Alternative Energy Vehicles: Then And Now. How Much Has Changed?

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to present you this original article as part of our ongoing Guest Post series. Author credit goes to writer David Thomas.

The Toyota Prius, modern icon for low carbon travel, is the family car of choice for millions of people worldwide. (Others mock it). Its name ‘Prius’ is Latin and means ‘before’. The idea is, here’s an electric car that was launched before any other, that is ahead of its time. Yet its popularity suggests it is the product of its time – this is its time.

The first generation of electric cars were built in the 1890s

If you really want an example of a low carbon car built ahead of its time you need to look back to the 1890s, when electric cars were already being manufactured. At this early stage in automotive history electric cars were sophisticated vehicles. Alternatives to petrol powered cars, even.

Renault Twizy

image via Renault

Back then Roberts and Chevy were both making cars with a range of 40 miles from a single charge. Over a hundred years later the electric Renault Zoe only manages 80 miles from a single charge, which isn’t a million miles better. Roberts is known for its radios now.

Some electric vehicles are still priced too high for most drivers

Recently Hurricane Sandy took three hundred Fiskers for a test drive. And what was the model name? Karma, of course.

Each Fisker Karma costs $100k, which would have meant a $32m loss for the company. Luckily for Fisker and its environmentally minded investors – including Leonardo DiCaprio, who can afford to spend a hundred grand on a car – the shipment was insured.

Fisker is most popular among wealthy people in the States, Europe, China and Japan. Sandy took out Fisker’s entire European shipment, and is the latest in a string of rocky roads for the company, which has a history of securing investment and then having its credit frozen for not meeting manufacturing targets.

Although it’s popular elsewhere in Europe, the Fisker is simply not known in the UK. But maybe I’m not hanging around in wealthy enough circles. The Prius is better known but certainly not driven widely. 84,000 electric vehicles were sold in Britain in 2011 but almost all were e-bicycles. (PikeResearch predict 466m ebicycles / ebikes / escooters to be in global circulation by 2016.)

The low end of the market is driving take up

Until recently the most common British all-electric car was the G-Whiz, made in India. The G-Whiz was popular enough to sell to thousands of drivers, including celebrities Jonathan Ross and Jade Jagger, more than the combined electrical sales of Renault, Peugeot, the Nissan Leaf, and Mitsubishi I-Miev. My friend has one and it’s perfect for zipping around London.

One reason for its popularity was its low price at £8,000 and exemption to London’s congestion charge, which is a daily rate for driving in the capital. Even with the UK government’s £5,000 grant many electric cars cost over £20k, plus a monthly charge for leasing the battery – sneered at by motoring traditionalists.

But there have been concerns over safety; technically classed as a quadricycle, the G-Whiz doesn’t have to comply with the usual standards.

Renault looks like it’s taking the electric car market by the scruff of the neck

Recent offerings from other car companies have addressed the pricing issue, such as the Renault Zoe. After the government grant its priced at £13,650 and has been reviewed favourably in the Times.

Another Renault vehicle, the Twizy, has made even more of a splash. It’s enjoyed particular success in France, Germany, and Italy, and has become the top selling plug-in vehicle in Europe.

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