Talking ‘bout a rEVolvolution?

There was (perhaps ironically) a lot of noise made about Volvo’s announcement yesterday that it was to introduce ‘electrification’ across its range. Was it justified, or even accurate?

The media went hysterical (though some later toned down their headlines). The end of the petrol engine, they said.

Really? Not quite.

 

Volvo_C30_Electric_at_the_Zero_Rally_2011,_Oslo,_Norway[1]

Voltvo…? (Picture source: Zero Emission Resource Organisation via Wikipedia)

While Volvo did indeed announce that every Volvo released from 2019 will be possessed of an electric motor as part of its latest policy, what you may have missed in all the media hysteria is that hybridity will provide the bulk of their ‘charge’ towards electrification. That’s hybrids with accompanying internal combustion engines. So, not the end of the ICE age, then. There will, though, be fully electric vehicles too.

Nonetheless, while Volvo’s current electric dreams may not be all that at the moment, and certainly not the paradigm shift to electromobility that some in the media suggest, it is a very welcome step in the right direction. Whether it represents a real move towards the amelioration of the environmental impacts of the car, or merely laboratory-test-passing- future-proofing-lip-service to such, remains to be seen. I’d like to think it’s the former…

Dispatching diesel

On 26th January, an episode of Channel 4’s series of ‘Dispatches’ documentaries series claimed we’ve been ‘conned’ into automotively contributing towards local pollution. Is this really the case?

Exhausting... (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Exhausting… (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Traffic, as powered by the internal combustion engine, creates air pollution. It burns, ergo it pollutes, and yet ‘externalities’ such as the health and environmental impacts of fossil fuels seemingly go unregarded, or at least uncosted. I’ve blogged about this issue before but, last week, it made main prime-time television.

The premise of the Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ programme entitled ‘The Great Car Con’ (available to view until late February) was that the general public was ‘conned’ into buying diesel cars under the premise of their ‘greenness’ and that impending environmental legislation means that those who thought they were doing the right thing may soon be penalised, something I alluded to in a blog post for the Tyndall Centre.

The main justification for diesel’s claimed environmental benefits, and one that was repeated during the programme, was that they do more miles per gallon and, therefore, they emit less carbon dioxide (CO2).

This isn’t strictly true. Diesel contains more carbon than petrol – for example, it was noted in a 2003 paper that there was 2.7kg of embedded carbon in a litre of diesel, compared to 2.4kg in petrol. However, the greater fuel economy of diesel cars does permit lower CO2 per km figures compared to petrol cars, if not a specifically lower CO2 figure per litre, something that wasn’t made clear in the programme.

It may seem pedantic, but would diesel have been thought of as clean or ‘green’ if the specific carbon content of these fuels was initially made clear to the motoring public?

Indeed, the notion or perception of diesel as ‘clean’ is incongruous, as anyone who has stood in the vicinity of a bus as it has pulled away from a bus stop will testify. CO2 aside, all fossil fuels emit a cocktail of pollutants when burned, and their differing combustion characteristics mean that diesel vehicles emit more of such pollutants as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – now more recognised as life-threatening – than do petrol ones, up to 3×NO2, so the programme claimed.

One thing that the programme seemed to illustrate was the efficacy of fiscal levers – in diesel’s case, CO2/km-based VED (or ‘road tax’) bands – in changing consumer patterns; indeed, new diesel car sales recently overtook new petrol car sales.

Manipulation of the EU’s soon-to-be-replaced NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) laboratory test – something noted by European NGO Transport and Environment (T&E) – was also highlighted in the programme, and brought an interesting quote from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), who claimed that car makers ‘can only meet the regulations’.

However, as we now know more about the health and environmental impacts of fossil-fuelled transport, and if the internal combustion engine is to remain with us for some time yet, here’s a radical idea – how about car makers meeting the science? If being seen to be green is important (and, apparently, it is), imagine what a PR coup beating legislation – rather than merely meeting legislation – would be, and not with some of the spurious manufacturers claims noted by T&E.

