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What do I need to know about switching to an electric car?

Changing to an electric car car requires you to rethink how you use your vehicle. What do you need to know before buying an EV?

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The transition from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles (EVs) is well and truly underway, and the pace is accelerating around the world. Over the next decade, we will see the biggest shift in how our cars are powered in more than 100 years.

Depending on whether you feel ready to make that jump, the next new car you buy or lease is likely to be either your last petrol car or your first electrified car (either a fully-electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid).

You may also like: What’s an electric car like to drive?

Are electric cars really becoming mainstream?

With government promotion of EVs increasing and a looming deadline on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles, many car buyers are considering an electric car for their next purchase or lease. Ten years ago, electric cars made up less than 1% of all new cars sold. Today, they make up about 5%, which is still fairly insignificant. However, most of that shift has occured in the last couple of years, and by the end of the next decade, electric vehicles could well make up about 80% of all new car sales.

Diesel sales are continuing to dwindle, and car manufacturers are starting to pull their diesel models from sale altogether. By the end of 2020, we may see electrified cars (fully electric and hybrid vehicles) outsell diesel cars for the first time. After that, hybrids – which are something of a bridge between the present of internal combustion and the future of electricity – will start to give way to fully electric vehicles over the next decade.

The UK government’s latest plans direct that effectively all new cars from 2035 will be electric vehicles. This means that new petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles (including plug-in hybrids) will be phased out over the next 15 years ahead of this deadline, and in some cases much sooner.

In reality, market forces will dictate how this all takes place and it will very much depend on what’s happening in the rest of the world. In some sectors, like family cars, petrol and diesel engines could disappear before the end of the current decade. In others, like sports cars, it’s likely that we’ll see some petrol models on sale right up until the ban kicks in.

Moving from a petrol or diesel car to an electric vehicle can have significant benefits, but there are some changes that come as part of the switch. Let’s take a look at some of the key things you need to know and answer some of the most common questions car buyers have.

How important is range?

Range, range, range. It’s a word which has great emphasis in the EV world, as it governs how far you’ll be able to travel on a single charge. Depending on the car, you might be looking at less than 100 miles or nearly 300 miles on a full battery before it runs out of charge.

This is the major shortcoming of any electric car compared to its petrol or diesel equivalent, as those will almost always provide much greater range between refuelling stops. Electric cars have improved their range significantly over the last few years, but it’s still a concern for many buyers.

In reality, range shortcomings are often more of a perceived problem than a real one. If most of your driving is shorter trips around town and you do fewer than 100 miles a week (which actually covers millions of drivers in the UK), then an electric car with a shorter range isn’t likely to be a problem for most of your needs. However, if your driving needs take you further afield, then you’d probably need a car with a bigger battery.

Recharging vs refuelling

Connected to the issue of range is the issue of charging. Potential buyers are not just concerned that they may only get 100 miles of range from an EV, but it then takes hours to recharge the battery for another 100 miles of driving. It certainly sounds inconvenient, doesn’t it?

By comparison, a petrol car will usually give you at least 300 miles of range, and then require less than five minutes of refuelling to give you another 300 miles. For most drivers, this tends to mean a five-minute stop for fuel once a week or so, which is barely noticeable in your overall life.

In terms of getting your head around an electric car, this is probably the most difficult concept. However, in the 21st century we are all already accustomed to battery management thanks to our smartphones, smart watches and other smart devices. We have become comfortable with the idea of putting these devices on charge overnight, and having them ready to go with a full battery the next morning.

Every so often, you get caught short and need to charge the battery while you’re out and about, and it’s sometimes inconvenient. But our daily routines have come to accommodate the battery life of our electronic devices, and you just need to apply the same thinking to your car. It won’t always be perfect, but it will almost always be perfectly manageable. Public charging points are getting faster, and – just like your phone – you probably don’t need a full charge to get you through the rest of your day until you can fully charge the car overnight.

How do I charge my electric car at home?

Home charging is one of the crucial aspects of owning and running an electric car. Being able to recharge your car’s battery at home makes owning an EV a lot easier – and it’s cheaper than using public charging points. For many potential electric car buyers, not having the ability to charge the car at home is a deal breaker.

When you buy a new electric car or plug-in hybrid, there are incentives in place for charging at home and your friendly car dealer will be only too happy to point you in the right direction. Government grants and manufacturer schemes (usually in conjunction with a major electricity provider) will make installing a home wallbox much cheaper. Usually it ends up costing a couple of hundred pounds, but in some cases it may even be free.

You can use an ordinary three-pin socket to charge your electric vehicle, but it’s not as quick, nor as safe, as having a proper wallbox installation. A wallbox charging unit will allow a higher rate of electricity to flow from the mains into your car’s battery, which can reduce charging time by hours over a regular three-pin plug. It’s still not as fast as the rapid charge units that are often available at public charging points, but for overnight use while your car is parked up anyway, it’s usually a perfectly reasonable solution.

Will an electric car actually be cheaper?

