Electric car experiment loses its way in a cul-de-sac of blarney and hype

WHY ARE we even surprised that promises made by politicians and car salesmen don’t work out as planned? The masters of spin stood alongside the maestros of hyperbole and wove together an electric dream of a new age of motoring that would remove the car from the environmental debate. The future was electric and Ireland was going to lay out the road map for the future of the car.

At Dublin Castle in 2009, Green Party ministers draped themselves over electric cars like 1970s glamour models, while motor industry executives talked of saving the planet. It was enough to make your head spin.

Nissan predicted it would sell 500 of its electric Leaf model in Ireland by the end of 2011. The ESB in turn promised 1,500 on-street charging points and 40 fast-charging points would be in place by the end of last year. The first 2,000 electric car buyers would also get free domestic charging points fitted at their homes. The great surge towards an electric age would mean 2,000 electric cars on the road by the end of 2011, rising to 6,000 by the end of 2012 and ultimately 250,000 by 2020.

Of course, like so many political promises and forecourt sales pitches, the reality is a lot different. A grand total of 46 electric cars were registered last year. The ESB has installed just 170 public charging points, along with 23 fast-charging points. Only 130 homes have been fitted with domestic charging points. In fact the technology for public charging points was still being developed and industry standards were still being debated last year when we were due to be rolling out the infrastructure.

Understandably, many potential early adopters of electric cars now have cold feet. In the midst of one of the worst recessions in living memory, would you spend €30,000 or more on what might become the motoring equivalent of the Betamax video recorder?

Range anxiety – the fear of running out of power before you get to your destination – is a real and valid concern. While most of us travel less than the 150km limit of electric cars each day, there are times when we need to make cross-country trips.

And what of the current battery technology?

Research is under way that promises a range of 500km between charges, and these new batteries could be ready for production within the next five years. Where will that leave these early models with ranges of just 150km?

So is the electric car dead? Not quite. While Ireland can be proud of punching above its weight in many global endeavours, the idea that a country with a motor retail market equivalent in size to greater Manchester could in any way dictate the future of the car was farcical.

The decision to back electric cars has been made in the boardrooms of Bavaria, Detroit and Tokyo and multiple billions have already been spent on their development. Virtually every car firm has some form of electric car development under way with models in the pipeline.

If the prices are right, if there are multiple models on offer, and if the charging points are in place and the cost benefits add up, then more Irish motorists will make the move to electric.

The likelihood of 250,000 electric cars on our roads by 2020 is risible. In setting outlandish targets, the Government, its agencies, and the motor industry have undermined confidence in what is a viable alternative technology for many motorists.

The cars themselves are as easy to drive as anything currently on the road. However as much as the politicians and industry executives might aspire to turn Ireland into a test bed for the electric car, Irish motorists are not prepared to be the guinea pigs in this global experiment, particularly when it involves them parting with their hard-earned cash.

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