So were we conned into buying diesels? I think ‘conned’ is a bit strong – perhaps ‘misled’ is nearer the mark, largely because the fact that there’s more to car emissions than CO2 (a key greenhouse gas, don’t forget) was somehow overlooked. However, if ‘meeting regulations’ is really all car makers can do, then perhaps it’s time that governments, whether at national or supranational level, addressed NO2 and PM emissions as they have previously done CO2 emissions – measure it, levy it (at least in the nearer term) until it is sufficiently reduced.

One thing that is clear is that whether as a consequence of petrol’s CO2/km emissions compared to diesel, or of diesel’s NO2 and PM emissions compared to petrol, it seems we can’t have it all ways with the internal combustion engine.

Smog on the Seine

Well that lasted ages, didn’t it? On Sunday 16th March, it was reported in the Guardian that half Parisian motorists would be banned from driving their cars into the city because of the smog caused by high PM10 (particulate matter of 10 microns in size) levels and the prevailing weather conditions which had beset Paris over the last few days.

Traffic leaves Paris fuming (Picture source - telegraph.co.uk)

The environmental impacts of traffic – and of its amelioration – leaves Paris fuming (Picture source – telegraph.co.uk)

Air pollution from transport is a real issue, and Parisian authorities have pondered banning vehicles before – this time, though, they meant it.

Not all motorists would be banned – drivers of electric vehicles, for example, were still allowed to use their cars but internal combustion-engined cars would be permitted depending on whether their number plates were odd or even.

Free public transport and Vélib – the Parisian bike hire service – use was provided over the weekend, at some expense to the transport authorities, to dissuade people from using their cars and ameliorate the pervading air quality. You never know, perhaps one outcome of this measure is that more people may make use of these modes of transport in the future.

Anyway, on Monday 17th, less than 24 hours later, the Guardian was reporting that the ban was to be lifted because air quality levels – along with the weather forecast – had improved. The exercise had been a success.

Had it really been that successful? Both the article and the perceived wisdom from reader comments suggested that Parisians would routinely flout the ban, with some quoted in the article that a €22 fine was worth paying – indeed over 3,500 drivers were penalised. Had conditions really improved that quickly, or was this a response to public reaction?

It seems one thing that the ban had achieved, if only for one day, was reduced congestion. As for air quality – well, if it had improved sufficiently then, if nothing else, the one-day ban has provided a graphic illustration of the nature of traffic pollution and of the difference a transport modal switch can make towards the health of our cities. Of course, it may also be that weather conditions are better placed to disperse excess air pollution, allowing the turning a blind eye to traffic pollution. Again.

After all, it was reported that even those who had complained about traffic pollution were still prepared to use their cars, citing their essentiality. What does this say about our mobility demands and expectations, our mobility rights?

In my last blog post, I pondered the ethics of a similar, longer term, banning of older petrol and newer diesel vehicles from London’s ultra low emission zone (ULEZ), however necessary it may be, noting that if we are to promote a truly sustainable low carbon automobility, a draconian disenfranchising of ordinary motorists is not the best way to go about it. In a consumer society, it seems meeting the environmental imperative is a PR exercise in itself. We need to bring motorists with us.

The car is ingrained into our way of life; it has utterly shaped our landscapes. However, perpetual prevarication over air quality and emission measures may well have left us with no alternative but to apply such stark automotive sanctions. The environmental imperative isn’t going to go away, and we have to consider what price we put on our respiratory health; are we really prepared put our cars and our mobility before our ability to breathe?

Auto ban?

Measures to curb transport emissions in London – such as the congestion charge – are nothing new. But the latest reported proposals go much further.

Autocar magazine has reported that moves are afoot to extend London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone and sanction the banning of older petrol and diesel cars from the centre of London.

They also note that, although such measures are still subject to consultation, an informal vote late last year to ban pre-Euro6 compliant diesel cars (those registered before 2014!) and pre-Euro4 compliant petrol cars (before 2005) won great support.

In considering such proposals, London would be following other European cities in restricting the movement of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles; Paris, for example, has previously proposed banning vehicles of a certain age, about which I’ve mentioned some cultural unease.