Another key consideration is that the initial upfront cost for an EV is often significantly more than an equivalent internal combustion-engined car. As the technology improves, the difference is gradually reducing, but it’s still a big issue. The new Renault Zoe, for example, is priced from about £26,500, which is 70% dearer than the starting price for the similarly-sized Renault Clio, which starts at about £15,300.

Based on the above example, you’re spending an extra £11,000 to buy the electric car, so you need other costs to be substantially less during the time that you own it for the EV to be cheaper overall.

Charging is where the cost savings are most noticeable. As with petrol, pricing does vary between chargers, ranging from around 25p/kWh up to around 35p/kWh. For around 200 miles of additional charge, you’ll be looking at about £12-14 if you’re using a public charging point.

When it comes to charging at home, the price you pay will depend on your energy tariff. Plenty of companies are now offering EV-friendly plans which take advantage of lower priced charging times, such as in the middle of the night. However, for an average EV with around 200 miles of range and a 60kWh battery, you’ll be looking at around £8-9 for a full charge.

To compare that to a petrol car, 200 miles of regular unleaded petrol will probably cost you about £20-30 at today’s prices.

While that’s a substantial difference, it’s certainly not going to make up that £11K difference over three or four years of ownership unless you’re doing an awful lot more than 100 miles a week. So we need to look at other costs:

  • there’s no road tax on an electric car, compared to roughly £500 for a petrol car for three years (and considerably more for cars costing more than £40k)
  • servicing should be cheaper as there are fewer parts to repair and maintain
  • depreciation is likely to be better on an electric car, which helps keep finance payments down on a PCP or lease
  • if you live in London or other large urban areas, you won’t have to pay congestion or low emission zone (LEZ) taxes

You’ll need to look at your own circumstances to decide whether an electric car is really going to be cheaper to run overall, but it’s likely to involve a much larger initial cost offset by lower running costs over time.

Are there any other benefits?

There are other positives to owning an EV beyond low running costs. One of them is refinement; an electric motors is very quiet and smooth compared to an internal combustion engine, which means that an electric car can be more relaxing to drive around in. You’ll notice quite the difference compared with a petrol or diesel car, particularly when accelerating.

Speaking of acceleration, another positive is performance. Electric motors have all of their pulling power available immediately, rather than requiring the engine to spin up to its optimal level. That means even lower-powered EVs really zip away from the traffic lights, providing acceleration that regular cars can’t match. This is most noticeable in urban environments where speed limits are 30-40mph, which is where electric cars are best suited anyway.

And we haven’t even mentioned the environmental impact of an electric vehicle. Having no tailpipe emissions is a huge health benefit for cities and urban centres, as is the lower noise pollution thanks to a lack of internal combustion engine. We’re not going to pretend that EVs are perfect when it comes to environmental impact, but they are conclusively better than either petrol or diesel in terms of CO2 emissions, local air pollution and noise pollution.

But isn’t there a lack of charging infrastructure in the UK?

This is another bugbear for potential electric car buyers. It’s still definitely an issue, although the situation is improving rapidly. A lot of it will depend on where you live – London is well serviced by charging points, with more than a quarter of the UK’s charging points located in central London – but villages in more rural areas are often very poorly serviced.

The number of charging stations across the UK overall has grown massively in recent years. According to ZapMap, there are 33,521 connectors across the country as of August 2020, made up of 19,249 charge points in 12,121 locations. This figure is currently growing by about 500 charging points per month.

In terms of how they’re spread out across the country, 26% are in central London alone, with 13% in the south east and 12% in Scotland. Infrastructure is being rolled out at a rapid pace, but it’s a bit like getting superfast broadband – the rollout will inevitably take a long time to reach every corner of the UK.

Ultimately, the best bet is to use home charging for most of your needs and only rely on public charging when it’s really necessary.

Doesn’t all of the energy come from fossil fuels anyway?

An electric vehicle is only as environmentally friendly as its energy source. However, many energy and charger unit suppliers are working to ensure that their energy comes from green suppliers. All of BP Chargemaster’s charging stations, for example, are certified as providing renewable energy while home energy providers like Octopus Energy provide power which is completely green.

Even if your electric vehicle is getting its electricity from a fossil fuel power station, it’s still almost certainly going to be more efficient than a car powered by petrol or diesel, which means a lesser environmental impact.

There is also the question about the environmental impact of battery production, which currently requires precious metals like cobalt that tend to be mined in harmful ways. This is an area that is improving but still needs to do better. Eventually, we are likely to see batteries being produced in a more sustainable manner using materials that have less impact on the earth, but that’s still likely to be years away from volume production.

Is an electric car the right choice for me?

You need to weigh up your driving needs, and also be prepared to reconsider your preconceptions. We can’t tell you if an electric vehicle is the best choice for your next car, but we can tell you that Evs are becoming a very viable choice for far more people these days, and would probably suit a large percentage of UK drivers if they were prepared to make the switch. Hopefully the points raised above will help you make the best choice for your needs.

You may also like: What’s an electric car like to drive?

Additional reporting by Jack Evans, PA Media

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Stuart Masson
Stuart Massonhttps://www.thecarexpert.co.uk/
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Car Expert, The Van Expert and The Truck Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.