The Wiki Man

Taking charge: it’s time to buy an electric car

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

As a wise colleague once said: ‘Yesterday is a great time to buy a computer, because you have already enjoyed it for a day. Alternatively, buy a computer tomorrow. The computer you buy tomorrow will be both faster and cheaper than the computers available now.
On no account, however, should you ever buy a computer today.’

One factor delaying our adoption of electric cars is that experience has taught us it pays to wait when buying anything with a plug. There is a huge impetus to buy property because, over time, your options get fewer and dearer. But when contemplating the purchase of an electric car we assume every year will bring a fall in price, an increase in range and a further boost in performance. And new models are being introduced all the time.

The decision is made more difficult for other reasons. In the past, when I chose a car, I was buying a standalone, discrete object. I didn’t have to worry about whether my new car was compatible with BP petrol or anything like that. Now you find yourself committing to a whole ecosystem, rather like choosing between iOS or Android. This means you must consider the dread hand of network effects. Should I buy a Tesla simply because there are a lot of them around — meaning that charging infrastructure and software upgrades might progress at a faster pace? Or should I fight the tyranny of the Pareto distribution and buy something else?

Anyhow, having done a little research, I’ve decided to take the plunge. Because whereas electric cars may not yet quite be ready for widespread adoption in North America, they are already easily good enough for use in Britain. That’s not because we have lower standards than Americans, but simply because most of the things Americans obsess about — for instance ‘range anxiety’ — do not apply to the same extent when driving in Britain.

Britain is what geographers would describe as very, very small. Anxiety about having ‘only 257 miles of range’ is a bit silly in a place where 95 per cent of the time, if you drove 150 miles in a straight line you’d end up in the sea. Most of us rarely undertake 300-mile journeys and when we do, unlike most Americans we have the option of taking a train if we are in a hurry. If we are not in a hurry, we will inevitably stop for 40 minutes once or twice for a pot of tea or a cheeky Greggs. Our domestic electricity supply is 240 volts, not 120 — which means that charging at a friend’s house, though slow, is not a total waste of time. And unlike our more sober American chums, most Brits aren’t in a fit state to drive after 8 p.m. on most days of the week, so the problem with slow charging times is a bit moot. The trick is to remember to plug in before dinner.

Lastly, on a small, mostly densely populated island, infrastructure provision should be comparatively easy. There are 168,000 gas stations in the US; the UK, with a fifth of the population, makes do with 8,500. In Britain, you are never far from some town or service station (by contrast, I once drove for two hours in northern New Mexico without seeing a single house). The kind of driving that we do in the UK — short trips in stop-go traffic — benefits much more from the efficiencies and regenerative braking of an electronic vehicle than long trips at constant speeds. Petrol is significantly more expensive here than it is on the other side of the pond, so the economic case is stronger.

Lastly, unlike the US, we also benefit from a highly sophisticated dogging culture. This means that if you do find yourself marooned in a lay-by at 1 a.m., you’ll always have someone to talk to about electric cars while the AA van arrives.

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