I’ve blogged before about air pollution resulting from our use of the car, and how electric vehicles can play a part in ameliorating this. In a blog for a postgraduate conference competition held under the auspices of the Tyndall Centre, a climate change research unit, I noted that while plans to lower the CO2 threshold for London Congestion Charge exemption from 100g CO2/km to 75g CO2/km may be justifiable –  even necessary – to achieve the air quality we all deserve, they run the risk of being seen as draconian, potentially disenfranchising motorists who want to do, or thought they were already doing, the right thing by driving lower-carbon ICE cars.

Exhausting... (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Exhausting… (Picture source: Wikipedia)

In my Tyndall Centre blog, I noted that true societal change comes from the bottom up, and that the social and cultural significance of the car means that an automotive bottom-up impetus need to be fostered if a true low carbon automobility is to be fomented. With this in mind, I felt the reduction from 100g to 75g CO2/km was a huge step, requiring the acquisition of vehicles beyond many motorists reach.

The latest reported proposals, however, at a stroke run the risk of disenfranchising far many more people than might the Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) emission threshold proposals, from classic car enthusiasts to petrolheads to motorists on a budget for whom newer low-carbon, hybrid or electric vehicles are simply not an option (especially in such straitened times as these).

So why consider such drastic action now? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the EU is taking the UK to court over ‘persistent air pollution problems’, specifically nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels. Exposure to such levels comes mainly from traffic and, in London, are perhaps a corollary of increasing numbers of diesel vehicles being driven in the capital as a means of achieving sub-100g CO2/km mobility so as to avoid the congestion charge; certainly diesel cars account for half of UK new car sales.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, lowering emission thresholds is obviously a good thing environmentally. However, in concentrating on CO2 emissions and using them as the basis of a fiscal instrument, other emissions – such as nitrous oxides (NOx), hydrocarbons (HC) and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) – have seemingly been forgotten. It may be that the threat of legal action has spurred the powers that be to do something about air quality in the capital and, in the face of possible sanctions, they would appear to have panicked.

But it needn’t have been like this. If the current political administration had taken wider air quality issues more seriously, then ‘persistent’ air quality breaches cited by the EU may have been avoided and draconian measures such as completely banning older cars – therefore compromising the mobility of many less well-off motorists – might not be being considered. At least, not just yet.

The banning of older vehicles may not come to pass. On the other hand, it may have indeed come to this, with the environmental imperative now demanding drastic action. Either way, it seems that an environmental complacency has meant the ethics of low carbon automobility becoming ever more problematic.

2013 – that was the year that was

So how was 2013 for you? As the year comes to an end, and a new one begins, here’s a quick academic and automotive review.

For me, 2013 began where 2012 left off as my data collection for my PhD continued with a couple of focus group sessions and further interviews. As such, much of the year has been spent transcribing and analysing interviews and other data, which can be an onerous task although the rewards upon analysing the gems therein more than make up for it! In addition, there have been little extra-curricular academic successes on the way.

I wrote a post about two postgraduate conferences I attended and presented at, namely the Royal Geographical Society Postgraduate Forum Mid-term conference at Birmingham University in late March and the Tyndall Centre Climate Transitions PhD Conference held at Cardiff University in early April. Cracking conferences both, the latter hosted a blogging competition pertaining to delegates’ interests, with the winner afforded the chance of their entry being published in The Guardian. I was pleasantly surprised that my blog post won and, although the Guardian didn’t run with it, you can read it on the Tyndall Centre website.

The Tyndall Centre PhD Conference was swiftly followed by Coventry University’s Business, Environment and Society (BES) faculty poster symposium, in which my entry secured not only 3rd place but also garnered the ‘student vote’ too, both resulting in prizes of Waterstones vouchers. By coming 3rd, my poster went forward to the main university poster competition in July, whereupon it was awarded a joint-3rd place as part of a clean sweep for the BES faculty.

Another academic event I attended in 2013 was a reading and writing weekend held at Gregynog Hall in mid-Wales under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society’s Social and Cultural Geography Research Group and, like the earlier conferences, was a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting event where it was great to meet other postgrads and academics, and to chew the academic fat.

