Category Archives: Electric Vehicles

What’s behind a scary number?

A recent BBC article is entitled “Electric cars: Best and worst places to charge your car”.

Extract:

The government has published new league tables showing which regions of the UK have the most charging points for drivers of electric vehicles. The most per 100,000 people are in London, followed by Scotland, while Yorkshire is the worst by that measure.
Outside London, Orkney and Milton Keynes have the most. But Barrow-in-Furness and Scilly each have none.

There’s a nice map showing the current state of play.

A bit later, though, the article starts to introduce some rather worrying numbers:

The government wants the UK to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Scottish Power estimates that in order to achieve this, the UK needs to have 25 million charging points for electric vehicles – the equivalent of installing 4,000 a day – and 23 million electric heat pumps to replace domestic gas boilers.

Mmm.

This is a topic of great interest to me, and the underlying data is useful, but the article is somewhat flawed almost from the start. The first thing to notice is that it never distinguishes between public and private charging points. In fact, if you look at the source, the league table is talking about public charging points, where Scottish Power are talking about public and private ones.

Nonetheless, it is indeed a lot of charging points, though the article’s second error is in ascribing the figure of 4000 installations per day to car chargers: in fact the numbers are about 2000 each for chargers and for heat pumps.

Then they hammer home the size of the challenge with this:

And all at a cost of nearly £300bn.

Wow! Another big and scary number. How on earth are we ever going to do this?

But let’s think about it for a moment…

Many numbers are not quite so scary when you consider them rationally and in context.

25 million is approaching the current number of households in the UK, and, yes, if we don’t have petrol vehicles, most people will probably want to charge their cars at home. That’s also why the heat-pump number is on a similar scale.

But remember, we’re talking about a target which is 30 years away.

According to this article, the UK installed 1.7 million new boilers in 2018! This makes sense, if you think about it: how many households are there, and how long does a boiler last? If that rate continued, then between now and 2050, 51 million new boilers would have been installed anyway.

Switching to heat pumps may be slightly more involved, but it sounds a bit more plausible now. And installing charging points only needs to happen at half the rate of central heating boiler replacement!

But that, of course, does not make for such enticing journalism.

Wait, though – what about that enormous £300-billion cost?

Well, there are about 70 million people in the UK, and that cost will be spread over 30 years. So that’s £142 per person per year, or about 39p per person per day.

Would you pay that for a carbon-neutral future? I would!

Let’s get on with it!

On the sunny side of the street

It’s hard not to feel warm fuzzy feelings about the small team who are producing the Lightyear One.

Lightyear One electric vehicle

This is a new electric car which grew out of the team at Eindhoven who won the Solar Challenge a few years ago, and it’s interesting for a couple of reasons. First, they’ve focused on efficiency, meaning that the car travels much further on a kilowatt-hour than, say, a Tesla. And secondly, all the roughly-horizontal surfaces are covered in solar cells. This is a car that really can charge itself.

It doesn’t do it very fast, of course; we’re still a long way from just driving around on pure sunshine. It does have decent-sized batteries, and you can plug the car in and charge them just as you would on any other EV (and get a range of over 400 miles).

But, on a bright sunny day, the solar panels generate a bit more than a kilowatt. And because of its efficiency, that translates to about 7 miles of distance per hour of sunlight. That may not sound like much, but it’s roughly the rate you would accumulate miles from a standard 13A socket with a traditional EV.

And think of it this way: if you live in a sunny climate and park in the company car park for your eight-hour working day, it might well manage your trip home and back to the office again without you normally needing to plug in at home at all.

Yes, it’s expensive, and yes, it’s not production-ready for a year or two, and yes, most of us, even if we have that much cash, don’t have that much sunshine. But the key thing is that they’re making a car that is significantly more efficient, puts less load on the grid, and is, I think, rather beautiful.

I hope I may own a Lightyear one day. I’ll call mine ‘Buzz’.

SeaBubbles

Fancy some fast, green, silent, smooth, aquatic transport? Me too. So the approach taken by SeaBubbles is really attractive.

They’re making electric hydrofoils which, once you get above about 6 knots, rise up and lose 60% of their drag.

They’re about the same size as a car, and the battery has the same capacity as my BMW i3. This would give you enough range, on their figures, to get you across the English Channel.

