Limited Capacity

There’s a big event happening right now over in Detroit in the shape of the North American International Auto Show. Just like every other motor show on the calendar it’s a handy barometer for the automotive industry: what it’s thinking and how it sees the future, all under one roof. It’s also fair to say that every show for the last three years has been stuffed full of electric cars like never before.

Because hydrogen fuel cells are more expensive and require more infrastructure before they are completely viable, electric cars and hybrids are at the very least a stepping stone, if not a long-term prospect. Electric cars have a particular advantage not least because there’s already an infrastructure in place, of sorts.

Unless you happen to be an octogenarian you have properly come to terms with the notion of an electricity supply coming straight to your house, so it’s merely a stretch of a cable than of the imagination to plug in your car as well as your toaster, right?

Well that’s partly true, but there are a few minor issues. Right now, electric cars need plugging in more regularly than petrol and diesel cars need filling up. And those who need to cover a bit more ground also need to be able to charge in public places, which brings its own set of challenges. Putting a charging point in 50% of the supermarket parking spaces would take quite a bit of time and quite a lot of money. There’s work still to be done here.

But all of that is quite patently obvious. The electric car as a viable, off-the-shelf purchase is still in its infancy in terms of infrastructure, about where the internal combustion car was in 1920. That doesn’t mean it won’t work or can’t be used by the general public right now.

Our friends over at the BBC are currently testing a Mini E, BMW’s electric version of the popular premium small hatch, in an attempt to demonstrate what electric motoring life would be like. The journey is from London to Edinburgh, and the car can only be charged at public charging points.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 400-mile trek is expected to take four days, as the Mini E will be pushing at the limit of its range in less than 100 miles, which is why this test rather misses the point of the electric car in the first place. What would be the point of taking on this journey in an electric car when a train would deliver you to your destination in a matter of hours? To say that a combustion-engined car would also beat the electric car is true, but it still requires the individual to put many hours in behind the wheel – seven hours would be a good time to complete that particular journey, and how often would any of us want to do that?

No, the electric car can’t travel as far as a petrol-powered one, for the time being at least. And a typewriter can’t delete words in the same way that a word processor on a PC can – that’s because they are two different modes of achieving the same ends. Yet a petrol or diesel car can’t operate silently, can never achieve zero emissions nor be refuelled for the price of a Sunday newspaper. Does that make the combustion-engined car a pointless device? No – just different. The electric car has its advantages and disadvantages, but to judge it solely by the standards of the combustion-engined car does it a mighty disservice.

By Matt Joy

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