The electric car revolution will succeed when advantages are exploited and limitations avoided. Unfortunately, the reverse is happening because electric cars excel at short distances and are poor on long journeys but are being sold as if they are all-rounders like traditional cars and SUVs. This doesn’t bode well for future customer satisfaction.
On the surface, the charge to electric cars looks unstoppable. Sales are bounding ahead exponentially, with a little bit of help from well-heeled first adopters, government edicts and sometimes eye-watering subsidies from taxpayers.
According to LMC Automotive last month, by 2030, 61.2% of new car sales in Europe will be all-electric, while Schmidt Automotive predicted 60% for Western Europe, and has since raised this to 65%. In 2021, battery electric vehicle sales more than doubled in Western Europe to 1.2 million and an 11.2% market share.
The market is being distorted by some external factors which have malign implications.
European Union (EU) carbon dioxide (CO) rules make it profitable to make big, heavy and expensive electric cars, but difficult to make profits on small ones. Also many countries – Britain in 2030 – are forcing electric cars on the public by banning new internal combustion engine (ICE) car sales. This means that by mid-decade, buyers in the mass car sector will find it increasingly difficult to afford a new car because European won’t be producing huge numbers of small electric cars with razor thin profit margins, or none at all.
Europeans won’t be happy as they wait for the bus.
European carmakers will find their volumes slashed, profits hard to find and facing an existential crisis while Chinese buyers flood the market here with cheap battery-powered runabouts. Experts don’t expect the EU to soften these rules this side of 2030.
“EU (CO2 mitigation) rules favor heavier electric cars and encourage manufacturers to produce electric tanks, the heavier the more profitable, while small cars carry very little margin. Discussions are going on in the EU, but the Germans (with their big Audis, Mercedes and BMWs) are very strong in Brussels and no action is likely in the next 10 years,” said Nicolas Meilhan, senior adviser at EV-volumes, which describes itself as The Electric Vehicle World’s Sales Database.
If electric cars are to become mainstream, they need to be affordable for average wage earners. That means a starting price of around say €10,000 ($10,900 after tax). Currently, most prices start at more than 3 times that. The Dacia Spring, made by Renault’s value brand, is probably the only electric car to get close to this target, but only after some massive subsidies which can reach €9,000 (almost $10,000) in Germany. For electric cars to become ubiquitous, buyers need simple, affordable, uncomplicated utilitarian cars. They will be light, with small batteries. They need 100 miles of range, 60 mph top speed for shopping, school runs, and commuting. Think the improved golf cart. That will probably cover 90% of requirements. For long trips, make other arrangements.
The trouble is, manufacturers are spending massive amounts producing the wrong kind of car. They are trying to replicate all aspects of ICE performance, and they are pricey. Battery prices, after years of relentlessly falling, have now gone into reverse. Electric cars are brilliant city and urban vehicles, but hopeless for longer journeys, the current crop of electric vehicles are really very expensive city cars. And the bigger the battery the more the consumption of carbon dioxide (CO2) in manufacture and raw materials which goes counter to their reason for being.
The evidence that electric cars are unhappy on longer journeys has been obscured by tainted manufacturer’s data and a compliant media. Industry insistence on using computerized estimates which assume a perfect world where every journey is either flat or gently downhill, the weather is warm but not too hot to help the battery add power while charging, and conserving it on the road. No one ever turns on the heat, air conditioning or media and all passengers are pencil slim. This results in range claims for many electric cars about 30% higher than in the real world.
We have been here before in the ICE era where fuel consumption was also exaggerated, often by more than 30%, by using unrealistic testing and relying on a lazy media where monitoring of fuel consumption was a rarity. For electric cars, we see the same syndrome, where manufacturers’ claims are accepted without question (see my table showing manufacturers’ range claims versus actual charging experience, and the penalty for driving long distances at legal average speeds). This is probably because many media reports don’t include any experience with actually charging vehicles.
As well as my data, there have been some cries from the heart in the British media by high-profile celebrities, like LBC news radio host Iain Dale who recently bought an Audi e-tron GT. His first shock was finding out that when he plugged the car into his house, instead of the perfect world claim of 298 miles promised, he only managed between 206 and 215 miles. My test of an Audi e-tron with a 95-kWh battery only managed around 180 miles despite the promise of 241 miles. Dale drove his Audi about 230 miles north from London and he managed to recharge on the way there. But his return journey was a nightmare, turning what should have been a 4-hour trip into an 11-hour marathon with a procession of faulty, too busy or just plain elusive chargers. A chastened Dale said this after his trip, in an article in London’s Daily Telegraph.
“My advice is this. If you only do relatively short journeys, then buying an electric car is a good decision (his cost £83,000-$109,000)) If you regularly travel more than 150 miles, it isn’t. In my experience, the car manufacturers lie about the expected range.”
On his radio show, he said he was glad he hadn’t sold his big diesel SUV, which would come out of retirement the next time he faced a long journey.
And it could have been worse. If Dale wanted to plan a long journey relying on fast and legal speeds, he would have found that at over about 65 mph the range availability would suddenly dive. I estimate that the Audi e-tron 95 kWh sheds range at a 25% rate at legal motorway cruising speeds, cutting its range availability to just under 140 miles. Britain has a 70-mph speed limit and most of Europe has just over 80 mph which would be even worse. When you consider that any prudent driver would start to worry when 50 miles were left, the non-stop range becomes quite unimpressive. Dale said his diesel could go 600 miles without refueling.
Data from Michael C. Lynch’s report “Possible Determinants of Peak Oil Demand” show that a Tesla Model S at a steady 45 mph had a range of 393 miles, at 60 mph 292 miles and at 70, 241 miles. On Europe’s motorways with an approximate 80 mph, the impact would be devastating. That data is from 2018, but the principle is clear.
To be fair there are a few electric cars that have a more acceptable range. The Tesla Model 3 for instance offered 360 miles and I managed to charge the battery to an average 341 miles. In the fast lane it lost range at a 30.2% rate giving a probable high-speed range of just under 240 miles. With the sensible 50-mile provision, that’s a bit more acceptable, but not even close to 600 miles.
All these electric car inhibitions could be solved with an overnight improvement in battery technology. Companies like San Jose, California’s QuantumScape
And when Iain Dale sets off to visit a hideaway in the South of France or maybe a villa in Southern Spain there are no prizes for guessing which vehicle he will choose. My guess is the big diesel, which might take a day to reach the Cote d’Azur, but maybe a week in an electric car.