I settle into the driver’s seat and buckle up under the watchful eye of James Tucker, director of fledging company Future Vehicles, a man who started out in life by hiring super-powerful sports cars to the not-so-rich-and-famous. ‘We were in demand,’ he reminisces. ‘Then one guy drove one off the side of a mountain in the Alps.’ My eyes flick nervously to the dense Kensington traffic. ‘We decided we didn’t want to put people’s lives at risk any more, and at the same time we wanted to see what we could bring of value to personal transportation,’ he explains.
So it is that I am sitting in one of Tucker’s electric vehicles, staring slightly unfamiliarly at just two pedals, no gear-stick and a battery indicator gauge tucked into the passenger’s footwell. Turning the key in the ignition makes no noise, other than a brief flutter in the instrument panel.
‘Is that it?’ I ask.
‘Yep,’ Tucker reassures me. He flicks up a small black switch in the middle of the dash.
‘That’s forward…’ he flicks the switch down, ‘and that’s reverse.’
‘Just press the accelerator and you’re off.’
Gingerly, expecting a lurch, a stall, or an altercation with the owner of the porsche parked in front of me, I press down on the pedal. Smoothly, without the slightest hesitation, the car whines into motion. The steering is light, partly because even carrying myself and Tucker, the whole thing weighs less than 800 kilos. The brakes, which are not hydraulically assisted and so feel a bit like stamping on a brick, take getting used to.
‘I give myself plenty of time to accelerate and plenty of time to brake,’ Tucker chimes in from the passenger seat. ‘You have to learn a new, smoother way of driving.’
As the car begins to pick up a little speed, I press Tucker with more questions. How long does it take to charge one of these up? Overnight, he says, although his shortly to arrive ‘Elettrica’ model can reach 80 per cent charge in just three hours. What’s the top speed? 30 mph for this one, 40 mph for the Elettrica. What’s the range? This one does about 40 miles on a charge. The Elettrica will do close to 70. How much do they cost to run? About 1.5 pence per mile, as opposed to 10 pence per mile for an efficient petrol car.
At the Kings Road traffic lights we stop. The motor cuts out. Silence.
‘I love sitting in traffic in an electric car looking around at all the other cars belching out fumes and knowing that I’m using no energy at all,’ Tucker confides. ‘No-one’s moving. You’ve got a lot of noise, and an awful lot of fumes, all sorts of nasty emissions. If they were all electric cars, there’d be no noise and no pollution. As simple as that.’
But electric cars cannot be the answer to world’s problems, I suggest. They still use power, they still use raw materials, they still cause congestion and will continue to persuade our town planners that we want to live in an out-of-town, multi-lane, asphalt-covered world. Does Tucker see them as a silver bullet?
‘No, I don’t,’ he is quick to admit. ‘In an ideal world, everyone would ride a bicycle, walk, or take clean public transport. Realistically, that’s not going to happen. People’s habits aren’t going to change overnight, so in the meantime we need to think how we can minimise the damage we are doing to the environment. Practical, realistic approaches to that are what we’re all about. We want to find the cleanest alternatives to what people are using at the moment.’
Passing a traffic island, a couple of pedestrians stare at us as we trundle past in our odd, boxy, red car at a stately 20 mph.
‘Can electric cars ever be sexy?’ I ask Tucker.
‘Well, mass produced electric cars…no, not really, they’re not cool,’ he admits. ‘But cast your mind back to when the Smart car first appeared. I remember people saying how stupid they looked, but now they’ve got a certain coolness about them – they’re distinctive vehicles of choice for lots of people and companies. I think electric cars will go the same way.’
An HGV politely waits for us to trundle up to a narrow junction, before ploughing on down the street in a cloud of diesel fumes. For the first time, I realise that we are separated from the outside world by only a thin sheet of metal, in a vehicle which in many respects resembles a child’s toy. Should owners of electric cars feel unsafe?
‘Granted the cars don’t have a huge roll cage, airbags, or many of the other safety features of a modern petrol car,’ Tucker concedes. ‘But remember that you’re only going to be doing a maximum of 30 or 40 mph, and in London probably much less than that. It’s not as safe as a petrol car, but it’s much safer than a moped, or a bike. I’ve never heard of anyone being involved in a serious accident in an electric car.’
Parking up near Battersea Park is a doddle. The smallest of spaces will do, and flicking the switch between forward and reverse becomes substantially easier than crunching gears. Best of all, there is no parking fee for electric vehicles in central London, and no congestion charge.
Tucker admits that he owes most of his business to Ken Livingstone. Avoiding a daily congestion charge of £8 and parking fees in excess of that can mean making back the premium on an electric car within a year. Outside of London, things can be more difficult.
‘I had a couple of inquiries from outside London which came to nothing,’ he says. ‘London is a place uniquely suited to electric cars at the moment. Most journeys are only a couple of miles, the average speed of any vehicle is about 11 mph, and the financial concessions mean that costs can be offset.’
Tucker hopes this will change as the price of the vehicles comes down and the technology improves, but he is the first to admit that an electric car is not for everyone:
‘If you own an electric car, you need off-street parking so that you can charge it. Living in a flat makes this very difficult. You need to get into a routine of charging it, as well, because if you run out of charge, you can’t walk to the nearest petrol station with a can. The limited speed can be a problem if you regularly drive on fast roads. And driving the car too close to its maximum range can mean that you won’t make it back home during the winter, when battery performance suffers because of the cold. You need to know that buying an electric car is right for you before you fork out £10,000.’
Batteries can be a problem. The heavy, lead-gel variants which are common in today’s electric cars can only be expected to last about two years. Once they reach the end of their life, there is no way they can be easily recycled. Their components must be carefully handled to make sure they do not leak into the environment. The newer lithium batteries however, do offer a much longer life and minimal environmental impact upon disposal, raising hopes for improvements in what has always been the dirtiest side of so-called green vehicles.
Walking away from the Maranello, I begin to realise that an electric car is more than the sum of its parts. Owning one, and coming to terms with its limitations, foibles and differences, teaches you to re-assess the fossil fuel mobility which we have too easily come to take for granted. Driving electric leads you to develop a new appreciation of fuel costs and emissions. You accelerate slowly and brake gently to eek power out of the battery. You travel more slowly, more safely, and more efficiently. You re-evaluate your journey lengths, which in turn makes you question whether the journey is even necessary. You search out local services, within easy reach and away from out-of-town dual carriage-ways. Driving electric is more than owning a new car – it should become a commitment to a less intensive form of motoring.