The Big Question: Is Britain going to be at the centre of the 'green car' revolution?

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 21 July 2009 00:00

Why are we asking this now?

Because Nissan has said that production of electric car batteries will begin at its Sunderland plant, with the creation of 350 jobs. Some £200m will be invested over the next five years. Through the Regional Development Agency, millions more of taxpayers' money will be spent on all manner of green infrastructure projects to boost the North East as a "low-carbon economic area", including electricity charging points, a test track, an R&D facility linked to local universities, and a training centre for electric cars. It looks as if the British motor industry is just refusing to lie down and die.

Doesn't the UK make too many gas guzzlers?

Yes and no. Given that there will always be some demand for the sort of luxury cars and SUVs that Britain excels in, it is probably a good thing that so many of these Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Jaguar and Land Rover products are made here, especially as they are less prey to low-cost competition from Korea, China and India. However, there are also strong environmental and short-term economic pressures that mean the current trend towards greener, more economical cars will also help secure the future of the British industry. This is why the latest developments are such good news...

So what else is happening?

Only last week Toyota said that it would produce a petrol/electric hybrid version of the Auris hatchback at its Derbyshire factory as part of a drive to persuade European motorists to switch from economical and increasingly clean diesels to more low-emission technology. Vauxhall, meanwhile, may yet win the contract to produce General Motors's new electric car, the Chevrolet Volt, a version of which has been previewed as the Vauxhall/Opel Ampera. Much, however, depends on GM Europe's new owners, the Russian-financed Magna consortium or the US-backed private equity group RHJ. However, the signs are promising. The Government has also given a £27m grant to Land Rover to help them produce a new hybrid SUV, codenamed LRX, which ought to help the Jaguar Land Rover group reduce its overall emissions and win over a new breed of ecologically-aware driver. Not to be left behind, Mini is also proudly showing off its Mini E, an electric version of the Oxford-built hatch that is being trialled in the US market. Finally, Lotus has helped develop the new Tesla electric sports car in America, a "proper" performance coupe that dispels some of the myths about electric cars. They have also unveiled an attractive "baby Lotus" electric hatch, though it remains only a "concept".

Is electric the future?

Probably. The definitive King Review on low-carbon cars last year makes a pretty strong case for the electric car as the most environmentally friendly form of personal transportation. But the technological barriers remain and, even in a decade or two, it is unlikely that the internal combustion engine will entirely disappear. In a few years, we will probably see a much more diverse range of different technologies in cars. Ferraris and Porsches will probably still run on old-fashioned petrol, but small city cars might well be predominantly electric. Family saloons could be hybrids, with executive cars potentially running as ultra-clean diesels.

The hydrogen fuel cell, which creates its own electricity "on board", might even make an appearance in larger SUVs and people carriers, though at the moment its fortunes seem to be waning. Honda's FCX Clarity, which uses this very advanced technology, seems set to go into production. Biofuels, pioneered by Saab, could also play a part if their unfortunate effects on the price of food can be resolved: so-called third generation, algae-based biofuels won't compete with food for arable land and ought to be very green indeed. In other words, a thousand automotive flowers may blossom.

What about emissions at the power station?

Even electricity generated by the dirtiest coal would arguably still be cleaner than the cleanest petrol models. That claim is still disputed by some, but what is clear is that electricity generated from renewables and, again arguably, nuclear power, is far more clean than anything the internal combustion engine can yet match, though the margins may not be quite as large as people think.

What's the snag with electric cars?

Range, practicality and power. A car like a G-Wiz, the most popular model at the moment, costs about £8,500, for which you could buy a much better, small electric- or diesel-powered runaround, such as a Citroen C1 or a Nissan Micra, both of which are safer, faster, roomier and nicer to drive. Even the best of the current crop of electric cars have severe limitations in day to day running.

The latest Smart electric vehicle, for example, will do 70mph and has a range of 70 miles, which sounds fine for commuting and most journeys. However, it won't do 70 miles at 70 mph. It only has a range of 70 miles if you drive it very slowly; if you max it out at 70mph, you'll see the battery flattened within 20 miles. The Chevrolet Volt/Vauxhall Ampera is promising, as it looks and drives more like a conventional vehicle – but again it only has a range of 40 miles. There is also the small matter of a shortage of recharging points.

There are very few outside London and, even in such electric hotspots as Westminster, relatively few concessions are made to the electric lobby. There is some free parking, but it is often only for a few hours – so not much chance of consumers using their parking bays to commute to work. Tax breaks for electric cars are there but, for most families, they cannot make up for the lack of practicality and many also don't like their safety record. And if you happen to live in a flat, then charging becomes nearly impossible. That said, if you can find a spot to recharge, it will only cost you about 20p to "fill up" overnight.

Any other action?

Lots. Carlos Ghosn, the charismatic chief executive of Renault-Nissan is "betting the ranch" on the future of the electric car, piling millions into development and sponsoring schemes in Denmark and Israel to create national networks of electric charging points – both countries are compact and relatively flat, a bit like the North East. Almost every other manufacturer has, or nearly has, an electric vehicle armlet, including Mercedes-Benz (the Smart), BMW (Mini E). Mitsubishi (their impressive i-MiEV), Peugeot-Citroën, Ford and GM.

Remember the brick?

Yes, indeed. Optimists point to the size and weight of the first brick-like "portable" phones in the late 1980s, an almost comical sight today. Much the same technology (lithium-ion batteries) and challenges prevail in the electric car as exist in mobiles and laptops, so the argument runs, and the progress that has been made in miniaturising and developing these has been phenomenal. With sufficient money behind it, there is no reason why the electric car could not also overcome some of its current drawbacks in a relatively short time. And there seems no reason either why Britain, especially with the ever-fertile mind of the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, behind it, shouldn't grab a significant slice of the action.

Will the UK become a hub for green cars?


*Many manufacturers in the UK are already investing in the new technologies

*The Government is putting plenty of money into it

*As with mobile phones, advances in technology can, in principle, overcome the problems


*Electric cars cost too much and are nowhere near as practical as petrol-driven vehicles

*Other, more interventionist, countries are bound to spend more public money

*We are always subject to the whims of foreign car groups

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