Charge your engines

April 5, 2016

Jason Smith, general manager of group fleet sales at Lookers PLC, assesses the growth of electric cars and whether hydro power will be the fuel of the future

It’s fair to say that our lives have been irreversibly changed by technology over recent years. The desktop computer, once the most popular means of going online, has given way to tablets and mobile phones; iPods look to be joining the Walkman in the delete bin of life and Google has replaced our need to remember … well, anything.
And while many of our cars’ fundamentals have stayed the same (four wheels, brakes, accelerator, engine, etc) technological advancements mean that the way that they are powered is changing beyond recognition.

The tipping point
The humble internal combustion engine remains our main source of automotive propulsion, but battery powered cars have taken great strides in becoming a common sight on our roads. This is thanks mainly to an improved infrastructure, with figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers showing that the number of charging points available in the UK has increased from just a few hundred in 2011 to more than 9500.
The investment has certainly helped to convince motorists, with the number of electric cars sold rising dramatically from 500 per month at the start of 2014 to around 2400 per month by the end of 2015. The Government also underlined its commitment further in December by extending Plug-In grants until March 2018, allowing manufacturers to keep prices competitive.
With manufacturers now getting the measure of EV technology, too, the cars themselves have improved in terms of both performance and aesthetics, which has helped to engineer the spike in interest.
In terms of specific models, the Nissan Leaf continues to lead the charge, with global units sold passing the 20,000 mark last year. And sales are certain to increase further thanks to the launch of a new 30 kW battery, meaning that the Leaf can now travel up to 155 miles on a single charge, up from 124 miles previously.
Meanwhile, other manufacturers are mounting their own challenge, with the highly affordable Renault Zoe selling 2401 units by the end of September 2015.

The hydro-generation
While electric vehicles may finally be enjoying their moment in the sun, hydrogen-fuelled cars, tipped to be the next big technological advancement, are still in their infancy in terms of infrastructure and general awareness among motorists.
Hydrogen cars hit the motoring headlines recently when the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell and Toyota Mirai shared the What Car? Technology Award, an accolade that is usually the preserve of electric and hybrid vehicles.
Premium brand Audi also believes in the power of hydrogen, with its new hybrid Audi A7 Sportback h-tron concept attracting attention after it was announced that it will cover over 310 miles when fully charged and emit nothing more than a few drops of water.
The biggest sticking point among critics is that, while hydrogen fuel cells do have advantages such as quicker re-fuelling times, they aren’t that much greener than electric cars and even some hybrid cars in the greater scheme of things. That’s because producing hydrogen from methane requires a lot of energy and releases a lot of CO2. And then there’s the fact that there are only 11 hydrogen refuelling points in the whole of the UK, with only some of these accessible to the general public. So, until we see further investment, it may be a few years yet until the full potential of hydrogen powered cars is realised.
Then again that’s what they said about electric cars.