Look carefully - that's me blatting the Toyota GT86 around the Milbrook Alpine course (Picture Source: Newspress).

Look carefully – that’s me blatting the Toyota GT86 around the Milbrook Alpine course (Picture Source: Newspress).

Automotive-wise, an obvious highlight was being invited to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) test day at the Milbrook Proving Ground in early May (thank you again, MajorGav!). I spent a great day meeting up with automotive twitterati and driving cars I wouldn’t normally get the chance to, such as the Porsche 911 and Toyota GT86, and I also drove the electric Renault Zoe for the first time; being taken on a brief ride around the Bedfordshire countryside in a vintage Vauxhall 30/98 on a hot sunny day was fun too.

I attended the launch of the Greater Manchester Electric Vehicle (GMEV) scheme in July, prompting another spin in a Renault Zoe and a closer look at, but not a drive in (boo), the impressive-looking Tesla Model S. It’d be intriguing to find out how the 250 chargers throughout Greater Manchester are used, particularly the ones in Rochdale.

November brought the Classic Motor Show at the NEC which was strikingly busier than last year’s event. Though at times photographically frustrating, this increased interest can only be a good thing as people engage with the social, cultural and industrial artefact that is the car, and maybe even contemplate how the car is, and has been, consumed.

The final automotive event I attended was the December AutoTweetUp at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon. I haven’t been to Gaydon for almost 20 years, so it was nice to look around the museum exhibits again and, as at the SMMT test day, it was a great opportunity to meet automotive twitterati old and new. Strangely, I haven’t blogged about it; perhaps I should.

Apart from my Tyndall PhD Conference blog entry, I’ve had one or two other things published online. An article I wrote about low carbon vehicles was published on The Green Car Website and, in a lighter vein, the PetrolBlog Real World Dream Barn I compiled late last year was complemented by the very first PetrolBlog Real World Dream Shed (well, it was my idea), and it’s great to see that one or two more Sheds being have put together since; more to come in 2014?

In addition, I was interviewed in October about my study by Coventry University MA Automotive Journalism alumni Max Prince for US car magazine Road & Track which attracted some comments, tweets and Facebook ‘likes’ and may (?) potentially lead to other writing opportunities.

So, looking back, it seems 2013 hasn’t been a bad year. I’ve driven a variety of cars (if only for one day), had some posts published and been interviewed for a car magazine. I’ve attended some great academic events and had some minor academic results. In both academic and automotive spheres, I’ve met and been reacquainted with some cracking folk – thank you all; it has been, and will continue to be, a pleasure.

Insofar as my thesis goes, I began the year continuing collecting data and end the year assessing and reassessing it all; there are still walls to scale, academic mountains to climb and chapters to rewrite, but things are perhaps slowly coming together. As to when I submit my thesis, I can’t exactly say, but hopefully late spring/early summer 2014.

To round off the year, as I write, views to this blog have just hit the 2000 mark since I started it in October last year. Thanks everyone for looking; I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading my posts and I’ll try to blog more often in the coming year (I think I said this last year too…!).

All the very best wishes for the coming year to you all, and here’s to 2014 – Happy New Year!

Ne’er the twain…? Environmental dissonance at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show

The biannual Frankfurt Motor Show opened its doors last week showing the latest offerings and previewing the latest concepts from car manufacturers. However, despite an apparent low carbon zeitgeist, was Frankfurt 2013 as green as it seems?

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and the twittersphere, one is able to find out plenty of information about the latest models and concepts from motor shows from afar, and almost as they happen. In this respect, the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show was no exception. This year’s show seems to have embraced notions of low carbon mobility and featured many hybrid and electric concepts and launches. While this is excellent news, a seemingly Janus-like tendency to look backwards was also apparent.

Charging forward

Two cars I’m really interested in, partly because of their innovation and partly through their providing the style and status that electro-mobility and hybridity sorely needs, are the BMW i3 and i8. Possessed of a distinctive architecture and construction, the i3 perhaps redefines the possibilities of a city/small family car, and while some have critiqued its looks, to me its styling is intelligently distinctive; it might sound odd, but it just looks ‘clever’, if that makes any sense. The i3 is available as both a pure electric vehicle (EV) and a range-extender, and seems a relative bargain considering its cachet, status and, to me, semiotics (if just over £25,000 after the plug in car grant can be deemed a bargain).

