With a small but slowly increasing number of electric vehicles making an appearance on our roads, Ruth Callaghan investigates the pros and cons of going electric.

Rob Mason’s muscle car keeps a secret under its hood. His muchloved Ford Mustang accelerates quickly,  drives smoothly and needs not a drop of fuel, powered instead by a bank of lithium batteries.

It goes against the perception that all electric vehicles (EVs) are little city runabouts, but Mr  Mason, the co-owner of conversion company EV Works, says he is seeing more people wanting to convert iconic cars they keep for special occasions rather than the daily commute.

“Probably the most common conversion we do is because people have a car, the engine might be a bit tired, but they still really like the vehicle,” says Mr Mason.

Electric vehicles are cheap to run, and have vastly reduced maintenance costs due to the lack of a  combustion engine.

Electric vehicles are cheap to run, and have vastly reduced maintenance costs due to the lack of a combustion engine.

“This year we have done a Triumph Stag. We are doing a Porsche Roadster. We have done probably five BMWs because the car is a little more advanced in comfort and safety and if the motor goes it costs more to replace.”

However, despite petrol prices spiralling upwards, this is still not enough to overcome the cost of converting a car to electric power, says Mr Mason. With an average conversion costing upwards of $25,000, including close to $10,000 just for batteries, it is a significant investment. “I don’t think the economy is the main reason people do conversions. You can spend a lot of money on getting a conversion done and you may need to keep the car for 10 years to justify it,” he says. “We see a mixture of environmental reasons, curiosity and ‘look, I’ve got an electric car’.”

Price is not the only challenge electric vehicles face in winning acceptance. “There are practical barriers and psychological barriers,” says Professor Thomas Bräunl, Robotics Expert from the University of Western Australia and Technical Director of the two-year WA Electric Vehicle Trial that concluded last year. “For most families with two cars, it would be possible to use one electric car without a problem but still many people would have issues – they worry about what would happen if they had to go fora longer trip and couldn’t make it. That’s the problem which remains.”

A clear picture of EV use The WA Electric Vehicle Trial brought together a number of major WA organisations, including the RAC, to test how well drivers would receive electric cars as fleet vehicles and to develop a better picture of the economics of electric vehicles compared to conventional cars.

Many of the results of the $1 million, two-year trial were positive. The 43 drivers surveyed were mostly satisfied with the vehicles, liked the performance and their energy efficiency, and found driving to be little different from that in ordinary cars. Most also described the driving experience as smooth and quiet. But a big barrier was the range for electric vehicles, particularly in a sprawling city like Perth where the distance from Alkimos in the north to Rockingham in the south is almost 90km.

Although the cars in the trial had a range of 120km between charging, the researchers found a high level of ‘range anxiety’, with almost half the drivers indicating they engaged in significant trip planning, particularly for trips greater than 30km, just in case.

While electric vehicles are cheap to run, and have vastly reduced maintenance costs due to the lack of a combustion engine, the cars are relatively expensive fleet vehicles.

What’s the cost?

electric car plug in carThe $16,000 cars used in the WA Electric Vehicle Trial each cost more than $30,000 to convert, for example, while an originally engineered electric vehicle such as the Nissan Leaf or Holden Volt can cost $40,000 to $60,000. Typically,their similarly sized, conventionally powered counterparts start from around half the price. And some of the most anticipated new arrivals have neither a price tag nor a release date. Earlier this year
British car maker Liberty Electric Car forecast a vehicle that could drive 1000 miles (1600km) on one charge, but there are no details as to when such a car could be available. “The price is reasonably prohibitive, even if you factor in the savings on fuel,” says Dr Bräunl. “I think if you see larger fleets taking in electric vehicles that would be the way to go because they can afford to have a few EVs and when they go into the second-hand
market that means they come down in price.

These are big challenges, but for those who have driven electric vehicles on a regular basis, there is still a lot to like. “They are a little bit different in that they can accelerate surprisingly quickly — and of course they are so quiet,” says RAC Manager of Vehicle and Fuels, Alex Forrest. Motoring “There is no engine noise, no vibration and the only thing that will tell you that the car is switched on when you are stationary is the light on the dashboard. That can be a little unnerving at first but it is an adjustment people make quickly. They keep up with traffic just fine.”

Important differences

Internally, electric vehicles look very similar to the petrol or diesel cars they seek to replace, with some minor differences. “Because conventionally fuelled vehicles are used as the yardstick for electric vehicles, the makers of electric vehicles try to make them as user-friendly as possible, and that typically means the accelerator, the brake, the steering wheel and all major controls are in the same place,” says Mr Forrest.

“The gear lever will be in the same position, but sometimes the gear selector resembles a joystick more than a conventional lever. Instead of a fuel gauge, you get a charge gauge that shows in a similar way how much power you have in the batteries. You might also have on the dashboard little icons which come up when you are driving in a power saving way and that will encourage you to keep driving that way to maximise the fuel in the tank,
even if the tank is really a set of batteries.” Mr Forrest acknowledges those little differences – coupled with a heavier weight due to the batteries and the lack of engine noise – could turn off some car buffs. “There will always be a group of people who will miss the noise an engine makes, particularly those drivers for whom it is all part of the experience,” he says.

For Rob Mason, who now has four electric vehicles in his name, there are other benefits that make up for the loss of growl. “The last time I went to a petrol station was to fill up my wife’s car for a country drive. We are talking the first time in about seven years.”