Here’s some nice footage of their tests on the Seine; they’re keen to promote them as water taxis. As they point out, many waterways have speed restrictions that wouldn’t allow you to get the most out of your SeaBubble…

They haven’t announced pricing yet, but I fear they’d be well beyond my reach, especially since I’d also need to buy a cottage by the side of a fjord to appreciate it fully.

But I hope I get a chance to ride in one!

Fully Charged Live

One YouTube channel that I’ve been following for really quite a long time is Fully Charged, a series discussing electric vehicles, home power generation, renewable energy and other related topics. It does so in an amusing and light-hearted way, not least because it’s hosted by Robert Llewellyn, also known for his roles in TV series such as Red Dwarf, who’s a naturally engaging host. More recently he’s been joined by the motoring journalist Jonny Smith, previously a presenter on Fifth Gear. They make a great couple.

This weekend saw the first Fully Charged Live event, a two-day gathering at Silverstone organised by the team, with talks, exhibitions, demos of electric vehicles, and much else besides. This was quite a leap of faith for a small, self-published show – it was a big financial commitment and they were very nervous about whether it would be a success, but it seems to have been resoundingly so, to the extent that the catering and A/V facilities were rather overwhelmed on the first day, and extra arrangements had to be made – things went much more smoothly today.

Robert told me that they’d sold well over 5,000 tickets in advance and quite a lot more were bought at the event. Many people, like me, came for both days, so there must have been a good three or four thousand people there, I imagine, and the feeling of goodwill in the air was palpable; everyone wanted it to succeed.

There were lots of interesting vehicles to see; the Jaguar iPace was naturally getting a lot of attention, not surprisingly: it’s the most interesting big cat since the E-type, and the first I’ve actually wanted to own.

When it’s about 10 years old, I might be able to afford one.

In the meantime, I got to try out a couple of electric scooters, which were great fun — I think we’ll see more of those — and there were some lovely electric conversions of classic vehicles: I was particularly taken by these:

I, on the other hand, was staying nearby in my recently-acquired and non-electric campervan (of which more in a future post). This meant, that despite actually owning an electric vehicle, I actually turned up to Fully Charged Live in a VW diesel. I was joking with people that I needed a bumper sticker: “My other car is electric!”

I also got to meet Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield, whose Transport Evolved news show I’ve also been watching and supporting (in a very modest way) via Patreon for some time.

All in all, a fun and informative event. I wish it every success for the future, and will wear my T-shirt proudly.

Zooming in the rain

On Wednesdays, there’s an interesting group of catering vans that collect at the far end of the West Cambridge campus, and I like to go there for lunch.

But it’s a bit of a distance, and the weather today was bad, so it was important to find the most appropriate method of transportation…

The Dyson Car?

So Dyson are planning to make an electric car. Here are my predictions:

  • It will be very expensive, but will look as if it’s made out of cheap plastic.
  • It will incorporate a few very cunning engineering innovations, and many dozens of equally cunning patents.
  • It will probably use some terribly clever steering mechanism.
  • The air ventilation system will be out of this world!

I may post some more serious comments tomorrow!

An unusual four-wheeled electric vehicle

What better way to carry a bicycle than in another bicycle?

A few months ago, I enthused about the electric cargo bike that I had tried out at a local shop. Being without a car for a little while, I started looking at them with more interest, and I discovered that the awfully nice people at Outspoken could actually rent me one for a few days. But they’re on the far side of Cambridge, so I cycled out there on my Brompton and came back with it in the front. It all worked beautifully, but I couldn’t help thinking about The Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things

Someone who wasn’t quite so sure about the whole idea was my spaniel Tilly, but once she settled down, it was a great way to transport her to one of her favourite walking spots, about 3 or 4 miles away, against a strong headwind, and bring her back afterwards.

(The rattling noise is the little bench seat for children, which I’d folded back for this trip.)

Slowly getting the hang of this…

Since I last wrote about electric unicycles, I’ve commuted in to work a couple more times, and have used it to zoom around the West Cambridge campus in search of decent coffee.

I still only get to play on it for about 15 mins per week, but it’s good fun!

The Digital Towbar

The ideal transport for most families, my mother used to say, would be two small cars that you could bolt together to make one big car when you went on holiday. I still think she’s right, and I was pondering this last week when I came up with an idea I call ‘The Digital Towbar’….

