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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 5, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

    An electric hinge

    Neil Briscoe


    The trouble with history’s hinge points is that it’s damned hard to tell when you’re in the middle of one. Hindsight, preferably from some decade’s distance, is usually needed to tell exactly when things changed, when history took its different course or, as Terry Pratchett would have it, we all moved down a different leg of the trousers of time…

    Even Abraham Lincoln had trouble spotting an historically significant moment when he was in one. Delivering the Gettysburg Address, still reckoned to be one of the most eloquent and succinctly brilliant pieces of speech ever given, he said that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Couldn’t have been more wrong, Abe.

    I think though, and I know I’m sticking my neck out into dangerous territory here, that we may have reached just such a significant hinge point in the history of the electric car. Now, some of you would have it that I’m anti-electric, or that I’m someone who scoffs and derides the battery car. But I’m not. Am I a touch skeptical? Yes, but that’s only the right and proper stance for any journalist to take when presented with what people claim to be a world-changing technology. Much the same claims were made for Betamax, or Laser Disc for that matter.

    I like electric cars, like the way they drive, like their refinement, their mechanical simplicity and their €2 charge-ups, but I remain to be convinced that they are the be-all and end-all solution to the future of personal mobility. The limiting factors of short range and long charge up times are still there, no matter how much we would wish them away.

    And it seems I’m not alone in my skepticism. Toyota agrees with me (or perhaps it would be somewhat less egotistical to say that I agree with Toyota). Senior staff in both Japan and Europe are saying that Toyota is turning its back on pure-electric cars and instead will invest heavily in plugin-hybrids and fuel cell cars.

    Now, a pinch of salt needs to be taken here. Toyota has a significant industry lead in both hybrid and plugin hybrid technology, yet it has let the likes of Nissan, Renault, Ford and Volkswagen beat it to the punch when it comes to getting pure electric cars to market. So, there is possibly a touch of “well, we’ll go and play over there instead and so there” about this.

    But still. Toyota, as a company, is conservative and slow to reach a final decision when it comes to things like this. Corporately, it sits down with a long list of pros and cons and takes its time to consider them all before delivering its final verdict. And it doesn’t tend to back the wrong horse…

    “We have seen that customers are not yet willing to compromise on range and they don’t like the time needed to re-charge the batteries,” said Toyota Motor Europe CEO Didier Leroy. “So even if we are ready with our production version of the iQ EV we think a plug-in hybrid solution offers a better way than pure electric for most customers needs. And our fuel cell car will emit no harmful emissions at all and will have a driving range of around 700km.”

    This is a significant moment, beyond doubt. Toyota, for all the battering it received in the triple storms of the global financial crisis, its own recall crisis and the physical and emotional strife of the Japanese tsunami, is still the world’s biggest, richest and most successful car maker. While that does not make its statements holy writ, it does mean that we should sit up and take notice.

    I’ve tried out the Prius Plugin hybrid and it’s a terrific compromise between battery and petrol power. I was able to get a reliable 17km of pure electric running from a single 90-minute charge from a domestic socket, and including two long motorway runs, lots of driving around town and some sundry other mileage, my average for the week was better than 65mpg. Not quite the wonder figure that Toyota claims for the car, but pretty impressive all the same (albeit potentially matched by a good compact diesel).

    By contrast, my driving of electric cars has been necessarily limited thus far, because I live in Galway, all the press cars are based in Dublin and there’s no fast charger on the M6. Hmmm.

    The mention of fuel cells is also an interesting one. Toyota is far from the only car maker investing in such technology, but again, a public declaration that it’s a better way forward than electric cars is interesting. If you thought the costs of complications of installing an electric car charging network were bad, wait till you start running the calculations on installing a hydrogen refueling infrastructure. But again, if Toyota is saying, publicly, that fuel cells really and truly are the way forward, then it’s something worth paying attention to.

    That said, there is, I believe, a future for electric cars but it lies not in dinky commuter vehicles or family hatchbacks but in supercars. I’ve recently driven Citroen’s all-electric Survolt race car and it was a thrilling ride, while this week Mercedes has been showing off its electric SLS AMG E-Cell supercar, with 750bhp and 1,000Nm of torque from its four in-wheel electric motors. With their short ranges and long charge times, these cars are not practical commuting vehicles, but for a Sunday morning blast over a favourite back-road, guilt-and-emissions-free, they would be ideal.

    Of course, I, and Toyota, could be wrong. Perhaps we are doing a reverse Abe Lincoln, assuming that the world will take note and long remember when in fact, the trousers of time are leading us all down quite a different leg.

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