping. “I’m happy with my diesel thanks, I can refill in 5 seconds and it’ll do 650miles on a tank. A 250 mile range is just not adequate. Pathetic.” is a typical comment. In fact, I’m just going to google ‘daily mail EV’ and prove it . . . 2 mins later and I’m back (I honestly didn’t set that up)
Surprisingly, it seem the keyboard warriors that tap away furiously under such articles aren’t entirely representative of the general population. Listening to what people say and comparing it to what they actually do can uncover surprising differences. If you haven’t previously, I’d recommend a quick browse around the UK government website 1 . It contains a veritable treasure trove of data on everything you can imagine. In this instance, let’s have a look at peoples driving habits.
Yes, you read correctly - a car/van drivers average trip length is just over 8 miles. This has also remained relatively constant over the last 17 years. You may be thinking that this figure is skewed by a higher quantity of shorter trips. Me too, so let’s see how far a person drives in a year.
Interestingly the average miles per person per year is slowly decreasing, starting off at around 3700 miles per year in 2002, decreasing to 3200 miles per year in 2019. Note that this data is ‘per person’. What about ‘per car’ figures? There are various data points (I’ve linked to a couple here), but the RAC has looked at the car mileage for the first three years of a cars life and reports an average mileage of 10,377 2 3 . For now, we’ll use this figure as it’s the worst case I could find. This results in an average of 28.4 miles a day. Turning it around slightly, lets assume Mr 650 Mile Journey undertakes his 650 mile journey just once a month, that would equate to 7800 miles a year. I don’t doubt that some people travel long distances regularly, but on average it’s clear that most people don’t.
Now we know how far an average person might drive, lets have a quick look at the range of modern EVs 4 5 . Below is a table of 5 low-mid range examples. Note: as with any car, range will be affected by a large number of variables such as temperature, wind, rain, tyre pressure, road surface etc, so reducing all of those variables down to one figure is somewhat misleading, but it keeps things simple for comparison.
What does this look like in the real world? Cornwall to London with one 20 minute stop required. A 20 mile commute for 5 days plus another 50 miles of weekend jaunts with no charge. Sounds useable to me.
Additionally add in the following considerations:
- EV’s can be fully charged every time you leave the house (if you so choose), so almost all of their range is available to you. E.g. unless you’re on a long journey, you’ll spend almost no time ‘filling up’. Get home, plug in and then unplug when you leave.
- Stopping for 20 minutes on a journey longer than 100 miles is fairly standard. In fact I used to do a 63 mile journey regularly with some friends and we would stop almost every trip for people to buy coffee and snacks.
- EV charging speeds are increasing rapidly. Early models could charge at speeds up to 50kW. A Tesla Model 3 can charge at 250kW or a Porsche Taycan at 270kW. For reference, charging at 250kW is adding around 750 miles of range per hour e.g stop for 15 minutes and get an additional 180 miles of range. In reality, charging speed isn’t constant, which I’ll explain later.
Admittedly it’s not all sunshine and flowers. If you do need to use a public charger on your journey, it can be a faff, especially until you’re used to the charging infrastructure. The use of public chargers can be difficult. In fact frankly, the public charging network in the UK is a mess. Initially all providers had either apps or membership cards and the legacy of these systems haven’t yet disappeared. The reason for this business model is unclear, but what is crystal clear is this: it’s rubbish. From an engineering point of view, it’s unnecessarily complicated and from a user point of view it’s unreliable. The interaction between the app, mobile network, server, charger and car is rarely seamless. Newer networks are installing contactless payment capability and transparent pricing structures (pence/kWh used) which is improving the situation. Additionally the number of chargers is increasing rapidly and the newer chargers are more reliable and easier to use. As an example of the increase in charger availability, I carried out a ~250 mile journey at the end of 2019. The same journey carried out at the end of 2020 had, at a guess, around 50% more available chargers within a mile of the route. There is of course one exception to this - Tesla. The Supercharger network is a relatively seamless experience, just plug the car in and it charges either for free (earlier Teslas) or is automatically billed. There are also multiple chargers at every site for redundancy in case of charger failure. Access to this network is a huge advantage if you’re performing regular long journeys and is also one of the reasons other manufacturers are struggling to catch up.
