Just like getting used to being outside the EU, or wearing a mask every time you go shopping, we’re all becoming increasingly familiar with the sights and (lack of) sounds of electric cars. Ten years ago they were rare and little more than a dream of the future for most motorists.
But today they are a reality. There are many to choose from, either with full electric capability, or in a hybrid form that shares the load between petrol and electricity. And they’re not going away: prime minister Boris Johnson has brought forward the planned end of sales of new petrol and diesel models in the UK from 2040 to 2030 – a full ten years. That means drivers really should start to think carefully about their next move when it comes to buying and running a car.
However, nine-and-a-bit years is still a long time in terms of car ownership and you’re not going to be forced to choose an electric vehicle just yet.
“With the prime minister’s decision to bring an end to new petrol and diesel cars even earlier than first thought, there’s no better time to start experimenting with hybrids or mild hybrids currently on offer – if it suits you,” says Steve Fowler, editor-in-chief, Auto Express magazine.
“Not everyone is going to like the change and for many there are still several years of petrol and diesel cars to run. There are plus and minus points for all versions, and for the next ten years or so, we’ll all still be able to choose which one is best for our particular needs.”
In the meantime, as drivers start to get used to the idea of electric power for all – and sooner than we thought – what are the choices currently available in the run up to 2030? And which might be the best bet for you?
More of a ‘helper’ than a ‘provider’, the mild hybrid powertrain uses a lithium-ion battery to store energy normally lost during braking or deceleration and sends it to an integrated, beefed-up starter motor and generator that helps the petrol engine to pull away from rest and accelerate (both of which require lots of fuel) with greater speed, smoothness and economy.
Although definitions vary from brand to brand, most mild hybrid cars cannot drive on electricity alone. The electric motor acts to support the petrol or diesel engine, and also powers various ancillaries like the stereo, electric windows, power steering, headlights, heated seats and other creature comforts.
In the short term, we are likely to see mild hybrids replacing straight petrol and diesel engines on most cars. By using the electric motor assistance to reduce fuel consumption and emissions from the combustion engine, car companies are using mild hybrid technology to meet tougher new emissions rules.
Example: Suzuki S-Cross
Pros: No plugging in at night
Cons: Not a huge saving of fuel, can’t run on electric power
Good for: General driving – anywhere you currently drive a petrol or diesel car
Bad for: Zero-emissions driving
The original hybrid powertrain, often known as a ‘regular hybrid’ or ‘full hybrid’ (and sometimes marketed as a ‘self-charging hybrid’), this is the real starting point for a cars that can be driven on electrical power alone. A hybrid powertrain consists of a petrol (or diesel engine) and an electric motor, often at opposite ends of the car. The car can be powered by either of these units on their own, or by the two working together.
The battery is mainly charged by the petrol engine, as well as by regenerative charging when you are coasting or braking. You won’t have a great deal of range when solely under electric power – just a few miles – but for short town trips they are useful and environmentally friendly.
The regular hybrid may have been the pioneer of automotive electrification, but its days are probably numbered with the new rules that will come into effect from 2030. Based on current performance, they can’t go all that far on purely electrical power, and if you make the battery bigger to allow more range, you may as well plug it into the wall to charge it more efficiently than by using the petrol engine.
Example: Toyota Prius
Pros: Genuine fuel savings, especially in stop-start driving
Cons: Higher list price
Good for: Urban driving
Bad for: Motorway driving
These are closer to full electric vehicles because you can plug them in, for example, overnight at your home, and a much larger on-board battery will store enough electric power to take you up to about 30 miles.
For many drivers this will be enough to take them to work and back (especially if the workplace has charging facilities, as is starting to become more common). A petrol engine is also there to take over if the battery runs out, or if you’re about to embark on a long motorway trek, when you can simply opt to go with fuel power. Unfortunately, this means that plug-in hybrid cars tend to be the heaviest of all powertrain options as they consist of a complete petrol car as well as an electric motor and a big, heavy battery.
Unlike mild hybrids and regular hybrids, the sale of new plug-in hybrid cars will continue past 2030 until 2035, giving buyers who can’t or won’t choose a fully-electric car an extra five years of partial petrol power.
By the end of this decade, however, it’s likely that battery technology will have improved enough that a plug-in hybrid will be able to spend the vast majority of its driving in electric mode. The petrol engine will really be more of a back-up for emergencies, and will rarely be called upon in normal driving.
Example: Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
Pros: Potentially high economy figures
Cons: Expensive technology, excessive weight
Good for: Driving on electric power for most daily uses
Bad for: Long-distance driving
Here we’re into pure electric power so you never have to go near a fuel station, unless you’re looking for a tyre inflator, car wash or a sausage roll. These cars are high end technology and carry a huge battery capable of holding enough charge to give you a decent range of certainly several hundred miles.
You do need that range, however, as charging remains a weakness at present. Even though charging points are springing up rapidly, there are still not enough for electric car owners to simply hit the road without thinking about where their next charge is coming from. Plug them in overnight at home on trickle and you have a full car ready to go.
Some public chargers can replenish at least half the battery in under an hour, so it’s a case of planning your tea or coffee stop to coincide with a visit to the charge point – as long as you can find one.
Development of battery and charging technology is improving rapidly, so in coming years we will definitely see electric cars being able to travel much further between charges. And when you do stop, charging will be faster than it is now.
Example: Tesla Model S
Pros: The most efficient powertrain on the road
Cons: Still a small nationwide charging network
Good for: Those completely committed to electric driving
Bad for: Anyone who doesn’t have reliable access to charging
Still the most popular and natural choice among drivers, petrol- and diesel-engined cars make up about 85% of all new car sales in the UK. That’s despite high pump prices, growing numbers of congestion-style charges, increased pressure from cleaner air lobby groups and general negative press, especially for diesel.
It’s ironic, then, that new diesel-powered cars are the cleanest they have ever been and are certainly way ahead of their pre-Euro 6 cousins currently on the road. However, the expense and complexity required to detox diesel exhaust is making the cars more expensive, and is likely to be costly to repair down the line.
Petrol-powered cars aren’t considered quite so dirty and still make great high performance sports cars. Petrol engines naturally produce more CO2 but fewer other pollutants than diesel, which makes them slightly more eco-friendly for urban use but slightly worse for motorway driving.
Example: Most new cars
Pros: Cheaper cars, easy and reliable refuelling
Cons: Fuel is expensive and environmentally harmful
Good for: Undertaking almost any driving requirement
Bad for: Zero-emissions driving
Hydrogen Fuel Cell
We left this one until last simply because the number of cars available with this type of powertrain is almost non-existent at the moment, and unlikely to grow rapidly in the next few years.
A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV) is an electric car that generates electricity on demand from a hydrogen tank on board, rather than a battery. The hydrogen is refilled from a special bowser that looks and works much like a conventional petrol pump, refilling the tank in a few minutes.
A fuel cell vehicle provides all of the benefits of electric power – smooth, quiet, instant performance – in a format that is similar to existing petrol or diesel cars. But there are problems: the infrastructure investment needed to create thousands of hydrogen fuelling stations would be truly massive; hydrogen is not currently produced in the UK in significant volumes, meaning it has to be shipped in; there are almost no FCVs currently available for sale in the UK; and it’s ultimately not as efficient at delivering electricity as a battery charged from the national grid.
However, despite the problems it’s possible that there may well be a bright future for fuel-cell electric cars alongside battery-powered electric cars. Long-distance driving remains a weakness for electric vehicles, and a hydrogen fuel cell can be refilled in minutes rather than hours. So we may end up with enough demand for both types of vehicle, much like we’ve had the choice between petrol and diesel for the last few decades.
Example: Hyundai Nexo
Pros: Electric power without the long charging times
Cons: Expensive, almost no infrastructure
Good for: Long-distance electric driving
Bad for: Anyone who wants to buy one right now
Additional reporting by Stuart Masson