Electric Cars: What Are They Really Like to Drive?

Welcome to the third in our series of blog posts on electric cars. This week, we’ll be looking at what it’s like to actually drive an electric vehicle (EV) once you’ve decided to take the plunge and buy one or join a car club. Will it feel very different to cars you’ve driven in the past? Will it be better or worse? And does the image of a slow, boring electric vehicle hold true?

As always, there is still time to add your questions to be answered in our remaining blog posts of the series, so add your questions to our list.

Check back next week, or sign up for automatic updates using the ‘Follow Blog Via Email’ link on the right of this page, when we’ll be bringing you answers to a range of questions on the costs of electric car purchase and ownership.

This week, we’ve spent time with Professor Phil Blythe, along with members of his research team, PhD student Andrew Robinson and Research Associate Graeme Hill, and put your questions to them.

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Dr Sarah Sweeney, Theme Administrator, NIReS: Thank you all for taking the time to sit down with us and answer our questions. This week we’d like to look at driving electric cars, and have some questions on what it’s actually like to sit behind the wheel.  So, to kick off, we’ve all seen items on the news where some reporter sits behind the wheel and raves about how silent electric cars are.  Is this really true? Do they sound really quiet when you’re driving them, and isn’t that a bit unnerving?

Andrew Robinson, PhD student, School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences: Yes, they are very quiet.  The main noise you will hear is the wheel to road friction noise.  As to whether it’s unnerving, I suppose when you first get behind the wheel, particularly when you’re pulling off at initially quite slow speeds, it can feel very strange if you’re used to the noise generated by a petrol or diesel engine, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to it.  And then, once you’re moving at a normal speed, say 30 miles per hour or more, you do start to hear those friction noises a bit more, which helps to give you the audio feedback you’re used to having from your more conventional car.

Graeme Hill, Research Associate, School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences: Yes, it’s like any new (or newer) car – we’ve probably all experienced that sensation, when first driving a newer car than we’ve had before, of being amazed at how quiet the engine is compared to the (relatively) old banger we’ve been used to driving, and it’s natural to feel as though you’ll never get used to it, but the truth is you get used to it incredibly quickly, and conventional petrol or diesel cars start to sound horribly loud by comparison!

Sarah: Fantastic, thanks – something to look forward to then! What about the feel of the car? Do electric cars feel very different to petrol or diesel cars to drive?

Graeme: In a word, yes, but it will depend to a certain extent on the sort of car you’ve been used to driving. If you’ve only ever driven manual cars in the past, the fact that all production electric cars are automatic will feel very different at first (just as it would if you switched to a conventional automatic car).  On top of that, though, they will still feel a bit different: vehicles that run off electric motors have ‘instant torque’, which means you get the car’s top acceleration at all speeds. They are generally therefore fairly quick and very responsive and have been described by drivers as ‘zippier’. This can be a bit disorienting at first, but, again, it’s just like if you took a new car for a test drive that you weren’t used to driving – it might be more powerful or have more sensitive pedals than your old car and could therefore take a couple of drives in it to start getting used to.

Phil: Manufacturers are aware of this, though, and in some cases are making alterations to their vehicles to make them feel more familiar to drivers. For example, Ford have limited the potential acceleration of the electric Ford Focus so that it feels the same to drive as the petrol version; they have done the same for braking. They believe this makes the new technology easier to adjust to, and safer. Limiting maximum available acceleration also saves the batteries.

Sarah: Is an electric car slow to pull off? It always looks from news items on TV that we’ve seen as if they are a bit sluggish, but is that just because of the way they’re being driven in those reports?

Phil: No, they’re not slow to pull off at all! In fact, due to their electric motors they can be faster than petrol cars at pulling off and accelerating.  Just like a scalextric car in fact!

Andrew: I think, from what I’ve seen, that the news reports either tend to be filmed in the car park of a TV studio, limiting how fast the reporter can pull off, or, in a lot of the items I’ve seen, the reporter is trying to still speak to camera while pulling away, so I think that’s why you see them being driven very slowly on news bulletins!

Sarah: One of the questions we’ve wondered about, and which we’ll be covering with you a bit more in a couple of weeks, is how driver behaviour might affect the efficiency of electric vehicles. Increasingly, most of us know (whether we choose to heed it or not) all of the advice on how to drive efficiently and save fuel in a petrol or diesel car, but do the same rules apply in an electric car. What constitutes efficient driving in an EV, and how much difference to the range would efficient driving make?

