Earlier this year snakes of people camped outside Tesla stores to place orders for the Model 3 electric car, handing over $1,000 deposits even though they had not seen the vehicle’s full design or specification.
The company, the biggest carmaker never to use an internal combustion engine, has achieved a market value of $33bn when producing just 50,000 cars a year — compared with a valuation of $47bn for General Motors, which last year made more than 6m cars.
Yet despite Tesla’s sales success, take-up of electric vehicles among consumers remains tiny. Fully electric cars (those without a combustion engine) account for less than 1 per cent of new car sales in the UK — which only rises fractionally when hybrids are included.
Road transport accounts for more than 17 per cent of global CO2 emissions, according to figures from Transport & Environment, an environmental lobby group. Migrating car use to electric vehicles could make a big contribution to curbing man-made carbon emissions. Greg Archer, a director at the group, says: “Combined with the rapidly falling costs for batteries and renewable electricity, it is clear electro-mobility is becoming increasingly affordable and offers an unrivalled opportunity to decarbonise vehicles.”
Large carmakers such as Volkswagen and Fiat are developing either electric or hybrid technology, but this is partly based on attempts to meet stringent environmental emissions standards across their product ranges rather than necessarily satisfying public appetite.
“You have to bear in mind that today for the majority of people, electric vehicles aren’t the right solution for them yet,” says Erik Fairbairn, chief executive at charging infrastructure group Pod Point. “We need to see a development of the tech before we see it becoming mainstream.”
Three barriers stand in the way of mass adoption of electric powered vehicles: price, range and ease of charging.
The greatest contributor to the price is the battery, which can account for a significant portion of the cost of an electric car. The dominant force in battery powered cars is costly lithium ion technology, the same used in laptops and mobile phones.
A welter of other options are being pursued, from magnesium-based batteries to those that use silicon rather than carbon anodes. Solid state batteries, which promise much greater power and more flexible sizes, are also being investigated.
Other alternatives to combustion engines include hydrogen fuel cells, which use the planet’s most abundant element to drive their motors.
Toyota, which led hybrid adoption with its Prius cars, has already launched a fully hydrogen-powered model. Once purchased, the cars are supposed to be virtually free to run, with the cost of an electric recharge being minimal.
The second, and most significant, public concern about electric vehicles is the range. Recent models such as the Nissan Leaf and the BMW i3 are limited to go under 100 miles — though BMW offers a range extender in the form of a petrol-driven engine to recharge the battery as it drives.
Tesla’s Model S and X cars, which claim to travel in excess of 250 miles on a charge, remain prohibitively expensive for many, costing between $70,000 and $120,000. Carmakers are pushing to hit a sweet spot on technology and price — a $35,000 car that can travel more than 200 miles.
Tesla’s Model 3, still at least two years from the road, is one example of a vehicle capable of both, but rival models are well under way. The Chevy Bolt, an all-electric car from General Motors, will have roughly the same range and price, while mass-market manufacturer VW has pledged that a quarter of its sales will be electric cars by 2025.
Once the technology and price reach the right point, adoption could rise to 7-10 per cent, predicts Pod Point’s Mr Fairbairn, “at which point Joe Public will see them everywhere”.
The ease and speed of charging both at home and en route are the final hurdle. In the UK, there are about 25,000 installed charging points, of which around 3,000 are publicly available in car parks or on high streets. So-called “destination chargers” — at workplaces, hotels and leisure sites — are also increasingly common. But more are needed to make electric motoring a reliable option for many.
“Everywhere you park you need charging points,” says Mr Fairbairn. Unlike petrol stations, where motorists can fill up in a few minutes, electric charging takes much longer.
Current technology allows batteries to deliver around 30 miles of range for every hour of charging. It would take the power output of 1,000 kettles to charge a car fully in two minutes, says Mr Fairbairn — and rapid charging is damaging to most batteries. “The nature of electricity doesn’t support the power transfers you need for two minute-charging, even a long way in the future,” he says.