As with the i3, the looks of the i8 are unconventional, futuristic and are just the job for a sub-brand that indeed looks to the future. It is powered by a 1.5 litre 3-cylinder engine and a battery pack with a range of just over 20 miles and, if nothing else, can act as a real ‘halo’ car for hybridity. Along with the i3, the i8 shows that there is more to low carbon automobility than hair-shirts and planet saving; at around £100,000, it is a tad pricey though.

Volkswagen entered the EV fray with the e-Golf and e-up! models. While they would appear to have been adapted from existing internal combustion engine (ICE) models, as opposed to the Renault/Nissan approach of dedicated EV  models such as the Zoe and the Leaf, it is reported that the up! at least was designed to adapt to EV propulsion. As much as I enjoyed the EV experience of the Leaf and the Zoe, the conventional internal combustion-engined VW up! also appeals greatly (I really enjoyed driving its Škoda Citigo sibling at the SMMT test day in May, where I also drove the Zoe for the first time) and, as a Lancashire lad, ’appen I could find myself being drawn to the e-up! on the strength of its name alone!

The various applications and technologies of hybridity, along with a concomitant reduction in emissions, suggest that the recognition of, and need to act on, climate change – what I call the environmental imperative – is being addressed by major car manufacturers across all market segments. Toyota are well known for their hybrid approach to low carbon automobility, and showed their Yaris-R hybrid concept, and while seeing such hybrid high-technology applied in a more glamorous way can only enhance the image of hybridity (as with the BMW i8), I can’t help but think that a hybrid version of their GT86 coupe would be more of an everyday hybrid halo car than a modified supermini – and reports suggest that one may not be too far off either. Other sporting hybrids on display included the Honda NSX and Porsche 918, while hybridity has also been applied to luxury cars, as illustrated by the Mercedes Benz S500 hybrid, and with remarkable effect, according to official figures at least. At a more prosaic level, an innovative approach to hybridity – Peugeot’s hybrid air system – was showcased in the Citroën C-Cactus concept and will become available in due course.

It’s not just ‘on the road’ where low carbon vehicles are increasingly making their presence felt. The crucible of motorsport has long been an arena in which automotive technology has been trialled and honed, and another electric innovation on show at Frankfurt was the Formula e racing series, in which electrically-powered single-seat racing cars will compete in a global racing series, much like Formula 1 is now. It’ll be interesting to see how Formula e takes off and to see if and how the ‘affect’ it engenders compares to more conventional motorsport.

Talking of sport, not everything that piqued an interest or raised a smile from this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show was necessarily futuristic; indeed, one of my highlights is perhaps a case of going back to the future. The Caterham Seven 160 is the newest version of the enduring British sports car and harks back to its simplistic roots in mating a small engine to a lightweight car, in this case a 660cc Suzuki engine. Small, light, simple, fun and no doubt low emission, I approve. I really want a crack at one of these.

A SUV-ocating obesity?

It wasn’t all greenness and light at Frankfurt, despite the profile of electro-mobility and hybridity being higher than usual. Take the controversial Jaguar C-X17 sports utility vehicle (SUV) concept for example, one of the highlights of the Frankfurt show.

Why controversial? Well, there has been some debate among enthusiasts as to whether a marque like Jaguar should even be considering such a car, much as there was when Bentley unveiled their EXP9F concept last year. To me, it’s not the fact that the C-X17 is a Jaguar that is an issue – as a styling exercise, it’s neatly executed and clearly a Jaguar. No, what rankles me, despite the technology behind its lightweight aluminium construction which will permeate to other Jaguars in time, is the fact that the C-X17 is yet another SUV or ‘Chelsea Tractor’ and, as such, seemingly represents yet another four-wheeled snub to both the environment and other motorists.

