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An electric car in the countryside?

As a former Parisian, I have vivid memories of weekends spent in mile-upon-mile of traffic jams on the motorway in the quest for a few days, and sometimes a few weeks, of open spaces, sunbathing and peace and quiet with family or visiting friends fortunate enough to live the idyll of country life. In addition to the natural beauty of where they lived, I envied their way of travel. I also remember how my stress levels would rise again as we embarked on the return journey, having to work out the best time to leave so that we wouldn’t be stuck in traffic (for too long). Our weekend breaks would often end before 4 p.m. on a Sunday and my admittedly intrepid professional life was nonetheless stressful in terms of car travel.

Ten years after escaping permanently to the country (something that I don’t regret in the slightest!), life has changed considerably in many ways, including in terms of mobility. We no longer just take taxis, we now have Ubers. For longer journeys we “Blablacar” with one or more people to save money and/or meet new people and/or reduce our carbon footprint and we seem to be obsessed with electric vehicles.

For years, people told me that due to the 50,000 km a year that our family travels (with two cars), our only option was a diesel car. But today, society looks down at me as if I’m the source of all of the planet’s evil. Feeling a little bit guilty, I therefore set out to answer the following question: is owning an electric car compatible with living in the countryside?

  1. What is the range of an electric vehicle?

There are five major factors to consider when calculating the range of an electric vehicle:

The installed capacity. As is the case with combustion engine vehicles, where the larger the tank the greater the autonomy (for vehicles with the same cylinder capacity), the range of an electric vehicle depends first and foremost on its installed capacity. Currently, the manufacturer’s declared range for a standard Renault Zoe for example is around 275 km but under “normal” driving conditions you won’t get much further than 120 km before you need to charge its battery. A Tesla Model S boasts a range of up to 600 km. Between these two cars, other than the tens of thousands of euros in difference in price, one has installed capacity of between 22 kWh and 41 kWh and the other 100 kWh.

Climate conditions: this is a less well known, but in addition to the heating and defogging systems that use more energy in the winter, or air conditioning in the summer, battery ranges are lower when the weather is colder[1]. In the same way, despite batteries being temperature-controlled (in other words, have their own radiators which help lessen thermal shock), very high temperatures have an impact on the optimal use of lithium batteries.

No problem, however, unlike a petrol-fuelled vehicle, with starting the engine when its -25 °C outside, but the range is much lower than at an optimal temperature (15 °C to 20 °C).

To remain entirely impartial, it is worth noting that a Toulouse-based company, Limatech[2], has very recently launched a solution for the use, in aeronautics, of a new generation of battery, aimed primarily at light aircraft. This promising generation of lithium batteries is lighter and more resistant to climatic variations (which are much greater in the aeronautic sector). It also has a longer useful life in terms of charging cycles.

The frequency of battery use. Just like our smartphones, tablets and computers, electric car batteries have a very high, but not unlimited, number of charging cycles. Depending on current technical specifications, the number of cycles varies between 1,000 and 2,000. Based on the average range described above, this gives us a maximum capacity for the lifetime of electric vehicles of between 275,000 km and 550,000 km which is not bad at all for a car! However, this is, of course, a theoretical useful life. Firstly, because the battery of a parked car discharges slightly over time. Secondly, a recent review demonstrates that a Tesla Model S can be driven for one million kilometres, but with two battery changes[3].

Topography and speed: as for combustion engine vehicles, these are key factors in terms of range. If you tend to put your foot down or if you mainly drive on hilly roads, this will be reflected in your consumption. With an electric vehicle, these differences are even greater. This is why the majority of electric vehicles are limited to 135 km or 150 km per hour, which is more than sufficient to break the law without hitting their limits. However, on the motorway, when your remaining range is 30 km or less, the maximum speed is blocked at 100 km/hour and not 130 km/hour.

In 2015, the average French person travelled 17,500 km/year[4]. The purchase of an electric vehicle therefore has its advantages.  However, variations in range on these kinds of vehicles are much greater than for combustion engine vehicles, making the risk of running out of electricity higher and the fast and secure charging points fewer and farther between in the countryside where we drive greater distances.

  • How much does it cost to run an electric vehicle?

For the past 30 years, the car has been a significant expense for the average household, behind food and housing. In 2016, the average cost of a new vehicle (across all energy types) was €26,000. The average cost of a standard electric vehicle (excluding Tesla) is in excess of €32,000.

In addition to the purchase price, there is also the cost of the battery as customers have the choice between either renting their battery (currently between €60 and €150/month) which covers the cost of its maintenance and replacement, or purchasing it outright. In the latter case, the vehicle’s guarantee does not cover the battery and any battery change is invoiced between €4,000 and €6,000.

To this you may need to add the rental or purchase of your wallbox (the home charging station), the installation of which may also be invoiced. Moreover, the charging of an electric vehicle must be covered by your house insurance, which is likely to increase your policy slightly. Forget trying to plug in an extension cable outside your home to charge your electric vehicle.

Finally, to complete the list of extra costs is the price of tyres, as an electric vehicle is, on average, heavier. Moreover, an electric vehicle, contrary to a combustion engine vehicle, provides energy instantly, which increases tyre wear. Also, the more even weight distribution of an electric car means that front and back tyre wear is also more even (but faster).

Now let’s discuss the good news:

The cost of energy consumption when driving 100 km in an electric vehicle is four times lower than for a combustion engine vehicle.

Moreover, spare part prices have skyrocketed over the past 20 years, whereas there are fewer spare parts for electric vehicles and these are subject to less wear (as accelerations and decelerations are smoother), all of which makes servicing easier (lower maintenance times).

As a result, although the cost of purchasing an electric vehicle is up to 50% higher than for a combustion engine vehicle, the further we travel with an electric vehicle the more of our initial investment we will recover over time. Which is paradoxical when you consider the question of range discussed above.

The quality of use of an electric vehicle:

In terms of driving, BMW’s slogan “Freude am Fahren” (The Ultimate Driving Machine in English, or literally the joy of driving) seems appropriate for electric vehicles. With no gear box, no deafening engine sound like with certain badly soundproofed diesel vehicles, these vehicles provide a certain level of driving comfort, offering a smoothness which further decreases driver tiredness.

In practical terms, this is slightly less true due to the lack (for the time being) of charging stations when compared with petrol stations and the fact that these stations provide different charging methods – which vary in power and charge time. I have tried to sum this up with the following table:

For an accelerated or fast charge, the domestic network is not sufficient. Electric vehicle owners must therefore use dedicated sites. Whether free or subject to a subscription, these charging stations are fewer and further between outside of urban areas.

The map below shows the current network in part of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques and the southern part of the Landes departments. Standard charging stations are blue, semi-accelerated orange, accelerated red, and just one is purple (mode 4)[5]:

chargemap

This network is expanding gradually and is likely to develop further in the years ahead. But it will take time for it to be truly adapted to country life.

The recent removal of the majority of Corri-Door chargers by EDF’s subsidiary Izivia highlights the challenge of ensuring such a roll-out is rapidly operational[6].

To conclude: owning an electric vehicle in the countryside remains (for the moment) more of a personal conviction than the result of the actual shift in mobility trends in the countryside. There is no doubt that the way we travel must and will change. Personally, I’m not yet convinced by the overall assessment of the electric vehicle throughout its life cycle (from the manufacturing stage through to recycling). The lithium used, the extra demand for electricity required in a fully electric world means that I am more inclined to favour, in the medium term, a green hydrogen solution. But that’s another article in the making!


[1] An excellent study by a blogger who owns a Nissan Leaf:

In French: https://vepassion.com/2019/12/21/lhiver-et-les-vehicules-electriques-partie-1/

[2] In French: https://www.neozone.org/innovation/a-30-ans-elle-developpe-une-batterie-pour-laeronautique-trois-fois-plus-legere-avec-une-duree-de-vie-doublee/

[3] In French: https://www.lesnumeriques.com/voiture/une-tesla-model-s-parcourt-un-million-de-kilometres-n144225.html

[4] In French: https://www.largus.fr/actualite-automobile/kilometrage-annuel-moyen-les-francais-roulent-de-moins-en-moins-6585392.html

[5] https://fr.chargemap.com/map

[6] In French: https://www.lesnumeriques.com/voiture/edf-supprime-la-majorite-des-bornes-de-recharge-du-reseau-corri-door-n147765.html

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