One Saturday, mid-November 1896, a small group of pioneering motorists set off in some of the first horseless carriages – their plan was to drive from the Metropole Hotel London to the Metropole Hotel Brighton. We know this now as the London to Brighton run.
Their aim was to demonstrate and promote the recently invented motor car. In addition, they celebrated the new Road Act, which that year raised the speed limit from 4mph to 14mph and removed the need for a man to walk in front of each motor vehicle waving a red flag. Quite a breakthrough for drivers of the day.
The cars taking part that day included those powered by electricity, steam and the internal combustion engine (petrol): back then it was a three horse race, technology wise. The internal combustion engine eventually won out of course. Fast forward to today and we take for granted the quite incredible travelling capability of modern cars. We Britons collectively drive 250 billion miles a year in our 30 million cars – all but 2,000 of which have internal combustion engines.
But the world is changing. Nobody can have missed the twin issues of Climate Change and fossil fuel depletion. Road transport in Britain is responsible for 20% of our CO2 emissions, the main Climate Change gas. About a third of our oil imports are burned in our vehicles – some 25 million tonnes each year. Two excellent reasons to make a change.
On top of that, and perhaps more importantly for your average motorist – petrol and diesel are escalating in price and will continue to do so as the world runs out of oil. It was only two years ago that we hit the £1 per litre mark, at the time quite a traumatic event – how much further past that are we now – and how much longer before we hit £2 a litre? My guess is less than 5 years.
So we need an alternative to the car as we now know it.
And it’s ‘back to the future’ in fact – with electric cars making a comeback. So far the numbers are pretty small: a little over 2,000 of them in Britain. But all the major motor manufacturers have now either launched a fully electric car, or will do so later this year. You can go out and buy one, they’re just like ‘real cars’ – with some obvious differences.
Upsides and downsides of course. Upsides are a lack of pollution from the exhaust and the possibility of filling your car up at home – even making your own fuel from solar panels on your roof. The main downside is range. Cars hitting the roads this year will have a range of up to 100 miles, and to many of us this sounds like nowhere near enough. There’s even a name for the feeling many people get when contemplating electric cars – ‘range anxiety’.
The fact is we’re all used to driving cars that can cross continents. But we don’t use that capability. In Britain, 99.3% of all car journeys are actually less than 100 miles. Range anxiety is thus misplaced, though still having a very real impact.
People are also concerned about a lack of charging facilities on the road, somewhere to plug in. There’s actually a chicken and egg problem going on – one of the big reasons more people don’t buy electric cars is due to a lack of places to charge-up and companies are not installing places to charge-up due to a lack of electric cars on the road.
And that’s where our Electric Highway comes in. It’s the world’s first national network of charging points – it’s for electric cars and it’s on Britain’s motorways. We’ve completed phase one already, joining up the cities of London, Exeter and Manchester. Phase two will be completed this year and will see ‘top up zones’ at every Welcome Break motorway services in Britain.
They’re currently free to use, all you need – apart from an electric car, van or bike, is to register with us for a free smartcard (to access the chargers). We’ve created the Electric Highway to kick-start Britain’s electric car revolution – because we thought it needed doing.
Later this year we expect to install the first of a new breed of very fast chargers – from flat to full in 20 minutes. At a stroke electric cars will have overcome their only real drawback – their ability to travel great distances, and refill very quickly. It’s an exciting time for electric cars – perhaps on a par with 1896, when the new Road Act made cars suddenly rather more practical as a means of transport.
Nationwide rapid charging will achieve the same thing for the electric car.