On the Road Technology

Electric Cars

Image: digitalart /

Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity (and there can’t be that many, since I don’t really update this blog with any regularity at the minute) will know that my posts tend to be about a few broad subjects: the world is ridiculous, or the world is stupid and not quite to my liking.

I’ve not written much on the subject of electric cars, save for a brief rant on the technicalities of claiming to have a ‘full hybrid’ car (oh yes, the other kind of post – pedantry). However I have for some time been fostering an opinion about them, I’ve just been waiting for a catalyst to make me post (as is usually my way).

Earlier today on Twitter, perennial electric car proponent (and all round nice guy, if his Twitter feed and Carpool are anything to go by) Robert Llewellyn posted a link to what is probably total link bait, a piece from the Irish Times neutrally titled Let’s Ban Electric Cars. Electric cars are no good, says the article, hydrogen is the answer, so let’s ban electric cars and pump the money into developing hydrogen.

An interesting point, although the article does have a whiff of a failed Modest Proposal parody about it (I admit I might possibly only be thinking that because it’s from the Irish Times).

I do have a problem with electric cars. They’re painted as being the saviour of motoring and yet they are still not ready for the big time.

I don’t deny that an alternative for petrol needs to be found, and reasonably quickly – there is a constantly decreasing amount of oil left and something needs to step up and replace it.

In a reply to Mr Llewellyn – which, unexpectedly, actually received a response – I pointed out that the article made sense as electric cars, as they are now, can only be a stopgap solution to what eventually replaces the internal combustion engine. I would have elaborated further, but it is a little tricky to have an in-depth argument with a 140 character limit – hence this post.

One argument I’ve heard – primarily from Robert Llewellyn who actually (briefly) debated with me on Twitter on this point some time ago – is that electric cars represent an inevitable fundamental shift in our car habits.  Rubbish. We have seen numerous significant shifts in humanity’s relationship with various technologies over the years, but all of these have been changes for the better, the easier. Smartphones, the internet, social networking – these are fundamental shifts in behaviour, but the upsides are clear. We won’t see a major shift to electric cars whilst they are more expensive, more effort, and without the capabilities of standard vehicles. You currently have numerous downsides and few upsides – the few being saving money and saving the planet, but still.

I’m not necessarily saying that electric cars have no future and hydrogen is the answer – both have their respective flaws, and I fully expect science to be able to solve them – but my point is simply this: electric cars, as they are now, can only be a temporary solution to what will eventually be dubbed the motoring crisis.

Here are the problems:

1. Cost.

Electric cars are still more expensive, by several thousands of pounds, to a petrol car equivalent – even after government subsidy. Eventually this will be solved by the machinations of supply and demand, but this requires the sales of these cars to continue to drive down the cost – and there are still other problems which are preventing widespread adoption.

2. Charging.

Petrol cars reign still because when one is running out of juice, you take it to a petrol station, and refuel it in minutes. This is easy to plan around because there are petrol stations almost everywhere (although, it must be said, usually they all seem to hide when you actually need some fuel). Electric cars, however, will take hours to refuel – all night from empty. And that’s if you’re somewhere that has a charging point or electrical socket. Which brings me straight on to the next point.

3. Range.

Most electric cars these days have a range of only 100 miles or so. This means you have to carefully plan your journey to make sure you can get to where you’re going without not getting there at all, or not making it back.

The huge shift people talk about with regard to electric cars is mainly due to range. More people will apparently use the train for longer journeys and the car for ‘city hopping’. Aside from the obvious problem of the cost of catching a train these days, stations have a habit of not being close to most people’s houses, requiring a further onward journey. This is not a massive shift towards convenience; people won’t buy into it until they have to.

4. Battery life.

We’ve all owned an iPod, laptop or phone that just doesn’t seem to hold its charge like it used to. This is an inherent problem with batteries; they can only complete so many cycles before they’re knackered and need replacing. When there was that whole problem a few years back when people were complaining about iPod batteries no longer working (the greater issue: Apple had built an MP3 player that lasted long enough for the internal battery to die), Apple started an iPod battery replacement program. The cost to replace an iPod battery? £39. A rechargeable battery for a MacBook Pro costs over £100 (if you’re lucky enough to have a MacBook that lets you replace the battery yourself). The battery for an electric car costs thousands of pounds, and there is nothing you can do to stop it from failing to hold a charge after it’s been through a thousand or so cycles. And that’s if you look after it and drain it all the way every time – if you keep ‘topping up’ the charge and don’t fully discharge the battery every so often it will last even less time.

5. Fun.

The future of the petrol car lies in track day-like events. This much I have come to terms with. But until an electric car can provide the day-to-day thrill of driving a petrol car, a majority of drivers won’t make the switch. I will admit that I’ve never driven an electric car, so I am assuming an awful lot here, but I do know how less enjoyable it is to drive a diesel-powered car compared to the same sized-engine petrol equivalent. Maybe against all the odds they’ve managed to build an electric car that is torquey and exciting, but I doubt it.


I openly admit that in the future we will all be driving around with a different sort of fuel. That much is a certainty. However, right now, alternative fuel cars are still primitive, underdeveloped, and not really a viable alternative to the incumbent internal combustion engine.

One of the reasons why hydrogen-fuelled cars get so much press is because they represent the future most drivers want – the convenience of petrol with the planet-saving longevity of low emission driving.

As scientists continue to develop battery technology, eventually we will almost certainly have electric cars that can hold enough of a charge to get us longer distances, can recharge in minutes not hours, and will last many thousands of cycles before they need to be replaced.

But that isn’t the point. Right now, electric cars are simply not good enough, and there are problems that simply will need to be solved before they see mass market adoption.

Image: Sujin Jetkasettakorn /

Think of it like energy saving lightbulbs. They were (and many still are) rubbish. They take ages to warm up to the right light temperate, and even then the light is terrible, and as they are effectively fluorescent they are flashing at 50Hz and can make some people ill. And as they contain mercury, don’t drop one in your house. But since they were first released, technology has moved on, and you can buy energy saving bulbs that work almost as well as the old incandescent bulbs, an adoption has been good enough that incandescent bulbs could be banned in the EU without a huge uproar (there was, of course, a slight uproar from the Daily Mail, but then that is to be expected).


Zero emission?

One final point on “zero emission” vehicles. I don’t think it is right to call a vehicle ‘zero emission’ unless its entire production has been emission free. The manufacturing process produces emissions, the batteries contain various harmful chemicals, the car then has to be shipped from whatever country it is made in to wherever it is sold. If that can’t be done with a net emission of zero, then it shouldn’t be a zero emission car (and don’t forget, the electricity out of your plug isn’t necessarily from a renewable source).


Law Life On the Road Politics

Speed camera removal 'significant factor' in road death?

Photo: t0msk (Flickr)

Yes yes, I know this looks like a news post. But it isn’t.

Turns out a coroner has stated that the turning off of a speed camera played a major role in the death of a 19-year-old in Somerset. From the BBC News article:

A Somerset coroner has said the turning off of a speed camera was a significant factor in a fatal car crash.

In a letter to the county council, West Somerset coroner Michael Rose said the death of 19-year-old Billy Davis “in part may have been prevented”.

Mr Davis died on the A370 at East Brent in September 2010 near a camera which had been disabled weeks earlier.

Now, any regulars to this blog will know that I am not all that keen on speed cameras. Maybe some of you are thinking that I may be about to rescind my previous comments and agree that yes, speed cameras can save lives.

But take a look at the paragraph that follows that quote above.

An inquest found Mr Davis had been one-and-a-half times over the drink-drive limit when he died and had been driving at speeds between 60mph to 70mph in a 40mph area.

Right. So what we appear to be claiming now is that speed cameras can detect drunk drivers or that an intoxicated driver will be able to slow down and react safely when he unexpectedly comes across a speed camera.

It is far more likely that a speed camera would have expedited the death of the chap in question. A drunk driver slamming on the breaks would lose control and is more likely crash into the camera than be saved by it.

It’s an increasing problem that no-one in this country seems to want to take responsibility for their own actions. It is really rather worrying however when a coroner of all people seems to think that the blame for an accident lies with the as much with the lack of a speed camera as with a drunk driver going at almost twice the speed limit.

Life On the Road

Right of Way

One thing I have learnt since starting to cycle more: everyone on the road is a cock.

I used to lump just cyclists into that category. They are, after all, quite the menace in central London where a significant proportion of them ignore traffic lights, zebra crossings and most other things that tell them to stop, presumably under some misguided notion that what they’re doing is saving the planet. Or maybe they’re just impatient bastards.

Of course, cyclists will tell you that white van men are the bastards. They’ll also tell you that bus drivers are basically white van men with government backing.

For me, the worst people on the road in central London are the taxi drivers. They block bus lanes, drive like they’re cyclists with four wheels, and have that same high-and mighty attitude that irks me so about cyclists.

This post isn’t about London, however, nor who I hate most on the road. As I said, I hate all of them. I can say this categorically as I have spent quite an amount of time as a pedestrian, a cyclist, a car driver, a van driver, and a bus passenger. I’ve seen it from most sides.

The main problem is that everyone on the road – from buses and vans down to cyclists and pedestrians – are all out for themselves. They seem to forget that for just about every situation, someone has a right of way.

I’m the sort of person that will take a risk in order to enforce his right of way. I’ve stared down buses at zebra crossings, had collisions with cyclists and near misses with cars. I also like to go out of my way to remind people exactly who has right of way in any given situation.

I do find this sometimes annoys people. One cyclist who ran a red right in front of me a couple of years ago received a copy of the London Lite to his face as he cycled past. This upset him so much he threw his bicycle at me.

Take last Friday morning too. This time I was the cyclist, and the pedestrian was the one on the receiving end. One the way to the station, there is a left turn into a side road where the cycle racks – and station car park – are located. Now, I know that, if a vehicle is turning into a side road and there are pedestrians crossing, the pedestrians have right of way. As I approached the side road, there was a woman walking along, heading towards the junction. I signalled courteously and kept my hand out whilst waiting for her to look around prior to crossing the road, in keeping with the green cross code.

She didn’t.

As luck would have it, the timing of both our journeys also meant that we would both be occupying the end of the side road at the same time. And she still hadn’t looked around to see if something was coming. So I decided to ‘ping’ her to teach her a lesson. I made a point of cycling in front of her and let out a ring of my bell as I passed.

With a start she jumped out of the little world of her own she was occupying, and entered the real world.

“What are you doing, you idiot?!” she exclaimed in an Eastern European accent of some ilk, before waffling on about how I was the vehicle and as such she had right of way. I tried to explain to her that the road was by definition the place for vehicles, not pedestrians, but she was having none of it.

So ultimately, I came across looking like a cock cyclist to this dozy cow, despite me being perfectly in my rights to do what I did. As for the woman, next time she doesn’t look before crossing the road it’ll be a lorry she ignores, and she’ll only have herself to blame.

I don’t have encounters like this that often any more. Time was I would go out looking for trouble like this; deliberately pausing in front of a cyclist who was about to run a red light so he’d have to avoid me, for instance. However when I began to try to curtail my anger late last year I stopped doing it, and after that they dropped in frequency. I still have them from time to time – not long after I decided I would stop baiting cyclists I made the mistake of crossing the road at a pelican without looking out for bikes, and got hit by one – but these days they find me.

I’ll still enforce my right of way to the last, though.