This is where it starts to get interesting. EV’s are insanely efficient compared to an internal combustion engine. A modern diesel engine is 40-45% efficient. A modern petrol engine 20-30%. A Tesla Model 3 is 70% efficient. Additionally the number of moving parts in an EV is approximately 10 times less than an internal combustion engine. I’ve heard ballpark figures of 2000 for an ICE, 200 for EV, some say even lower for an EV. All of this translates not only to lower fuel costs but also much lower servicing and repair requirements. No oil/filter changes, timing belts, air filters, spark plugs and exhaust. The service schedule for a Nissan Leaf is limited to checking fluid levels, brakes and the cabin air filter. What does this mean in reality. Here’s some data I have collected on car running costs - a comparison between two years of running an Audi A3, 1.8T petrol with one year of a Nissan Leaf covering around 5000 to 8000 miles per year.
25p/mile for the Audi and 3p/mile for the Leaf, an 8 times reduction in per mile cost! To unlock the full reduction in cost, I have a smart meter and am on a ’time of use’ energy tariff. This enables charging cost of around 5p per kWh which equates to approximately 1p a mile in energy use. Obviously if you’re on a standard tariff charging 15-20p per kWh this triples the cost. I use Octopus Energy and am currently on the Agile tariff. This tariff is linked to the half hour wholesale energy market so varies in cost throughout the day and from day to day. Octopus Energy also provide other tariffs including Octopus Go which features four hours of electricity at 5p/kWh each night. If you like the sound of this, feel free to use my referral code: share.octopus.energy/amber-louse-325 . This gets us both £50. My employer also allows charging at work for free, but I rarely use this as I cycle to work and the cost saving is so minimal it’s not worth moving the car for.
Once you’ve driven an EV, you’ll really start to understand how much superior they are to an internal combustion engine. If you haven’t driven an EV, then amuse yourself by searching YouTube for “tesla drag race” or “ludicrous mode reaction”. Electric motors have instant torque on tap so torque isn’t so much a curve but more of a flat line. This has the effect of making cars with even modest performance figures feel rapid and those with more sporting figures insane (or ludicrous). Typically there are no gears, so the driving experience is not only smooth but totally relaxed. No more juggling gears, clutch, handbrake and throttle to perform hill starts. Then there’s the noise. Or lack of it. Once you’re used to wafting around in relative quiet, getting back in a diesel is like stepping back in time. Space is typically plentiful due to the design advantages and the technology benefits are also significant. Even the humble Nissan Leaf has an (occasionally unreliable) app to check charge level, journey stats and most impressively, start the heating remotely (because it’s not reliant on an engine to generate heat, it makes this feature much easier and cheaper to implement). On cold mornings, coming out to a defrosted warm car is a game changer.
The Future - Vehicle to Grid
Vehicle to Grid is a fancy name for the connection of an EV to the electricity supply grid via a bi-directional charger This enables charging as normal, but also means the car can provide energy to the grid. This technology if implemented well, could be game changing in the quest to move to more renewable energy sources. As an example, currently demand on the UK grid peaks around 4-7pm. To cope with this, the National Grid has to buy energy from the most carbon intensive sources such as gas powered turbines. This is a hugely expensive activity. Having power stations on standby for intermittent generation for only 2-3 hours a day is inefficient and difficult. Now imagine the majority of the population own an EV that gets plugged in when they get home from work and can supplyl the grid. Currently gas turbines supply around 20GW during peak demand 6 . There are currently around 31 million cars in the UK. Lets assume a quarter of these get plugged in. That equates to 2.5kW each. In EV terms that is a trickle. Now imagine you get paid for this energy at a higher rate than you can re-charge for at some other time? Starting to make sense? Any parked car could effectively be a micro power station. This could in theory, negate the need for a number of power stations altogether, decrease the carbon intensity of the grid, reduce energy costs, and improve reliability due to the decentralised nature of this arrangement.
Quick Fire Question Round
Here’s a few of the easier to address questions I’ve been asked.
Q) What happens when it runs out of battery?
A) It stops (the same as your current car)
Q) Aren’t they coal powered?
A) No. In 2020, the percentage of coal power supplied to the UK grid was 1.6% 7 . This included a continuous run of nearly 68 days with no coal power at all entering the grid. Additionally the percentage of renewable energy supplying the grid is increasing rapidly.
Q) How long does it take to charge
A) The correct answer: it depends on the battery state of charge, how much charge you want, how fast the charger is, the temperature of the battery and probably a few other variables.
The quick answer: at a rapid charger, no more than 30 minutes. At home or work, 8-10 hours will get you ~100 miles of additional range.
The answer most people that own an EV give: it charges during some of the 23 hours a day my car spends parked - it’s not a factor unless you’re on a long road trip.
