Time to pull the plug on electric cars?
We have invested a lot in the promise of an electric future for cars, but fewer than 200 electric cars are on Irish roads, far short of the expected 2,000. Is Ireland’s electric dream over?THE COST OF a battery-powered car ranges from just over €22,000 for a Renault Fluence ZE – a price that does not include the batteries, which you must lease separately – to just over €30,000 for the best-known electric car so far, the Nissan Leaf. As a nation, however, we have invested €23,300 in every electric car sold since 2009, with Electric Ireland having spent €3.9 million installing charging points for public, domestic and business use. Sustainable Energy Ireland has also paid €573,600 in grants to buyers of electric vehicles, a scheme designed to encourage early adopters.
It seems rather a lot of investment in what can so far only be considered a failure. At the launch of Ireland’s great leap forward into an electric-car future we were promised that 2,000 electric cars would be sold by the end of 2011, with an eye to 10 per cent of the new-vehicle market consisting of electric cars by the end of 2020. That would amount to about 7,000 cars a year, assuming the current new-car market remains static for that long.
Instead, fewer than 200 such cars are on the road, despite assurances that Ireland was a perfect test case for electric-car sales: we are a relatively small island with a high level of home ownership (the better for charging cars on the driveway at home), and our climate doesn’t strain battery performance with extreme temperatures. If we are indeed the test case, then it seems electric cars don’t have much of a future.
And we are not alone. The German government recently floated plans for a big expansion of its electric-car incentive programme, after disappointing sales so far. Angela Merkel’s government had set an ambitious target of putting a million electric cars on German roads by 2020, but so far this year, of a total market of 2.1 million cars, just 2,700 have been battery-powered vehicles.
Here, the National Economic Social Council says more work is needed to develop electric-car usage. It acknowledges that “significant supporting work, which is being actively led by Electric Ireland”, is under way. The focus of this work is principally on surrounding technology – issues such as supporting ICT and data analytics; financial and payment services; charging infrastructure and engineering; working with companies and local authorities to create public charging infrastructure; and trials with drivers.
“Without innovation at this level – between the high-level car and battery technology and the day-to-day needs of an EV [electric vehicle] user – EVs would not be a viable proposition. In this sense, the supporting work is focused on what might be termed mid-level innovation, which will be critical for the long-term roll-out of EVs,” says the council.
All very true, but it doesn’t square the circle that car buyers, reluctant to part with money for even conventional cars at the moment, are even more reluctant to invest big sums in cars that might shortly be obsolete. Car makers have not been helping themselves in this area by talking about ever-improving technology and increased battery ranges, a move that, far from reassuring customers, has seemed to make them sit tight and wait for these whizz-bang improvements to arrive.