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.