Q) How long will the batteries last?
A) Depends how you treat them, but far longer than most people own a car. If you enjoy looking at data, check out https://www.geotab.com/blog/ev-battery-health/ . If you don’t want to look at the actual data, please refrain from telling people they’ll only last three years (I keep hearing this figure)
Q) How much does the battery cost to replace?
A) Most car manufacturers are providing 8 years or 100000 miles warranty on batteries, so the chances of you having to replace a battery is slim. If the battery degradation is caused by a single faulty cell, replacements for a Nissan Leaf can be purchased for around £250, plus of course the cost to fit. Assuming you really do need to completely replace your battery in a 30kWh Nissan Leaf, it will cost around £6500 (in 2020). However, your used battery is a valuable asset. It has 48 cells in that are worth at least £100 each in their depleted state and the market for these is strong - people use them for home energy storage amongst other things. This means it could cost as little as £1700 in total.
Q) What’s going to happen to batteries once they’re not suitable for use in a car?
A) They’ll get recycled. There’s already a thriving second hand market for used EV batteries stoked by DIY EV builders and home energy geeks. On a commercial scale, they’re being sold in home storage batteries by Powervault for example, and industrial level storage e.g Connected Energy. Once they finally run out of useful life as home or grid storage, businesses offering recycling services are starting to appear and the methods used improving all the time. This Fully Charged video has more detailed information on one such plant in Germany. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bpe8HalVXFU . To quote Robert Llewellyn, “show me just one litre of recycled diesel or petrol”.
Q) If everyone owned an EV, won’t the electricity grid melt?
A) Yes . . if everyone bought an EV today, but due to supply constraints that would be impossible. The National Grid is well aware of this change to EV adoption and are preparing for it. It’ll be a gradual change over the next 20 years that the grid has already started and will continue to adapt to. The following interview by Robert Llewellen with James Kellaway from the National Grid is worth a watch to find out more. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONp8dismI-Q
and finally, the best one yet . .
Q) Can you fit a wind turbine to it to charge the batteries as you’re driving
A) No. Read up on a the conservation of energy.
Here’s a handy summary table comparing EV to internal combustion engines in 2021.
So where does this leave us? If the range downsides don’t affect you, EVs make a huge amount of sense for a large percentage of car owners from a financial and reliability perspective. For a mileage of 10000 a year, some approximate number crunching backed up with my experience shown above, conservatively suggest savings of ~£1500/year. Put another way, that’s like giving yourself a £2000 pre-tax pay rise. Tempting? If you own more than one car, it starts to become an even more attractive proposition. From conversations I’ve had, it’s clear that once people have all the myths and rumours they’ve heard are . . well . . myths and rumours, most resistance melts away.
The high cost of new EVs is putting a lot of people off at present, but this will continue to reduce as battery prices continue their decline, adoption accelerates and economies of scale work their magic 8 .
Government incentives are also starting to take effect especially for business owners. I recently had a friend that runs a small business phone me up for advice. He currently drives around in a Porsche Cayenne, but his accountant had enlightened him to the financial advantages of EV ownership. The outcome of that situation? He’s now waiting for his Jaguar i-Pace to arrive.
Used models are more affordable but are holding their value as early adopters who don’t want or can’t afford a new EV, seek out the advantages. It’s this market that is currently the sweet spot for the average person wanting to decrease the ownership costs of a vehicle.
If you’re a regular long distance traveller, and are keen to switch, until the charging infrastructure has improved, a Tesla is the only sensible option.
Tim’s EV Tips
- Ignore the (often loud) naysayers and instead, work out what’s best for you.
Before purchase, educate yourself on EV basics. What kind of rapid charger connection does your prospective car have? Where are the rapid chargers located that you might need to use? How do you use them?
- Try and avoid chargers that need apps - most newer installations have contactless payment facilities.
- Download or visit ZapMap and Plugshare
- Don’t charge your battery up to 100% unless you really need it in the short term - it’s not good for battery health.
- Make sure your prospective car comes with the charging cables you’ll need for the chargers you intend to use.
- You don’t necessarily need a charger installed at home despite what all the experts (that don’t have EV’s) will tell you, but be realistic. How and where are you going to charge?
- There are often Facebook groups for people interested in particular models of EV. These groups have both positive and negative aspects. They’re often very ’noisy’ and often used to discuss the latest offers on new cars, which of course if you’re sensible, won’t interest you at all. However, if you filter out the noise, there is often plenty of useful information floating around inside them.