Traditionally, if you wish to take your accommodation with you on a journey, you have the option of towing a caravan, or driving a campervan/motorhome. Both of these involve compromises.

Caravan owners have a suboptimal driving experience while towing, and may have to purchase a larger and less environmentally-friendly car than they would otherwise need. They also have to fit it with a towbar and related electronics. Motorhome drivers may have an even more compromised driving experience, and their accommodation must be fitted with a large engine and a driving cab. Some drivers even tow a car behind the motorhome for use at the destination.

Now imagine an alternative model, where your electric car is equipped with the battery capacity for its own use and the necessary sensors and processing power for full autonomy, but where it can also manage a self-powered trailer that follows behind. This trailer might be half-way between an electric motorhome and a caravan; it would not need a cab for drivers, nor would it need a full range of sensors and associated processing and navigational capabilities for independent self-driving. It would maintain a fixed distance behind the car, under the control of an ‘digital towbar’, and its sensors would report back to the car’s systems through the same link. (For the moment, I assume it will be a wireless link, though there may be advantages in having some sort of lightweight physical coupling: a USB cable, perhaps, or a power lead which could balance the usage across the two sets of batteries.).

Anyway, such a trailer could combine the best bits of a caravan — a space designed for comfortable accommodation rather than for driving — with those of a motorhome — a self-powered vehicle which doesn’t require your car to be able to move a load of several tonnes. Instead of towing a little car behind your motorhome, you could tow a motorhome behind your little car. In addition, once you’ve reached your destination, decoupling the two is trivial, leaving you free to explore the local area with ease.

Cars which support the necessary protocols would not need to be fitted with any special hardware or a large engine in order to ‘tow’ such a trailer, making the loan or rental of caravans easy. There are other advantages too: the challenges that novices face when reversing a trailer could be greatly simplified by a car that understands the physics, or could do the reversing itself. The trailer could even shift around to put itself next to you in an adjacent parking space, rather than always needing to be behind.

And, of course, this model of self-powered trailers is not restricted to caravans. Small cars could now add trailers with which to tow boats, bicycles, or just general add load-carrying capacity when moving house. You could even have a separate passenger trailer in which to put noisy children while the parents travel in peace. My mother’s idea may come to fruition after all!

Finally, a single car would not necessarily be limited to towing a single trailer at once. The family of the future may once again travel as a wagon train.


Update, later This concept has already had some testing with trucks, of course, but my friend Eduardo also pointed me at this rather nice video from Hyundai! Perhaps, if you consign the kids to a rear compartment, you should assume they’ll stay there…

Plotting the future

A nice chart in the Guardian recently:

Electric vehicles are still, of course, a very small proportion of the cars on the road, but it looks as if things are heading in the right direction.

A couple of months ago I quoted this phrase from Sam Altman:

The hard part of standing on an exponential curve is: when you look backwards, it looks flat, and when you look forward, it looks vertical. And it’s very hard to calibrate how much you are moving because it always looks the same.

At least it does look exponential, though.

Cargo cult

Just because we don’t have children, that shouldn’t stop us playing with toys, right? In fact, one of the benefits of our decision not to have children is that we arguably get to play with more toys. Yesterday, anyway, I tried one of these:

It’s an electrically-assisted cargo bike, which you could use for transporting the kids to and from school, if that’s your thing. But we were more interested in transporting groceries or spaniels around, while still avoiding parking & congestion issues, and making use of cycle paths and pedestrian bridges. The electric motor allows you to do so with no more effort than cycling a normal bike, regardless of hills, wind or weather.

It’s a splendid vehicle. Tilly was nervous at first, but seemed to enjoy sitting in it once we were zooming along a straight road at 15mph, with our ears flapping in the breeze, and we got lots of cheery comments from those we passed. Will have to come up with a good excuse to get one…

If you’re curious, it’s a Bakfiets Classic Short with Shimano Steps Electric Assist, model NN7STEPS, and it’s available, for example, from here. Not cheap in bicycle terms, but not bad when compared to a car, especially when you think of all the maintenance and tax savings…

Crossing things off the bucket list

At last! Today, I finally managed to leave the ranks of those who have never commuted to work on an electric unicycle.

Not sure I’ll make a habit of this mode of transport, especially since, as John points out, it is technically illegal here, but it’s a thing one should have done at some point in one’s life, I’m sure you’ll agree.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser