Electric can lighten costs

My first column for Professional Manager magazine, written in 2012

At the turn of the year the press is full of ‘best of’ lists: albums, films, adverts, cars – you name it. I’ve been pondering my cars of the year and have found it very hard going. A few years ago, they were neatly segmented by fuel, segment and more. Not any more.
This year there’s a dazzling spread of vehicles that are hard to compare to one another.
Rather like a radical new album from a favoured band, I’ve been unable to figure out whether I’ve liked a lot of last year’s new metal or not – mainly because they’re so… new. Plug-in hybrids, electric cars, extended-range electric cars – these are whole new genres in motoring.

Over 2012 I’ve driven several electric vehicles, ranging from the charming and ridiculous Renault Twizy to the suave and grown-up Vauxhall Ampera (AKA the Chevrolet Volt – it’s the same car underneath). On the whole I can’t help but feel very impressed – and a little bit excited – about the technology. Driving electric vehicles (EVs) is a thrill that has yet to wear off.

However, when I come to write about them I find all the usual downsides stacking up: range, battery life, residual values, real-world costs, the lack of infrastructure – the evidence against electric cars seems damning, and it makes them hard to recommend to the majority of private buyers.

I suspect that most fleet managers share my reservations about this new glut of eco-cars, despite the potential for substantial fuel savings and a nice little green tick on your company’s end-of-year report, the marketing value of which can be significant. For this admittedly large group, the cons still outweigh the pros.

But what of the rest? Despite my reluctance to recommend EVs – or Extended Range Electric Vehicles such as the Ampera/Volt – to the majority of fleet managers, there are business sectors that I think would enjoy huge benefits from taking a punt on one these battery-powered machines.

A friend of mine – a bona fide genius as I’m sure he won’t mind me saying – is working on a medium-sized electric van, the kind used by florists, builders, caterers and so on. He believes the vehicle will sell like petrol in a fuel strike. Why? Because he’s done his maths.

He knows that most delivery vans have a static, daily round-trip; he knows that these vans are likely to be stored in a depot with ready access to charging facilities overnight (when electricity is cheaper); he knows that few of these vans will ever be required to travel further than the range they’re equipped with; and he knows that businesses who run large fleets will be interested in savings on fuel, tax and maintenance. As a result his van is designed to tick all of those boxes – and very little else. It’s a product designed for a very specific buyer.

I suspect there’s a similar algorithm that fleet managers could use to figure out if the new generation of EVs from Nissan, Renault, Chevy and Vauxhall will meet their needs. Many will find that they’re better of sticking with their high-efficiency, low-CO2 diesel models – the usual suspects on those end-of-year ‘best of’ lists. But those fleet managers who get their calculators out might just find some extraordinary upsides to taking a punt on electric.

Bright sparks – six EVs to check out

Chevrolet Volt

Using General Motors’ revolutionary Voltec technology, the Volt uses an electric motor to drive the wheels, powered by either batteries or a petrol engine. As such it can be used as a pure EV or as a conventional petrol car.

Vauxhall Ampera

Vauxhall’s take on the Volt is essentially identical, but trim levels and prices differ slightly. At around £30K for both, however, these cars face some stiff competition.

Nissan Leaf

The current leader of the electric-car pack, the Leaf is Ford Focus-sized but a pure EV. Claimed running costs are eye-catching, but the radical nature of the Leaf may deter buyers.

Renault Zoe

Renault’s second-generation EV is Fiesta-sized and has a fast-charge capacity. It looks normal, which could be a big plus, has a sensible asking price and a range in excess of 100 miles.

Toyota Prius plug-in

Whether cars are classed as EVs seem to be a matter of semantics or marketing as much as anything, but the new Prius can be plugged in and charged electrically – and offers a limited EV range. Stiff asking price though.

Mitsubishi iMiEV

With an initial price tag that could stun an ox, the iMiEV wasn’t a quick seller; however, Mitsubishi has lowered prices and makes some eye-catching claims to the iMiEV’s capabilities.

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