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Driving the changes in motoring

Electric cars are coming. But are they right for you, yet?

There is an undeniably smug feeling, whizzing around town on electric power. In slow-moving city and urban traffic, you’ll notice the lack of combustion noise, the sheer smoothness of an electric powertrain the most. We’ve spent so long enclosed in cars with a buzzing, vibrating, petrol-or-diesel explosion box at one end that the silence of an electric car can be both shocking, and instantly appealing.

There’s no question, well, almost none at any rate, that electric propulsion is the way of the future for cars and for motoring in general. There are still a few details to be ironed out – such as how and where we generate our electricity, or whether it’s better to have batteries or a hydrogen fuel cell (which is kind of a battery in itself) – but the inescapable fact is that within our lifetimes, cars will become more and more electrified, and less and less reliant on burning dead dinosaurs.

The question is when? And subsequent to that, the question is when is it right for me?

If you have the money, then the time is now. Electric cars are, in general, pretty pricey and the best of them are eye-wateringly expensive. Take Tesla, for example. The company often makes the headlines for all the wrong reasons, but its cars are pretty impressive (if you can ignore the often inconsistent fit and finish of their exterior panels and their cabins). If you can afford a Tesla, you can go electric today and it could, in theory, make not a dent in your daily life nor the flexibility of your motoring.


For the rest of us, the equation is a little more difficult. Take, for example, the new Nissan Leaf. It's been specifically designed to be less 'weird' than the old Leaf, more mainstream, more of a conventional family hatchback that just happens to be powered by batteries. Still, it has its limits. We were unable to get one to go from, for instance, Dublin to Belfast on one charge, having to stop off en route for a quick top-up of the batteries. Which you might think is fair enough, but it's sufficiently inconvenient to put a crimp in your plans.

Public charging network

It also shows that, by buying an electric car, you are effectively surrendering yourself to the whims of the public charging network. It's not a terrible network, but it is sparse in places, often unreliable, and increasingly crowded, with queues for fast-chargers now not uncommon. The experts at the ESB and elsewhere say that, mostly, people will charge at home, not from public chargers, but the problem is that while you might not need a public charger most of the time, when you do need it you really, really need it. It's an issue that can only be solved with heavy investment, and that means political will.

Does the proposed 2030 cut-off date, after which only electric cars will be theoretically offered for sale, mean that extra investment is coming? It definitely should do, but there’s no sign of it yet.

Which means that buying and running an electric car, for now, is still something of an esoteric choice. You need to be aware of the limitations of the technology, as much as the possibilities, and prepared to allow the extra time on journeys to stop and plug in. Sadly, in spite of the increasing impressiveness of electric cars, it’s still not for everyone.

There is hope, and a half-way house, though. There is an increasing number of plug-in hybrids on sale – BMW's 330e; Volkswagen's Golf and Passat GTE; Kia's Niro – which can give you pure electric driving for short, commuting-distance bursts (of about 50km) but which have conventional petrol power on board for longer journeys. So you get enough of that smooth, smug feeling, but none of the anxiety over finding a socket.

Price? You’re looking at €30,000 minimum for a plug-in, but electric cars start from about €23,000 depending on the model. Eco-motoring is still a rich person’s game, then, but someday soon we’ll just call it motoring.

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring