Electric Cars Are About Their Economy, Stupid

Chief executive of UK charity Breast Cancer Campaign shares her experiences with her REVA G-Wiz electric car in London.

Published: 04-Aug-2008

By Pamela Goldberg

LONDON -- Much as I would like to say that I bought my electric car over two years ago to single-handedly save the planet, the reality is much less noble. I like to drive. I like to have my own personal space, to listen to the radio and to think. Perhaps it was growing up in South Africa where everyone who could drove a car.

As Bill Clinton said: "It's the economy, stupid." The arrival of the congestion charge in central London in July 2005, and my dislike of the Underground system, is what prompted the thought of it. It's been quite calming driving past the petrol stations lately, watching the price go up on a daily basis. I think that the UK has one of the highest petrol prices in the world with an average price now around 1.20 pounds a liter ($9 a gallon).

The other advantage is that parking in Westminster and the City is free, at least for now. Parking is hugely expensive at 4 pounds an hour ($8) in some parts. I am fortunate that my office has off-street parking, and I also do at home, so there is no problem charging up at home and at work.

I am quite fond of my little car. It's a Reva G-Wiz and because there was a black one in stock, I bought it. Black is much too boring for such a ridiculous-looking car so I bought some pink daisies to dot the car. You look quite funny in the car because you seem to fill the car so that, combined with the pink flowers, means that I get lots of smiles as I drive around. I don't care if they are laughing at me rather than with me - it brightens up the day.

This is definitely a city car. It doesn't replace a "normal" car; we have a second car which we use for longer journeys or when going out with friends.

The range on a single charge is supposed to be 40 miles but I think that's only in warm temperatures, on a flat stretch of road and without any air con, wipers or lights. In mid-London winter, it's more like 20 miles and on the worst days that could be difficult to attain.

With all the systems going and driving through a very hilly part of London, it's debatable whether I will manage to get to and from work on one charge in the winter. I can warm the engine (and the car) while it is still plugged in to the mains. Just before I get dressed in winter, I click the remote control for a very cozy car 20 minutes later, which means that the car doesn't need to warm up using the battery.

Because the acceleration is anything but fast, I tend to drive more carefully. I don't shoot off from traffic lights or overtake in a hurry. On the whole, other drivers are quite sympathetic although bicycles and motor bikes are a nightmare and I'm conscious that they can't hear me coming.

I have been as fast as around 35 mph on a flat stretch of road. On one particular hill, it's almost crawling at the top. Yet if I get a good run down the hill which precedes it, I can maintain more of a momentum -- memories of riding a bike as a child!

It's a hatchback so you can fold down the back seats and load quite a lot of stuff into the back. There is a small space in the front of the car under the bonnet (hood) which is covered, otherwise anything left in the car is fully visible, which in London is not such a great idea.

The radio service leaves a bit to be desired. The reception is variable and there are certain bits of London where it goes altogether. I think that this has something to do with the car not being metal.

Modern cars need less and less looking after and less and less attention from the garage. This is not the case for this car. It needs to be serviced twice a year and there were a number of teething problems. The service is very friendly - a bit hippy in approach but they seem to get there in the end. I had persistent battery issues and finally about a year ago the whole battery pack was replaced and the difference has been substantial. The newer cars don't have these issues.

I am quite fond of the little thing. It has character and personality and I do something that I have never ever done before: I wash it myself. I'm not sure how it would survive a car wash!

The controls are very simple -- how many miles you have done, how fast you are going and a needle indicator moves from green to yellow to red to show you how close you are to need to recharge the battery. Quite refreshing - looking at the controls of some modern cars seem to look rather like the flight deck of an airplane.

There are some unknowns. I am not sure how long the battery pack lasts - probably around 2-3 years. There is a limited second-hand market and a new battery pack costs around 1,200 pounds. The servicing costs are pretty much the same as a small car. You can't just go to any garage - there is only one place which services the cars which can be a hassle or use normal breakdown services.

However (sad person that I am) I set up a spread sheet when I bought the car and I fill in the savings I make on the congestion charge, estimated on petrol and on parking - parking at work is free so that doesn't count. I sold my old car and I have now "made back" the expenditure on the G-Wiz through these savings. The total cost of the car was 8,806 pounds and I got 3,000 pounds for my old car bringing the outlay down to 5,806 pounds -- I "paid off" the car in March this year and am on the way to "paying off" the total amount.

There are other savings -- there is no road tax and the car is in the lowest insurance band.

My grandchildren love the car. Now that the older ones are out of child seats and into booster seats they can travel in it (you can put a child seat into it but it is a struggle).

I recommend it for making friends! People stop me in the street and ask me about it, tourists take photographs and children laugh.

If I were not working in the city and wanting to drive in to work it is questionable whether I would replace my car with another electric one. The range is a limitation, although the newer cars have a longer range. A disincentive is the price: it is quite a bit more expensive compared to regular compact cars -- around 10,000 pounds currently -- and for occasional use you couldn't justify the extra cost even as fuel costs spiral upwards.

Pamela Goldberg is chief executive of UK charity Breast Cancer Campaign www.breastcancercampaign.org and an avid fan of her electric car. The opinions here are her own.

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