Low- and zero-emission vehicles have been around since the late 1990s, but only in the past decade have they become more than quirky talking points. Self-charging hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have entered the mainstream – and with growing popularity comes greater choice. With some 80 models now on sale in the UK, the menu can be confusing. Buyers must ask themselves a few searching questions before diving in …
Do I have access to a charger?While it’s just about possible to run an electric car using public chargers only, it’s usually more expensive and less convenient than charging at home. While most BEVs and PHEVs can be charged using a standard three-pin plug, this really is a weapon of last resort: it will, quite literally, take all day. Pending legislation is likely to require new-builds in the UK to include charging points with parking spaces – but for everyone else it’s up to the owner (with the aid of a government subsidy) to install a specialist charging point – and this requires a garage or car port. If you don’t have one of those, a self-charging HEV may be the more straightforward choice – because running a cable through the letterbox and out to the kerb tends to be something of a trip hazard.
How far do I want to go?Range anxiety tends to be the number one deterrent for people who are keen to buy a BEV but just aren’t ready to commit. The anxiety stems from the fear of grinding to a halt out on the open road and the supposed inconvenience of 40-minute recharging breaks.
For most drivers, these concerns are unfounded. Charging platform Zap Map records the UK as having more than 30,000 charging connectors in more than 10,000 locations – but, as the range of electric vehicles continues to rise, the requirement to use a public charger falls. Research for the European Federation for Transport and Environment, an umbrella NGO promoting sustainable transport, found only 5% of “charging events” occur on a public charger.
While the first generation of mainstream BEVs had a quoted range of perhaps only a hundred miles, battery technology has improved to the point where there are options with at least double that. Granted, your BEV won’t do the 600 miles you could get from a traditional car – but ask yourself how often you’d want to drive for more than four hours without stopping for a stretch and a cherry bakewell? However, if you are a hardened road warrior with an iron bladder, there are plenty of HEVs capable of returning more than 700 miles on a tank.
Where am I driving?In research published in 2018, the Department for Transport claimed the average Briton spends about 36 minutes of the day in the car. The average time taken to get to work, school, the nearest town centre or supermarket is approximately 11 minutes. These numbers suggest a BEV makes a perfect everyday runabout. However, for anyone opting for a PHEV or HEV, there are further considerations – because not all hybrids are created equal.
Hybrid tech is either series or parallel. Parallel hybrids power the wheels directly from both the internal combustion engine (ICE) and an electric motor. In series hybrids, only the electric motor turns the wheels, with the ICE connected to a generator. Series hybrids are very efficient (and smooth) in urban stop-start traffic because the ICE revs at a steady rate, with all those small jolts of acceleration handled by the battery. Parallel hybrids are more efficient if the daily routine is on open roads with higher, more constant speeds.
There are combined series/parallel hybrids in both HEV and PHEV flavours, operating in whichever mode is most appropriate. While these tend to be a little more expensive, they’re going to do a better job across a wider range of conditions.
Do I go places that offer incentives to drive certain types of vehicle?Various cities incentivise the use of low-emission vehicles through reduced charges – though these are rarely one-size-fits-all. Southampton city council, for example, offers BEVs – and only BEVs – free passage on the city’s Itchen toll bridge, and a 90% reduction in the cost of a city centre parking season ticket (£120, rather than £1,200, a year). Milton Keynes, meanwhile, offers a free green parking permit usable in 15,000 city centre bays to BEVs, and a substantially discounted green permit for drivers of other cars with emissions of less than 100g/km.
Meanwhile, London’s congestion charge zone – often used as a bellwether for low-emission performance – is constantly tightening its charge exemptions. From April 2019, HEVs have had to pay the charge. Only vehicles capable of at least 20 miles of electric-only performance now qualify to drive in the zone for free. The rules will tighten further in 2021, when PHEVs will lose their exemption, and even BEVs won’t be eligible come 2025.
How much do I have to spend?An HEV, PHEV or BEV is going to cost more than a traditional ICE equivalent. The difference is shrinking – but for the moment, you can expect to pay a premium. That is clawed back over time, and can be lower overall, when whole-life costs are factored in – although this is dependent on usage. While the cost of fuel is the primary driver here, there are other factors. Road tax is lower, and company car drivers can reduce, or even avoid, benefit-in-kind taxes. As a general rule of thumb, the lower the emissions, the lower the taxation.
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