In one sense, the decision is already made. Pretty soon most, if not all, of the major car manufacturers which sell in the European market have pledged to become electric-only brands before the end of the 2020s. Some, such as Alfa Romeo and Opel, will do so even sooner than that – in 2027 and 2028, respectively, if all goes to plan. While fossil fuels are not going to be taken off sale any time soon, and while hybrid and plug-in hybrid models will still be allowed post-2035, the future is, by governmental fiat (not a pun), decided.
So, where does that leave us in 2024? If electric is already decided upon, then should you just beat the rush and go electric this year? Will it suit your lifestyle? And can you afford it? Let’s see...
One of the biggest drags on electric car ownership has been the public charging network. For all of the protestations of the electric car evangelists that most charging will take place at home (and that is largely true), people want to know that if they take on a long journey they’ll be able to complete it without lengthy delays or charging panic. That is technically possible right now, but there are many ifs and buts in the process. If your car has a decent, reliable, one-charge range. If you can find a rapid charging points that’s working, unoccupied and not too expensive. If, if, but.
Charging points are increasing in number, at least. According to ESB: “2023 was a record year for the construction of new EV charging hubs by ESB e-cars. We constructed a further 16 high-powered charging hubs representing 84 additional charge points in Ireland, including Barack Obama Plaza in Tipperary, Kinnegad in Westmeath and along the Wild Atlantic Way.
“To date, we have built 35 charging hubs with another two in construction. Carrickmines and Blanchardstown in Dublin will both go live in early 2024. Our focus continues to be on providing charging hubs on high-volume routes, such as motorways and national routes, with amenities that are well-lit and accessible to all. We have also been working on improving the existing chargers on our network, upgrading rapid chargers around the country from 50kW to 100kW, enabling quicker charging and less queuing for our customers.”
All well and good, and others are entering the market too – such as SSE, which is about to open a massive charging hub in Mullingar, aimed more at commercial and heavy goods vehicles, but equally able to charge a private car. However, reliability – “Assurance of service” as SSE’s Sean O’Callaghan says, is key: “The phrase in EV driving that annoys me most is ‘as quickly as possible’. I cannot express in polite terms how much I hate that phrase.
“If you pull up to a single 50kW charger and there are two people queuing in advance of you, you could be waiting an hour and a half. Maybe two hours. So ‘as quickly as possible’ is of no use to you. What you need is exactly when you expect to get back on the road. That’s the only thing that counts, and no other metric matters. If you show up at a facility and you know that, at minimum, it will charge your car up at say 6km per minute, and you need to get 100km to reach home, then you know you’ll be there for less than 20 minutes.
“If it happens quicker, then great but at least you have that assurance of 20 minutes. That’s what businesses need, especially fleet operators, especially those with scheduled deliveries. If they’re going to electrify, they need to know that if they’re starting from Dublin and heading to, for instance, Mullingar, that their truck will make it there on one charge, but it can’t get back again. But if the driver can take their 45-minute break and know that they will be able to get reliable charging, then they’re back on the road on schedule. And then they can schedule and make business plans around it. Without that assurance of service, they can’t.”
Other also see challenges ahead. Chris Kelly, chief executive of EasyGo, says: “At present we see major challenges around grid access and lack of infrastructure which is stifling growth in the sector. However, we are positive about the future and, consulting with the Government, we are pleased to see such a high level of ambition.
“We fully support the Department of Transport, and ZEVI [Zero Emission Vehicles Ireland] in particular in these aspirations and want to help in whatever way possible. Ireland is unique due to our geographical location and island size; so the distances an average motorist is covering are less than our EU counterparts. Having driveways and apartment blocks well served and retrofitted for chargers will reduce the need for unnecessary stops on a driver’s journey and is critical to the success or failure of Ireland’s EV strategy.
“A trend we’ve seen many drivers implement is the ‘ABC’ rule – Always Be Charging, meaning charging when you stop, not stopping to charge. This trend will be the norm moving forward, which will create an appetite for more charging pods in hotels or supermarkets, for example, where a car is parked for a sufficient amount of time. This rule will also apply to businesses that are transitioning to EV fleets.”
The sum-up? Things are much better than they were, and with the expansion of fast-charging hubs they should become better again this year. But Ireland’s charging providers need to stop promising and start delivering.
The range-reality gap
About a decade ago, the big debate was on the gap between the claimed fuel economy of most cars and their on-road reality. It was a debate which eventually led to both car makers being accused – accurately, as ‘Dieselgate proved’ – of gaming the test system to produce inflated results, and the creation of the WLTP (worldwide harmonised light vehicle test procedure) testing system to try to generate more reliable figures which were reflective of real-world driving.
Does that WLTP test produce equally reliable figures for electric car ranges? Short answer: no. Long answer: it’s complicated. Few electric cars will hit their actual claimed one-charge figure, except in the most advantageous of circumstances. That generally means dry weather (rain adds drag to tyres and generally means you’ll have the heat and air conditioning on so you can see out), moderate temperatures (again, no heat nor aircon needed) and a route that minimises motorway mileage.
Long spells at 120km/h annihilate battery ranges, and your own personal driving style has a huge impact on battery frugality. That’s equally true for petrol and diesel cars, incidentally, but with their five-minute refuelling times, it matters less as long as you don’t mind paying the extra.
How then to decide if an EV’s range is enough for you? There are some back-of-a-napkin calculations you can use. If a car is also sold in the US market, then its estimated EPA range is probably a better indication of what it will manage in mixed driving conditions than the WLTP test (just remember to divide by 0.62 to get the figure in kilometres).
