Erin Baker on the Early Adopter Paradox

The unfair paradox of being an early adopter of electric cars is really showing itself these days.

Those brave souls who ventured forth at the beginning of time (otherwise known as 2010 for Nissan Leaf, 2012 for Tesla Model S and Renault Zoe, 2013 for BMW i3) and spent their hard-earned cash on a first-generation EV, really got the raw end of the deal. Not for them the heady uplands of 170-250 miles’ range from a full battery, which buyers of some of these models will now easily see. No, they were lucky if they saw 75 miles from one fully charged battery in a first-generation Leaf.

As for the wider carbon footprint of the car, first-generation EVs did not tell a pretty story for consumers looking to make more responsible choices. Batteries contained cobalt (Nissan hopes to phase the material out by 2028 – not something that was even on the message board for consumers early on), and they were heavy and often not part of the structural integrity of the car given the way the cells were put together, so just a burden of extra mass to lug around.

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Then there were the interiors: Tesla made its big play, coming to market with vegan-only interiors, which the media trumpeted to consumers as a positive thing. Only, the vegan interiors available 10 years ago were ones full of synthetic leather made of non-biodegradable plastics, and consumers were kidded that this was in some way better for the environment than using a waste product of the beef industry: leather, which would otherwise be sitting in landfill, emitting methane. It’s only now that car brands are trialling robust, long-lasting, fire-proof leather alternatives made of biodegradable materials.

And what about the charging? In 2013, the year the i3 was launched, BMW drivers of the car would have largely been powering it with electricity generated from fossil fuels because just 14.6 per cent of all electrical generation in the UK was down to renewables, according to the National Grid’s database. Today, the UK’s energy supply is predominantly from renewables, and in fact, on May 15, the UK passed a milestone, producing its trillionth kilowatt hour of electricity from renewable sources – enough to power Britain’s homes for 12 years, based on average consumption. The best bit of news is the the National Grid calculates it will take just over five years to reach the next trillionth kWh, which highlights very clearly to those who argue that EVs aren’t green at all, that the product gets greener literally almost every day, while the story around fossil fuels is stubbornly one of static doom.

And what did our sacrificial pioneers have as their reward for taking this first step into the unknown, untested and unproven consumer world of EVs? A nascent public charging network that frankly wasn’t a network at all, but a hotchpotch scattering of unreliable, uncommunicative charging points which were dodgy, slow, difficult to find, prone to being out of order, and yet which demanded an existing subscription with a £10 down payment for the privilege of rocking up and not being able to use it.

Source: Zapmap

Now there are more of them, and driver services like ZapMap and networks’ own apps are getting better at telling drivers if they’re working; most offer a pay-as-you-go service involving the momentary tap of a debit card, and we have the slow but sure growth of fast and rapid chargers and super forecourts from companies like GRIDSERVE, which are well lit and have facilities like work stations.

But, oh! All that hassle and anxiety, in exchange for trying to do your best for the environment! Not only trying to save the planet yourself, but essentially, through your hugely expensive purchase, providing cash, data and feedback that would allow car brands and charging companies to improve the experience for the next driver down the line, so they don’t have to suffer like you have.

These early adopters deserve some form of public recognition and thanks. We’re a nation that by and large likes to sit back and sneer at enthusiasts and optimists. We’re not like Americans; we’re not pioneers, with no inherent desire to forge a new road westwards. Thank goodness, then, that a small pocket of motorists defied the conventions of Britishness a decade ago, and took to the roads in their new electric cars. Here’s to early adopters everywhere: I salute you.

See you all at EV Live at Blenheim Palace on July 8 and 9; I’ll be answering consumer questions in a live Q&A on stage on Sunday, alongside Auto Trader’s Rory Reid.

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