An electric charge: Can electric cars make inroads into the mass market?

The new generation of electric cars has been one of the talking points of this year's Frankfurt Motor Show. But can they really overcome tough hurdles and make inroads into the mass market? James Moore reports
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The Independent Online

'They're dreadful." Charles Cohen's view on electric cars is unequivocal. He should know, he drives one. The chief executive of mobile telephone-gaming company Probability is the (less than) proud owner of an Aixam Mega City, which he uses to get into his Westminster office.

It is, he explains, because the incentives are compelling. Electric cars incur no congestion charge, can be parked for a snip and charged up for free. And there's no road tax. If only the driving was a better experience. "They're beyond appalling, really. They won't even get up Hampstead Hill. But effectively you're paid to do it if you work in Westminster. The next generation will be better, though," says Mr Cohen.

It's that generation that was on display at the Frankfurt Motor Show this week as manufacturers fell over each other to show how clean and green their cars are. The "taxis" ferrying journalists around were plastered with stickers claiming minimal emissions. The new electric models claim zero. Powered by a Lithium-ion battery – similar to those inside laptops – the range (always a problem) claimed for the larger models is more than 100 miles with the possibility of reaching motorway speeds.

Yesterday the Government announced a £10m loan to India's Tata Motors in order to make electric cars in Britain. Part of a scheme backing low-carbon technology in the car industry, it will support a £25m investment by Tata in its West Midlands-based European Technical Centre (TMETC) to develop and manufacture "green" vehicles. Tata has developed a four-seater electric car, with a range of up to 125 miles and a top speed of 65mph. It will go into production before the end of the year.

The Renault-Nissan Alliance has also staked much on being the leader in the field, with a €4bn (£3.6 billion) investment in next-generation electric cars. Simon Sproule, head of global communications for the firm, says: "The current generation to the next generation is like VHS to DVD. Electric vehicles have come and gone many times in the past but they have never really been successful because the products have never been acceptable to the mass market. There has also never been the infrastructure to support it. That's going to change."

If Renault is right, its Zoe, along with the Tesla, the VW E-up plus the electric Ford Focus and the electric Mini will be replacing petrol-engine cars throughout the UK. In a world where, for the first time, urban residents outnumber country dwellers, "clean" vehicles capable of making short journeys in comfort should come into their own.

"We have a confluence of factors that make the electric vehicle viable," Mr Sproules argues. This includes a steady roll-out of charging points with other ideas, such as exchange stations to enable people to swap spent batteries for full ones, on the drawing board.

Not everyone is convinced. Tim Urquhart, senior automotive industry analyst at IHS Global Insight, notes that car-makers are now "investing very heavily" in electric. But, he says, there are still obstacles in the way of mass take-up. "There is the infrastructure for a start. Renault are trying to overcome this with battery-swap facilities, like petrol stations. But to do this people have to be trained, land has to be bought and stations have to be built. There are massive cost implications. Even then, assuming you can get over that, electric is not going to be the be-all and end-all. Even with a 100-mile range, they are never going to work for your sales reps."

Mr Urquhart also says that the claim that electric cars provide "emission-free motoring" is untrue, particularly if the electricity that powers them comes from coal-fired power stations. And how would energy-thirsty Britain cope with the demand electric cars could create, given the "supply gap" we are facing? He argues that petrol engines, driven by Government demands, are becoming increasingly efficient themselves. "The Blue Motion Polo does 70 to 80 miles per gallon. That's pretty impressive."

Ultimately, though, he says that while the car-makers are charging ahead with investment in electric, the technology will probably meet in the middle somewhere for the mass market, probably with an ultra-efficient petrol-electric hybrid.