Jaguar weren’t the only SUV offenders; far from it. Audi presented the Nanuk concept, a 2-tonne, 2-seater 5.0 litre V10 diesel-powered 4WD sports car concept which begs the question ‘why?’. The Nanuk concept at once encapsulates profligacy and aggression – this is the environmentally challenged 21st century isn’t it? Whither ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’?

Other manufacturers positing SUV concepts at Frankfurt included Kia, Suzuki and Lexus, whose LF-NX concept was, er, certainly striking; even emergent manufacturers from China were getting in on the SUV act. The irrationality of such vehicles, especially in environmentally challenging times, illustrates how an appreciation of the car can extend beyond its mere utility, and I often wonder what a shift to SUVs and ‘Crossover’ vehicles like the Nissan Juke, for example, might say about car buyers, and why/how did they become perceived to be desirable? The answer would provide an interesting insight into how we ‘consume’ the car and what it might say about society today.

That SUVs and Crossovers have a greater environmental impact than comparable conventional cars is unequivocal, and the absolute and/or relative extra size and weight of SUVs necessitates increased energy inputs, whether embedded in their construction and/or in terms of their propulsion. Despite Land Rover offering hybrid versions of its Range Rover and Range Rover Sport models, and BMW also touting a hybrid version of its X5, the profusion of these type of vehicles would still appear to be an environmental anathema and could almost make one think ‘what environmental imperative?’ (I’d be intrigued to see if the drivers of hybrid SUVs feel any sensations of ‘greenness’).

It is heartening to see low carbon vehicles and their technologies being increasingly promoted at international motor shows (even if some of the emission and economy figures claimed by manufacturers seem to highlight the limitations of the official New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) test) and it may not be too long before EV and hybrid vehicle launches outnumber those of purely ICE vehicles. However, I fear that the plethora of SUVs on show at Frankfurt suggests that all this technology will merely permit running to stand still as far as emissions are concerned which, given the potential of these technologies, would be a tragedy.

Greater Manchester plugs into electric automobility

I’m not sure whether it is the egg that has been laid or just the arrival of the chicken but, at long last, Greater Manchester can ‘socket’ to them, as the region now has an electric vehicle recharging infrastructure.

Last week, I attended the launch of the Greater Manchester Electric Vehicle (GMEV) scheme held at the Trafford Centre. Proceedings kicked off at 8 a.m. with a rather welcome coffee and pastry, followed by speeches by David Hytch from Transport for Greater Manchester, Gordon McKinnon from Intu Trafford Centre, transport minister Norman Baker MP (via pre-recorded video) and Michael Hurwitz of Greener Transport International.

Zero-emission automobility arrives in Rochdale (Picture source: author's photograph)

Zero-emission automobility arrives in Rochdale (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Carried out in conjunction with the government’s Plugged-in Places initiative and administered by Charge your Car, the scheme itself has resulted in 250 recharging posts across the ten Greater Manchester authorities, including four in Rochdale – two in the Town Hall Square and two at the Middleton arena – and there are also plans for installing rapid chargers. I’d be intrigued to see figures as to the use of the Rochdale-based charging points in time.

TfGM say that cars will be able to recharge fully with the GMEV chargers within 3-4 hours, and that pricing will be revealed in the autumn although, in the meantime, users will be able to recharge their cars for free.

The formal proceedings on the day were over by 9.30 a.m. and so it was down to the business of poring over the cars on display inside the Trafford Centre – a Renault Zoe and a Tesla Model S – and taking a quick spin in a Zoe.

Tesla Model S

Making only its second appearance in Britain, the Tesla Model S is something of an EV phenomenon. The ‘base’ model comes with a 60kWh battery offering a 230-mile range (at a steady 55mph) which would appear to answer questions about range anxiety, while the 85 kWh battery model provides a 300 mile range. However, with European prices starting at €60,000 (+VAT), the Model S is very much a luxury car and while it isn’t cheap, the fact that the model S outsold class competitors the Audi A8, BMW 7-series, Lexus LS and Mercedes Benz S-class in the US appears to buck the notion that no-one buys electric cars.

