I like electric cars. They’re relaxing to drive, they’re cheap to run and they’re unexpectedly engaging to use.
I write that having done several hundred miles in a couple of new EVs this last week, for reasons that will become apparent in the not-too-distant future.
Mock if you will. To a lot of people EVs must seem a largely pointless irrelevance, and the slow sales traction they’ve generated so far only seems to confirm the limited appeal.
Trouble is, unless they take off better now, they may never mature. As things stand, the critical mass of production volume needed to make the battery technology better is under serious threat of never materialising.
What’s required, it strikes me, is as much refinement of the modern electric concept as is possible in order to stoke up some momentum. So here are ten ways that the likes of Nissan, Renault, Tesla, Toyota, Mitsubishi, BMW and General Motors could make their electric offerings that bit better than they are right now.
1. Make good all-round visibility a priority
It’s routinely forgotten about these days, because crash safety and curvy styling are considered more important – but it matters more in EVs than in other cars. When your car doesn’t make a noise, other drivers often don’t know you’re there.
They cut you up on roundabouts, swerve into your lane on motorways, and generally make life a bit difficult for you. It’s not deliberate, just a bit careless. But in that scenario, it’s absolutely key that you’ve anticipated what’s about to happen. And you need to see what’s coming in order to do that.
2. EVs need to make a noise – but not all the time
Quiet is a vital part of the appeal of battery cars; the ones that buzz or warble artificially drive me potty. I love being able to drive my long-term Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV off my driveway at 6am without waking my 15-month-old daughter, who's asleep in the upstairs bedroom. And yet there’s a problem with such noiseless cars at manoeuvring speeds – again, because people don’t hear you coming.
Pedestrians in car parks don’t hear an idle, and aren’t aware that the car they’re walking past is about to move. When you’re the driver of that car about to reverse, you may not see the pedestrian either – because backwards visibility is always worse than forwards. So I’d suggest an external start-up, idling and reversing noise; and nothing for driving forwards.
3. Put recharging sockets in the right place
I distrust anyone who drives forwards into a parking bay, but in this case in particular it makes you more likely to inadvertently run-over a pedestrian who doesn’t know you’re about to move as you reverse out.
On the Mitsubishi Outlander, the charger’s on the offside – making life harder for charging when parallel parked. These cars should be properly converted for left- and right-hand drive.
4. Fit a good nav system as standard
I’ve always struggled to understand the need to set a waypoint in a modern car, but when you’re driving any distance in an electric car, waypoints suddenly make sense.
That’s because you’re generally hopping between chargers. You need to know how far you’ve got to ‘hop’ on each leg, whether there’s a compatible fast-charger at your next stop – and ideally, whether it’s available and working. There’s no guarantee of either, by the way. You also need a realistic ETA that takes account of the applicable charging times - and most of them don’t.
5. Fit better fuel gauges
In EVs, they’re remaining range indicators – and too often, they’ll tell you one thing when you set off, and another when you’re settled on the motorway at a frugal but realistic cruise. Ultimately, you rely on the range gauge for your security of onward travel.
If your car grinds to a halt five miles short of the charger you were aiming for, you can’t put a gallon of 100v DC in a carry can and walk back to it. It can’t be hard to make them commune with the sat nav for a more dependable estimate.
6. Adaptive cruise control should be standard, too
When you’re cruising, adaptive cruise control effectively manages your energy-regeneration for you – and it’s tricky to do it perfectly on your own. Sometimes, coasting is the most efficient thing to do; sometimes it isn’t.
7. Work together on behalf of the customer
This is the really infuriating one. With such an immature technology, we should have one standard for fast-charging – and only one. Europe’s developing charging infrastructure doesn’t need three different systems to accommodate. And yet it’s got them.
Nissan and Mitsubishi came along first, with one called ‘Chademo’. But instead of following its long-time strategic partner, Renault decided to fit AC fast-charging to the Zoe and Fluence.
And now BMW, Audi and Volkswagen are adopting a third format called ‘CCS’, which isn’t as available in the UK at the moment, but which – we’re told – will win the war with the other two in the end. In the meantime, the bloke spending the money’s got no idea which horse to back. Madness.
8. Be flexible with your cables and sockets
Don’t offer one charging cable as standard that won’t fit into a three-pin, 13amp socket, for example. Equally, don’t only offer a three-pin cable when most public chargers won’t now accept them. Recognise that, for a while, EV drivers will have to charge wherever, and however, they can.
9. Make the cars desirable
Some have done this well, others not-so-well. Besides all else, a BMW i3 is just a great-looking supermini. You could say the same about a Renault Zoe. A Mitsubishi i-MiEV isn’t a great-looking anything – and a VW e-Golf isn’t going to excite too many of us, either.
I’d argue that, for now, electric cars have to be distinctive, stand-alone models. But not too quirky or strange-looking. A Nissan Leaf is the limit of acceptability when it comes to ‘quirky’. A Vauxhall Ampera’s the wrong side of the line.
10. Make them fun to drive
Cars that deliver a big hit of torque at low speed and respond to the pedal the instant you move it are fun to drive. So don’t be afraid to make them handle a bit.
The i3 shows what’s possible, and the e-Golf’s quite tidy around the corners as well. But if you chase low rolling resistance too hard, only a numb, uninvolving experience will result. Electric cars are still cars, after all. And if everything else is done right, I’d happily trade a mile or two per charge for a shade more amusement at the wheel.