A charged affair: my brief fling with an electric car
It starts out so well, as I zip around the city for a fraction of the cost of a regular car. But once on the motorway, things start to go downhill
‘This is its worst crime yet.” The crime in question is making us miss the start of one of Liverpool’s crucial Premier League games. The perpetrator is an electric car that has required charging twice on the way home from Wexford. A 90-minute journey has become two hours, then three. My husband, a diehard Liverpool fan, is in the passenger seat trying to watch the start of the match on his phone. He is less than impressed.
It started out so well. The idea of an electric car is seductive. Imagine: no more being at the mercy of petrol stations and oil prices. You charge at home overnight, and are ready to go first thing in the morning at a fraction of the price. And if your battery dwindles on the road, you can stop and charge at one of the thousands of recharging points the ESB has put in around the country. At the moment, they’re free.
It seems like a no-brainer, so I decide to give one a go, on loan from ESB.
The first day, things are great. I zip around Dublin marvelling at how quickly I have got used to driving an automatic, a bit freaked out by how silent it is – so are the pedestrians – and pleased with how quickly it seems to respond as I drive.
Plugging the car in at a local charging point draws a crowd; some want to know about the car, others nudge each other at the sight of the odd woman struggling with the equivalent of a giant phone charger.
Keep laughing, I think smugly, as they pull away in their petrol cars: my fuel bills for the next few weeks will be a fraction of what you are paying to run that environmental hazard you call an SUV.
Most of the drivers of electric vehicles I come across are enthusiastic; and why wouldn’t they be, having invested several thousands of euro? They strike up conversations at charging points. You’re part of a community, with its own language. “Range anxiety” is when you’re worried your car will run out of battery before you make it to a charging point. Someone blocking the charge point with a regular car? You’ve been Iced (that’s internal combustion engined to you and me).
A short trip
On day two, the decision is taken to put the car to the test on a weekend trip. Ireland, we are told by State officials, has the perfect climate and geographic footprint for electric vehicles. So a trip two counties over should be nothing, right?
To be clear, there are few people who would claim that electric vehicles are designed to do long distances. They’re not. With a range of less than 200km on most before you find yourself out of power, you would be hard-pressed to make it from one side of the country to the other.
But in the interests of giving it a proper go, I decide the best way to test the car is to treat it like my regular vehicle (a diesel Golf). That means taking it where I want to go. Looking at the route, we figure we might make it with one stop-off to charge. ESB has a handy app that tells you the location of charging stations around the country. It sounds simple. It isn’t. This is where I start to fall out of love with electric cars.
Ireland’s upgraded motorway network, while fantastic for getting around quickly, isn’t really suited to electric cars because of the speeds you will end up doing. On a motorway you are unlikely to do much braking, or encounter too many steep downhill stretches. So we last as far as Wicklow town before range anxiety gets to us and we pull in to charge.
This is the first lesson. If you get into the habit of driving economically – at a certain speed, in a certain way – you will get more kilometres for your charge. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it requires you to change your attitude towards driving, which not everyone is willing to do.
The most astonishing sight is in Gorey, where we pull up to a petrol station (second charge of the journey) to find not one but two electric cars parked at the fast charging point. While we are there, a third pulls up to use it – a taxi – but the driver thinks better of it after seeing how many cars are already there.
If you pull up to a petrol or diesel pump and there’s a queue, it will move fast. With electric charging points, there is no such certainty. They could be there for 20 minutes, an hour, longer. You just don’t know.
Luckily the hotel we are staying at has a charging point. And this is where we learn the second lesson of the journey: always call ahead. When we get there, it turns out no one has used it since it was installed, and the key has gone missing. Eventually, thanks to the staff, we manage to get it open and charge the car.
Some of the risks associated with electric cars are not the fault of the technology. There’s the risk of misjudging the distance to the charging point and running out of battery power; or that when you do find one, it’s not working correctly. Or maybe someone has parked in front of it. The spaces are rarely marked out clearly as charging points, and, since they are part of the on-street parking facilities, there’s nothing to stop regular drivers from paying to use them. In the Dublin suburb where we live, I have yet to pass the charging point when it is unobstructed, and the reason for the obstruction never seems to be that there is an electric vehicle plugged into it.
Another memorable evening we take a short trip to a local cinema where there are charging points in the car park. But the car park is closed. The only other local charging point within range is the aforementioned on-street one, which is blocked.
Charging at home can be an issue for some homeowners too. It’s fine if you live in a house with its own driveway, but if you are in an apartment building, a terraced house with on-street parking or an estate with communal parking, things get challenging. You can’t run a cable across a public path, because it will be a trip hazard for pedestrians.
The major stumbling block for me is that it takes away some of the things I love about my car: the spontaneity and the freedom. We can’t just take a detour to the beach at the weekend because we aren’t sure we will make it back to a charging station.
The final straw is the journey home, where, despite planning and careful driving, we still end up with a longer than expected journey and miss the start of that crucial game. I’m still not sure he has forgiven electric cars yet.
Me? After a few more days doing city trips with the electric car, I remember what I loved about them to start with; not enough to take the plunge just yet, but I wouldn’t rule it out in the future.