A very modern luxury - Tesla Model S (Picture source: author's photograph)

A very modern luxury – Tesla Model S (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Trimmed in wood and leather, the interior leaves you in no doubt that the Model S is very modern luxury car, not only because of the style of its execution, but also because of the huge multimedia touchscreen – all 17” of it – that dominates the dashboard, which provides a myriad of information and control options.

The Model s also provides an insight into the packaging possibilities of a move to EV technology. With the battery mounted in the floorpan and an electric motor in line with the rear wheels, the Model S has two luggage compartments front and rear while there are also two occasional rear-facing seats in the luggage area – much like some of the larger estate cars of the 1970s – making the Model S a 5+2 seater.

Electric dream - Tesla Model S (Picture source: author's photograph)

Electric dream – Tesla Model S (Picture source: author’s photograph)

A thoroughly impressive car, the Model S shows what is currently (badum tish!) possible with electric cars – if you have the money, of course. But then all nascent technology is expensive at first, and it will be interesting to see some of the technology and possibilities of the Model S filter down the automotive food chain in time.

Renault Zoe

A second date... - Renault Zoe (Picture source: author's photograph)

A second date… – Renault Zoe (Picture source: author’s photograph)

I briefly wrote about driving the Renault Zoe in my last post, having driven one at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders test day at Millbrook and I have to say I was rather looking forward to reacquainting myself with ‘her’. After driving up and down Millbrook’s Alpine circuit, this test drive was always going to be a rather more sedate affair and was even more so, limited as we were to pootling around an empty overspill Trafford Centre car park. Nonetheless, I’m sure such an experience would have been instructive to those visitors over the two days who had never driven an electric car before, and I did get the chance to experience the difference between normal and eco mode – which maximises range by sacrificing a little performance – something which I forgot to do during my first meeting with Zoe.

Silent partner - Renault Zoe (Picture source: author's photograph)

Silent partner – Renault Zoe (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Apart from an innate serenity, one of the main differences in the way that an electric car and a conventional car drive is that there is instant performance from standstill in an electric car. In Zoe’s standard mode, this instant ‘shove’ is very noticeable whereas there is no discernible shove, rather a gathering of momentum, in eco mode. The performance definitely feels ‘thinner’, for want of a better word, but progress is still entirely adequate – you might not want to select eco mode for overtaking, but it’s fine for regular driving.

As on my previous drive, the tactility of the wheel still pleases, and you can see regenerated charge heading back to the battery upon braking or just taking your foot off the accelerator. The multimedia touchscreen – while much smaller than that of the Tesla – provides charge/range information, car settings and communication connectivity. Another thing I’d overlooked on my first meeting with Zoe was the ‘in-car ioniser’ providing a choice of fragrance modes; I’m not sure I’d choose the ‘relax’ option while driving an electric car!

A moment of Zen - Renault Zoe (Picture source: author's photograph)

A moment of Zen – Renault Zoe (Picture source: author’s photograph)

One thing that did strike me about the test drives was that on a warm, sunny day and on a car park test ‘route’, Renault had rather missed a trick in not bringing any Twizys for people to try.

Driving the point home

EVs may not be the answer to the pursuit of a low carbon automobility, but they are an answer. They are perhaps the most immediate ‘new’ technology available, a key part of the future transport mix, and are as much about reducing localised air pollution as they are about reducing carbon emissions. The nature of electric cars, along with their technological characteristics, perhaps invokes a different ‘affect’ – a different feeling – to conventional cars, and provides a new way of practising automobility.

Myths and perceptions of milk floats and golf buggies abound – no doubt perpetuated by vehicles like the G-Whiz and/or a dissenting media – and issues such as prices, practicalities and recharging infrastructure still perturb many. However, various low carbon vehicle trials, and indeed some of my early research, suggest that those who’ve driven EVs like them, and find that they fit in their lives more easily than was first thought.

As is the case with anything new, practice makes perfect and the best way for people to learn about EVs is to experience them first hand. If governments and manufacturers are serious about electric cars as part of a low carbon automobility, then events like the GMEV launch in a high-footfall environment such as the Trafford Centre, or last year’s Renault ZE tour or even the now seemingly defunct EcoVelocity event, which gave people the chance to experience and to drive electric cars, are absolutely imperative.