Phil: To be honest, the principles for efficient driving in an electric car are actually exactly the same as for a petrol car and, according to a trial we ran recently, can extend the range by up to 30%. The best way to drive efficiently is to maintain a constant speed, at minimal throttle, in the highest gear possible. The advantage with an electric car is that, being an automatic, it will make some of this easier for the driver. Generally, fuel economy is maximized when acceleration and braking are minimized. So a fuel-efficient strategy is to anticipate what is happening ahead, and drive in such a way so as to minimize acceleration and braking, and maximize coasting time. So drivers who are already trying their best to maximise their fuel efficiency in a conventional car will find that they’re able quite easily to get maximum range out of an electric car.

Sarah: One of the things we were discussing when compiling our initial list of questions on electric cars was whether or not the stats that you see associated with the cars are based in the real world. For example, you see figures quoted on what the range of a particular model of electric car is, but we strongly suspect that these figures assume you drive a bit like a saint in perfect weather conditions and with no additional electrical items running in the car.  I personally like to have the radio or CD player on when I drive, and if it’s a hot day I’ll often have the air conditioning running (or the heat on a cold day), then obviously at night or in bad weather there’s the addition of the headlights or fog lights etc. How much difference will this make to the energy usage of the car?  Can the battery cope with having all of this switched on and running as well?

Graeme: Yes, the battery can cope, but, just as in a petrol or diesel car, using these things will consume extra energy. Heating and air conditioning consume significant power and will reduce range but most electric vehicles will automatically calculate range reduction when what’s known as hotel loads (heating, air conditioning, lights etc) are on so you should have a ‘live’ reading of what your range actually is at any given point in time. The radio or CD player and some lights use a separate car battery, similar to a petrol car, so using these shouldn’t reduce your range.

Andrew: In other words, it’s really no different to driving a petrol or diesel car – yes, some things such as air con will reduce your range as with petrol or diesel fuel efficiency, but you should be able to see by how much as you’re driving.

Sarah: That’s great, thanks.  One last question: most of the electric cars that get shown on TV or talked about in the media seem to be broadly similar in terms of the type of car – Nissan Leaf, Peugeot iOn etc. Same sort of body type, top speed, acceleration etc, and one of the biggest objections we could foresee from some people might be to do with this. If one of our readers currently drives a really fast, powerful or sporty car, we can imagine them being reluctant to switch to one of these electric cars. Does that mean that the switch to an EV isn’t an option for them?

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

Graeme: Not at all, but you’re right that this is a common misconception about electric cars. When electric cars first came on to the market, there wasn’t a great deal of choice, and this is probably where this assumption comes from, but that’s the same for any newly-introduced technology. But as time goes on, more and more choice starts to appear.

Peugeot iOn

Peugeot iOn

Phil: Exactly. It’s just the same as if you were looking to buy a petrol or diesel car: it would depend on the sort of car you were looking to buy, but there’s now a fairly extensive range of electric vehicles on the market in all shapes, sizes and degrees of power.

Andrew: Absolutely – you can get all sorts of electric cars with lots of manufacturers offering a choice of electric vehicles. For example, Tesla make a Roadster which might fit the bill if you wanted a full-on sports car, a Model S if you were looking for a powerful luxury sedan car, or a Model X if you wanted a sports utility vehicle.

Tesla Roadster

Tesla Roadster

Graeme: Looking across the entire range of manufacturers selling electric vehicles in the UK, including Nissan, Citroen, Peugeot, Renault, Tata, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Chevrolet and Vauxhall as well as some of the smaller or more specialist manufacturers such as Avid Vehicles or Smith Electric Vehicles the choice is now fairly extensive and I see no reason that this trend won’t continue, and gather pace, as time goes on and technologies become more and more refined and cost-effective.

Tesla Model X

Tesla Model X

Andrew: Of course, if none of the electric cars currently on the market fit the bill for your own requirements and you really want to make the switch now, there are also a range of hybrid cars available which, while not as environmentally friendly or economical to run as an electric car, will still offer savings and reduce your environmental footprint as compared to a conventional petrol or diesel car.

Phil: The days are long gone when switching to an electric car meant you only had a choice between one or two models that were broadly similar in performance, shape and price.  There are some very sleek, sophisticated and powerful sports and performance electric cars out there, and more are coming on to the market all the time.

Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S

Sarah: Well, I think that’s our last question for this week.  Thanks once again for indulging us and taking the time to answer all of our questions. We’re sure that our blog readers are finding all of this incredibly helpful and informative.

Andrew: You’re very welcome, it’s been a pleasure.

Graeme: Absolutely – any time.

Phil: See you next week!

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