The electric car market is eagerly awaiting the launch of the new BMW i3, and with good reason. It’s fair to say that electric car sales around the world have hardly been electrifying – in fact, they have been fairly shocking (OK, that’s all the electricity jokes, I promise).
Despite the hype and hyperbole, government tax breaks, media coverage and general curiosity from consumers, very few people have actually stumped up money to buy or lease an electric car over the last five years. This has resulted in a number of manufacturers significantly reducing their planned development of electric cars for the next few years. The BMW i3 small electric car is now entering this marketplace, but is it a smart move or a very expensive gamble? It is the first car in BMW’s i campaign, which is believed to have cost £2.7 billion and will also see the i8 sports car launching next year.
What’s killing electric car sales?
So what are the drawbacks of 2013’s latest crop of electric car choices? Well, the widely acknowledged three main technical problems have remained largely unchanged – high cost of purchase, limited range and recharging difficulties – and it’s not clear how the new BMW i3 is going to change these shortcomings. And the fourth problem, the most significant but least tangible, is a complete lack of desirability of any of the electric cars currently on sale.
High purchase prices
The BMW i3 is going to be priced from just under £26,000 (after the British government has kicked in £5,000) when it goes on sale at the end of this year. You will also be able to lease it, but even with BMW’s highly subsidised finance options the car remains an expensive proposition compared to a more conventional BMW 1-series or a similarly-sized city car. Other electric cars have the same problems – a Nissan Leaf is over £30,000 after the government’s electric car grant, which is frankly far too expensive for a mid-size Nissan saloon.
Driving range has been an area of incremental improvement for electric cars, and the new baby BMW is likely to have a range of about 80 miles, according to its maker. The official government test cycle reports that the BMW i3 should be good for about 118 miles, but you can give that figure the same cynical disregard that applies to government fuel economy figures for petrol and diesel cars.
80 miles might be adequate if you can guarantee you will be in a position to charge the car for several hours before driving again, but it forces you to look at how you use the car in a whole different light to a regular petrol or diesel car. A traditional internal combustion engine is not very efficient, but it will allow you to drive for 300-400 miles and then only take a few minutes to refuel back to 100% and off you go for another 300-400 miles. An electric car will only take you 50-100 miles, then you have to wait for anywhere from 2-10 hours to go another 50-100 miles.
Recharging – too slow, too few charging stations
Despite press releases from governments, councils and manufacturers trumpeting every new charging point that gets opened, the reality is that there are still far too few charging points around most cities to cope with even a moderate increase in electric car sales. And every charging point needs to be connected to a single vehicle for hours at a time. So one charging point can service about twelve cars per day at best, compared to a single petrol bowser which can service literally hundreds or even thousands of cars per day.
If you have a fancy (and expensive) rapid wall charging unit, you can charge your electric car in about two hours, but if you are just plugging your car into a regular wall socket, you are looking at a waiting time of about eight to ten hours. This is simply not feasible for most car owners.
The biggest hurdle still facing the BMW i3?
It seems likely that the massive investment in electric cars from all quarters will mean that they will continue to develop and improve, but the biggest barrier to growth is the fact that there is not a single electric car on the market which has captured public interest and imagination*. Increased taxes on petrol and diesel fuels, and taxing based on fuel consumption, have not pushed car buyers to turn to electric vehicles. Instead, they have simply pushed up the cost of motoring for average drivers. The reality is that people would still rather pay a lot more to drive their petrol and diesel cars than buy an electric car.
High prices might limit desirability, but if there was any real interest, you would expect there to be a strong interest in used electric cars, once the new-car depreciation hit has been taken by someone else. Yet if you browse the Auto Trader website, you can buy a year-old Renault Fluence for under £9,000, which is roughly half its new car price. And Renault still can’t sell them.
The first EV to achieve any sort of popularity will potentially be able to single-handedly drive significant growth in the whole electric car sector and achieve real success. But is the BMW i3 going to be that car? Well, The Car Expert hasn’t driven the i3 yet (only a few carefully-chosen motoring journalists have thus far been invited to try it), but it’s fair to say that it’s no looker. The BMW badge will certainly play a big part in the car’s appeal, but will that be enough? The entire global car industry will be watching closely.
* actually, the Mercedes-Benz SLS Electric Drive is pretty amazing for any kind of car, let alone an electric car, but at over £350,000 it will hardly ever feature on most buyers’ shopping lists…