Sunday, 6 March 2011

Old People Need Electric Cars

2012 Fisker Karma. For young, rich, sexy people.

A lot of new electric cars are marketed as being cool in a green way, with the likes of Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive making sexy and sporty cars aimed at the trendy rich guy with an "eco conscience". Whilst these cars give plug-in motoring a poster child or two (and A-listers something much nicer to drive than a pious Prius), that is not the right way for electric cars to be going. Nope, old folk need them more.

You see, today's elder popularity grew up in a bygone age, where 'gay' meant 'happy' and communication usually required a quill or direct eye contact. To a lot of them, the modern car must be a baffling and devious machine. You might have to deal with a clutch pedal (which could make for jerky driving as one's legs grow tired), there's a steering wheel covered in buttons that do Lord-knows-what, a dashboard similarly swathed in functions and "Infotainment" - a word that didn't even exist in the 1950s - and when it inevitably breaks down or needs an MOT/service, you need to take your car to a garage where an oily-handed man with very little hair talks "jargon" at you before asking for a hefty sum to keep your independence intact. Plus you need to buy a car that isn't broken in the first place (that pension pennies can afford you), then insurance, tax which could cost anything from £0 to £430, and you have to keep going to a petrol station to fill the damned thing up with money to prevent yourself from winding up still at the side of the road waiting for the AA man to arrive and talk "jargon" at you in a slightly condescending manner before towing you home and charging you more money. It can all be something of a nightmare. Cars are too complicated for some people.

An electric car, on the other hand, has very few of these things. Inevitably, there will still be some "Infotainment" to learn to use, but if your grandchild's Nintendo DS is easy to work out, surely that is too? Especially now that more and more cars just have a big screen for all that stuff instead of myriad cryptically-labelled buttons. Also, you just have to put it in D, ease off the brake and coast around at 25mph as usual with consummate ease, and when you do, there's no engine for you to wear down by going everywhere at 1500-2000rpm, just a few batteries and a whirring electric motor turning the front wheels (Tesla and Fisker Karma aside). You won't have to keep forking out for petrol (although unless Nissan's "Battery Swap" scheme gets under way, your electricity bill might jump up a little), and there's also much less to go wrong in an MOT/service, with no fluid levels to top up and that pesky petrol motor replaced with mere batteries and a big electric motor, which will last for years and years before you need to replace them. The massive drop in moving parts means a massive drop in potential beakdowns. Plus, there's no tax on "Zero-Emission vehicles", so it can cost almost nothing to run (even the sporty Tesla costs just 4p per mile), especially if Fisker's idea of putting a solar panel on the roof to provide extra charge becomes popular among EVs, like it should.

2011 Nissan Leaf, for normal people. Well, the ones with £26,000 at least.
The problem with this observation is that one of those foibles is not yet addressed: electric cars are still very expensive. The very normal-looking Nissan Leaf to your eyes' left costs around £31,000, which is at least £10,000 more than equivalent cars such as the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra, VW Golf and Renault Megane. Even with the government giving you £5000 of that back, it is still a lot, and I seriously doubt that the majority of elderly drivers buy their cars new, as pensions and over 50 plans won't pay for commodities such as a shiny new car, so in effect it's even more expensive than the usual choice. The easy thing to say at this point is "give it another 5 years - electric cars will be just as good as combustion-engine cars by then", but people have said that pretty much every 5 years for the last decade or two, maybe longer. Viable EVs like the Nissan Leaf, electric Citroen C1 and Mitsubishi i-MiEV have been around for a little while now and are still very thin on the ground. Less-than-viable hideous plastic low-range low-speed deathtraps like the G-Wiz and all the other stupidly named e-snotboxes available in the UK are hard to find outside of London. It's looking like things are on the verge of changing - the Leaf is the European Car Of The Year - but I still think that EVs won't genuinely take off for another 5-10 years, and only then can the elderly start doing the car equivalent of swapping a record player for a CD player.

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