July 11, 2011


Will electric cars ever take over our roads?: Their detractors say are they too pricey and tricky to charge. But a select fleet of drivers in Oxford and London has been testing a prototype electric Mini. Were they won over? (Leo Hickman, 7/10/11, guardian.co.uk)

On 6 July last year, the US Patents and Trademark Office in Virginia received an application from General Motors to trademark the term "range anxiety". With just a few months to go before GM was set to launch its much-anticipated Chevy Volt – a plug-in hybrid, which would go on to earn the title of "most fuel-efficient compact car in the US" – the company's marketing team was on the offensive. It knew that prospective buyers would need to be convinced early on that the Volt would not have a limited range, as has proved the case with standard electric cars. "It's something we call 'range anxiety' – and it's real," explained Joel Ewanick, GM's head of marketing, when quizzed about the trademark application by car gossip website Jalopnik.com. "We're going to position this as a car first and electric second . . . People do not want to be stranded on the way home from work."

"Range anxiety" is very much on my own mind as I traverse the M40 between London and Oxford at 70mph in a prototype all-electric Mini E lent to me for the morning by BMW, the company currently conducting the world's most comprehensive trial aimed at gathering data on what it will take to convince people to ditch the internal combustion engine and go electric. (Yes, the same BMW that sells around 1.5m internal combustion engines globally each year.) As I look down at the gauge showing me that the car has less than 50% charge left, I have to keep reminding myself that the engineer who showed me round the car at Mini's Mayfair showroom said the car's 100-mile range at full charge would "easily" get me the 55 miles to BMW's Cowley plant just outside Oxford – with or without the air-con on full blast.

I ease off the accelerator a little; something that, somewhat counter-intuitively, causes the battery to start charging momentarily owing to the regenerative braking system. Having been in the car less than an hour, I'm already having my preconceptions about electric cars challenged, most notably by the fact that I am travelling at the national speed limit in one of the pokiest set of four wheels on the road. This is not the milk float of eternal jokes.

The technical details of the Mini E are certainly noteworthy: it is, I'm told by the engineer, powered by a battery that's the "equivalent of 5,088 AA lithium ion cells"; it has a speed limiter fitted on its reverse "gear" because, without it, the car could go at top speed (95mph) both forwards and backwards (yes, that thought scared me, too); and any sound file can be installed into the car's computer to rectify the fact that the engine is near silent and could therefore be a potential danger to pedestrians. ("You could load in anything you like: the EastEnders soundtrack, or a clip-clopping horse noise," says the engineer, smiling. "Warwick University is now experimenting with different sounds to find the optimum safest sound.")

But I'm not too interested in all this, to be honest. As a driving experience, the Mini E amply disproves the popular notion that electric cars cannot meet the needs of your average petrolhead. I want to better understand why there is still a reluctance among some to drive these things – and how far off we are from overcoming this. The roadblock to the mass acceptance of electric cars is, yes, range anxiety, but also the perceived inconvenience of charging these vehicles. BMW has built 400 Mini Es with the sole purpose of understanding how these two huge hurdles might be cleared in time for its first all-electric production vehicle, the i3 MegaCity, which it expects to launch globally in 2013.

...with characters who are afraid to turn on the new electric lights or shield their eyes from the awful glare of them. We got over those psychological stumbling blocks too.

Posted by at July 11, 2011 5:26 AM

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