For cars sold only in Europe, knock 25 per cent off the claimed maximum range – if the resulting number still looks good for you, then you’re probably okay. Equally, avoid SUVs. Low-slung saloon cars such as the BYD Seal, Tesla Model 3, the Hyundai Ioniq 6 and the incoming new VW ID.7 eke far better ranges out of their batteries because they’re vastly more aerodynamically efficient.
Prices – are costs really going to come down?
Yes, yes they really are. This is not just predicated on promises coming from the carmakers, although there are plenty of those hovering about. Renault is promising that its ultra-stylish new 5 EV will be a very affordable model indeed, while Citroen and Fiat and promising sub-€25,000 electric models, with tolerable 320km ranges, by the end of the year. Need something sooner than that?
Well, BYD will in a few weeks be able to ship you a 310km-ranged Dolphin hatchback for a shade over €25,000, and Nissan already has a basic Leaf on sale for just €28,495 (albeit with a truncated 270km range). Renault has just chopped the price of the quite brilliant Megane E-Tech to €31,150 (that’s for the basic 310km range model) while VW has dramatically cut the cost of an ID.3 and ID.4, as has Cupra for its Born.
Tesla has been knocking massive chunks out of the cost of a Model 3 and Model Y in order to compete with Chinese brands. Cheaper EVs are, then, already here. And they will become cheaper.
Dave Watson, chief executive of Ohme chargers, says: “The cost of making batteries was on the way down, and then a couple of years ago it flatlined before going back up. Now, last year they’ve dropped by 25 per cent, and they’re going to drop another 25 per cent in the next six months. The big Chinese battery makers might take another 25 per cent off that, so we’re getting down to a point where a battery will cost something like 4c* per watt-hour. That means an average-sized 64kWh battery will cost something like €2,500 to €3,000.” Cheaper batteries means much, much cheaper electric cars.
Used EV values – are they losing too much money?
Those cheaper electric cars are having an unpleasant knock-on effect in the used electric market. Values for second-hand EVs have plummeted over the past couple of years, and that’s not going to get any easier any time soon.
According to Conor Boyle of second-hand car sales site Sweep, it’s not just falling new EV prices either: “There has been a huge increase in the supply of used electric cars. This time last year there were maybe 800 second-hand electric cars on the site. This year it’s more like 5,000. So that combination of better used supply and the price adjustments on new cars is having a massive effect.”
Equally, the market for used electric cars right now is pretty flat. The bulk of used car buyers tend to be more conservative, and concern about long-term reliability and charging issues is holding back from diving in. O’Boyle says: “We need some Government-led education for the used EV market, about things like battery degradation and so on. People are worried that after three years an EV battery is all used up and that’s just not the case. Perhaps there also needs to be some sort of package of incentives for buying a used EV, just as we’ve seen for buying new ones. Part of the problem is that there are such good deals on new EVs, and falling new prices, that it’s very difficult at the moment to sell a used electric car.”
Equally, EVs – new and used – are going through something of a price correction at the moment. Paul Clifford from electric car subscription provider DCEV told The Irish Times: “Pre-Covid, electric cars were suffering from high depreciation anyway. Then, I think, during Covid, during the chip crisis that followed, supply got cut off and demand went up, which affected prices. So now, I think we’re seeing a normalising of all that.”
The short version? The days of being able to sell a second-hand Tesla for what you bought it for are gone. EV values will settle down but there will be plenty of turmoil on the way. The best bet is to buy on a PCP finance package which insulates you from any second-hand value shocks. Or, take the second-hand plunge now while prices are deflated.
Tech redundancy – is a battery revolution around the corner?
As one wag recently put it, solid-state batteries could become the new autonomous cars. If we’d believed all the autonomous hype of 2019 and 2020, you’d have assumed that by now, we’d all be swooshing around in driverless pods, supplied by Google and Uber. Hasn’t happened. Might never happen. Solid-state batteries seem like a better bet – indeed Toyota and Nissan are planning to have them actually on sale, in cars, by the end of this decade – but there’s many a slip between the battery lips. Solid-state batteries are called that because, instead of the liquid electrolyte used by current lithium-ion batteries, they use a solid electrolyte, usually a ceramic of some kind. This makes them more robust, less likely to burst into flames and more energy-dense. In other words, they can hold more power for a given size and weight, which might finally break the cycle of ever-increasing vehicle weights. They should charge up more quickly too, possibly unlocking the holy grail of 10-minute recharges.
However, the technology behind solid-state batteries is still unproven and has been tricky in translating from the lab to the road. Only recently has Volkswagen announced a breakthrough in solid-state battery reliability in lab testing, and while Toyota and Nissan are still bullish, they – sotto voce – admit that such batteries will, initially, be made in small numbers and reserved for high-end models.
So, for the immediate future, lithium-ion is here to stay and that’s okay. The tech isn’t perfect, but at a time when you can buy a Hyundai Ioniq 6 with a 600-odd-kilometre range, or a Volkswagen ID.7 with a 700km range, do we really need to worry too much about a battery breakthrough? In other words, you don’t need to worry – if you buy an EV this year, it won’t be technologically obsolete next year. That at least is one concern allayed.
So, should I buy one?
In general, yes you really should buy an electric car. For all the back-and-forth arguments about their environmental impact (from emissions to mining to human rights concerns) the general consensus is that an electric car is better for the planet. That’s the ‘should’ bit in a moral sense, we suppose. What about ‘should’ in a more personal sense?
As ever, it still comes down to personal circumstances. Do you have a driveway or other off-street parking where you can install a home charger? Do you mostly do short journeys and commutes? Can you afford to spend enough to get a car with a decent real-world range, so that you have long-journey flexibility? If the answers are all yes, then you should buy an electric car this year. If one or more is answered with ‘no’ then you’ve still got some thinking to do.
*This article was amended on Friday, February 9th, 2024.