On Tuesday 25 April, a convoy of electric vehicles (EVs) begin an anti-clockwise journey around Europe, to raise awareness of technology that is emerging fast, but still not so often seen on the roads.
Before they set off on the continental mission, Energy Saving Trust’s Group Director for Transport, Andrew Benfield (pictured), is joining a range of other speakers at the London conference for the Electric Vehicle Road Trip (EVRT). We spoke with him to find out more about the event, and why it’s a good fit with the organisation’s own aims.
He said: “We were involved in some of the earliest electric vehicle events, a London to Brighton rally, and we’ve also run EV rallies in Scotland as we look to build the case for EV adoption. Events like this are good for proving that they can work really well over longer distances, and just getting the vehicles out in numbers in front of people.”
Once seen and sampled, Andrew thinks EVs are an easy sell to drivers. He said: “It’s about normalising the sight of these vehicles on our roads, so they’re not seen as something exotic or esoteric. They’re often very normal cars, with some models the same price as their diesel equivalent, and increasingly car makers offer a plug-in hybrid variant for many new models.
“We find that once people have been in an EV, they don’t want to go back. They’re a quieter, more pleasant drive.”
The Europe EVRT journey heads from London to Madrid, then on to Turin, Zagreb, Berlin and Paris, aiming to engage and delight along the way. But is there a risk that a convoy which includes plenty of shiny, high-powered EV models might put people off, make them believe it’s not something available or accessible to them? Andrew doesn’t think so.
He said: “It actually works the opposite way with cars. It’s the ‘sexy’, top-end vehicles that draw people in, then the technology cascades down, or people get involved at a level they can afford. In my youth, your parents might have owned a low-end Ford Sierra, but you had the poster of the Cosworth with the giant spoiler on your wall.”
“Models like Tesla’s add the aspiration element. It’s like, in another area of Energy Saving Trust work, when the first microgeneration technologies started to appear. We’d go to conferences and everyone would want to know how to buy the mini wind turbines we had on display, which allowed us to talk to them about more basic energy efficiency upgrades, such as insulation.”
Andrew offers another anecdote to illustrate the point – this time firmly in the realm of low emissions vehicles. He said:
“We’ve run Transport Scotland’s Low Carbon Vehicle Loan scheme for several years. Initially, this wasn’t capped, and people were using the loan to buy Teslas. Although the scheme has now been limited to £35,000, officials took a positive view about these initial purchases as they made EVs visible and aspirational.”
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After the European trek is complete, there is an event in the United Arab Emirates, plus two future rallies planned in China and India.
Robert Llewellyn, who himself is appearing at the EVRT conference, made a film for his Fully Charged YouTube channel illustrating a previous rally in the UAE, something that’s well worth a look. It seems that new international markets are opening up quickly for EVs.
Andrew explained: “With emerging markets, there’s often a ‘technology leapfrog’ effect where countries will miss a stage and just go straight to the latest tech available. I recently saw an example from Kenya, where banking and wage payment is now generally done by mobile.
“We’re seeing in China that when they’re building public and private infrastructure, they’re putting in large numbers of rapid chargers. With air quality a major issue, as in India, there’s also a growing EV push from car makers aiming solely at their domestic markets. And while finding space in our crowded cities to install EV chargepoints is a complex and challenging process, it can be comparatively easier there.”
So, a straight road to the mainstream then? Not necessarily. There are a number of areas where improvement needs to be seen before EVs become truly an unstoppable force.
He said: “Firstly, there needs to be a much greater choice of EVs. While lots of luxury models and SUVs are emerging, there needs to be an increase in the availability of smaller, estate and saloon vehicles. It does look like this will be addressed, with a lot of new model launches in the coming years.
The final area is charging infrastructure. With ‘range anxiety’ decreasing, this is a barrier that increasingly comes up in reference to electric motoring. But how charging is done is likely to change dramatically over the coming years.
Andrew explained: “At the moment, the focus is on installing very visible rapid charging to build confidence and deal with the fact that not everyone can charge at home.
“This need will change over time. It’s anticipated that when EVs become truly mainstream that the majority of charging will happen at home and workplaces and the rest a mix of destination charging, such as when you’re at the gym or the shops, or on route. So while fast, highly-visible charging facilities that take 15-20 minutes to top up your battery are needed now, it will ultimately become about cost effective charging where people live and work.”