I’m driving silently on the motorway at 70mph. My hands aren’t on the steering wheel and my feet are not touching the pedals, yet I feel perfectly safe. This is because I’m driving a Tesla Model S which has a feature called “autopilot” that effectively drives the car for you. It’s very strange: like being steered by the hand of God.
Now, I’m not Jeremy Clarkson so why am I writing a column about a car? Well, essentially because the Energy Saving Trust challenged me, following an article I had written about electric vehicles being impractical, to drive them for a week to prove that they aren’t any more. EV technology has advanced so rapidly in the last few years that you can begin to see the end of the internal combustion engine.
Electric cars used to be the butt of Top Gear petrol heads. They’re thought to be slow, ugly and you have to wait two hours to charge them every 50 miles. Well, not any more. Fully electric vehicles can now go for up to 300 miles before they need recharging using one of the high speed chargers that are now appearing all over Scotland. They can be charge to 80 per cent of their capacity in around 25 minutes.
There aren’t nearly enough charging stations around, but there very soon could be. It’s really only a matter of political will. There is now no reason why our streets should be filled with poisonous diesel exhausts which cause an estimated 40,000 deaths a year in the UK. No reason, also, why there should still be so many road accidents. Once this technology is perfected these cars will prevent most collisions from ever happening. They can already be programmed to observe speed limits automatically.
On the motorway, when a lorry pulls out, as lorries do, the Tesla gently slows down, and then accelerates off again when the road is clear. You can programme it to remain between one and three car lengths behind the vehicle in front. This all appears on a video display which looks like one of the car racing games you used to see in amusement arcades.
This car even overtakes automatically, though you still have to have a hand on the steering wheel for that. In fact, since autopilot is in what Tesla call “beta”, or testing mode, you are supposed to keep a hand on the wheel at all times. Earlier this month a driver was killed in the US when his Tesla collided with a truck that the computer didn’t see properly. You can’t just kick back and watch Harry Potter movies.
The Tesla Model S isn’t cheap of course. Prices start at £53,000 and the one I was driving – the P90D – is more than half as much again. But this is widely regarded as one of the best cars in the world. It’s certainly one of the quickest, going from zero to 60 in 3.1 seconds in “insane mode” – yes it really is called that – which you select on the huge touch screen that takes up most of the Telsa dashboard. A cheaper EV, the Tesla Model 3 is due in 2018 retailing at around £30,000.
The BMW i3, which I have also driven thanks to the EST, is also very impressive and costs around £30,000 – the price of a top of the range Volkswagen Passat or Ford Mondeo. That’s still a lot of money, but there are other considerations. You can get an interest free loan for that amount from the government. It costs nothing to fill up a fully electric vehicle from one of the charging stations, and charging overnight at home costs about £2. That’s a huge incentive. My evil-diesel VW camper van used to cost £100 to fill up.
Also, servicing charges are expected to be low because there are so few moving parts in an electric vehicle. You don’t change the oil, or spark plugs, or piston rings. The battery is guaranteed for 100,000 miles and should last a lot longer. Anyway, the idea being promoted by Tesla owner Elon Musk is that electric cars will mostly be shared in future rather than individually owned, like a huge City Car Club. The internet can ensure Tesla cars don’t sit idle all day and are effectively “rented out” online by firms or individual owners. Also in the Tesla pipeline are electric buses and trucks which will be self driving.
Now, of course, there are many drawbacks at this early stage in this advanced technology. If you live in a flat, it’s difficult to recharge electric cars overnight from a domestic electric source, which is how most people will recharge them. There are now supposed to be more charging stations on the A9 than petrol stations, and I can believe that. But they are still far too scarce. They need to be on every street, every supermarket, every car park.
Also, electric cars aren’t necessarily green. Electricity has to be generated somewhere, and often this will involve fossil fuels, as will the construction of the cars. However, in Scotland, where electricity will soon be 100 per cent generated by renewable sources, there’s really no excuse for not switching. Electric vehicles can become part of the energy storage cycle as they will mostly be charged overnight using the power generated by wind and wave. Think of a huge battery on wheels.
But the best thing about electric cars is that once you start to drive one, you’ll never want to drive anything else. It’s not just that EVs are largely silent and stress-free – many modern cars already are. The noise pedestrians hear from an approaching vehicle nowadays is mostly road and wind noise, not the engine itself.
Much more important is the relaxed and fluid driving style you develop in an electric car. You rarely have to use the brake pedal because as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator the car brakes naturally as the batteries regenerate. And, of course, when you want to move off again you get split second response. There are no gears or transmission in an EV so the torque is applied instantaneously giving astonishing acceleration.
You really have to experience one of these vehicles to understand just how primitive most cars today are. They are quicker than most performance cars, not because of brute horsepower but because of efficiency and the fact they are governed by computers. Internal combustion is a 19th-Century technology that has no place in 21st Century cities. Only the political influence of the petroleum lobby has kept them on the roads for so long.