Electric cars: the shocking truth

For years, people have been waiting for clean, efficient eco-friendly electric cars to arrive. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius don’t really cut it. While Hollywood celebrities queue up to display their eco-credentials by buying a Prius rather than a Ferrari, they’re kinda missing the point.

The BBC’s Top Gear motoring show did a head to head comparison of the Prius with a BMW M3 sports sedan last year. The deal was that the Toyota would blast round the show’s test track as fast as its little green wheels could carry it and the BMW gas guzzler would follow along behind.

At the end of the test, the BMW returned a shocking gas mileage of just 19.4 miles per Imperial gallon. The eco-friendly Prius returned an impressive 17.2 mpg. Err, right. So if I want to save the planet, I need a fast BMW rather than a rather sad hybrid econo-box.

Ignoring the pathetic gas mileage, the Prius also uses highly-toxic rare metals that have to be shipped halfway round the world to be refined, then halfway round again to be screwed together into a car.

The carbon footprint of this ‘green’ vehicle is astonishingly-large. Taking the energy costs and emissions of building the thing and then safely disposing of the noxious components in its batteries into account, you’d have to drive it to Venus and back before you saw any real planet-saving gains.

And there’s not much point driving to Venus anyway – the place is hotter than hell due to global warming caused by all those pesky Venusians driving SUVs.

It has also been calculated that the Prius would actually be kinder to the environment – and deliver better performance – if the batteries and electric motor were removed completely. The feeble petrol engine would then have far less weight to drag around and would use a lot less precious fossil fuel.

So let’s consign hybrids to the dumpster of history and examine the alternatives.

All-electric cars sound ideal. They can be charged from a normal power point and offer silent, environmentally-sound motoring.

Well, up to a point. There are a few minor issues. Again, we have the absurdity of carrying half the vehicle weight around in the form of batteries to push the thing along, together with the massive eco-impact of disposing of the lead, lithium and associated nasty chemicals usually associated with the creature from Alien’s spit that ate through the floor of the Nostromo.

That ain’t gonna save many baby polar bears.

Ignoring the environmental footprint of electric cars, let’s look at their practicality. In Europe, Citroen has just launched an electric vehicle called the C1. This has a range of around 70 miles before it needs recharging. The charging cycle takes seven hours and requires the car to be plugged into the domestic supply.

Sounds OK on paper, doesn’t it?

Not to me it doesn’t. I live in a remote corner of North Wales. Hey. It’s my choice, OK? I can do most of my grocery shopping at the little stores a few miles away, but at least once a month, I need to make the trip to the large out of town megastore up on the coast where they actually stock the stuff I want to buy.

The round trip is around 75 miles. Do you see where this is headed? Were I to use the electric Citroen, which costs about a quarter as much as its gas equivalent to do the trip, I’d have to stay overnight at the megastore while I waited for the car to recharge. That kinda puts a dent in my savings, not including the fact that the electric C1 costs twice as much to buy as the gas equivalent and the fact that all the frozen stuff I buy will defrost before I get it home.

Cash handouts
Ever keen to be seen to be green, the UK Government is promising cash handouts to people buying electric cars. Only problem is, the Citroen is available right now and the Government handouts won’t come into force until 2011 at the earliest. That’s not incentivizing me a hell of a lot, to be brutally frank.

In the US, purchasers of hybrid vehicles may not have to pay their first year’s state registration fee under a new plan drawn up by the Office of Energy Conservation, which wants to use $1 million of federal cash to offer incentives for buyers of fuel-saving cars. The buyer of a hybrid car would get a certificate to send to the Department of Motor Vehicles, who would then accept it as payment and bill the Energy Office for the registration fee.

But the program would operate on a first come, first served basis and only cover the first 20,000 vehicles. It will be June before a decision is made on whether the scheme will go ahead.

So with administrations around the world hardly falling over themselves to encourage people to go green, are there actually any upsides to moving away from gas-powered vehicles?

Sadly, the answer appears to be a resounding no.

While the above-mentioned C1 with its 70 mile range is obviously about as much use as a chocolate fireguard for people who live in the country, it could find a home in cities as a runabout or commuting vehicle.

Or could it?

Trip hazard
Certainly in all the inner cities I’ve ever lived in, very few houses have off-road parking and many apartments are up on the 20th floor. How exactly are users of electric cars supposed to recharge their vehicles overnight? Run power cables over the sidewalk into the street? Throw a 100 yard long power cord out of the apartment window down to the road?

And where does all this lovely, clean electricity come from? Err, oil, coal and nuclear powered power stations, that’s where.

It just ain’t gonna work, is it?

There is light on the horizon, however. Cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells will eventually offer comparable performance and range to gas-powered cars and when they need refuelling, it will mean taking a couple of minutes at a gas station rather than all night before you can continue on your way.

But hydrogen cars are still some years away. In the meantime, the only alternative for this reporter is, regrettably, to continue to drive my 4.2 liter, 400hp, supercharged Jaguar V8 that returns a tidy 19 miles per gallon.

Hell, that’s a lot better than a Prius can manage.