Together in electric dreams: the Irish automotive industry goes green

5 Mar 2009

Can electric cars and motorbikes power their way to the top of the automobile market?

Electric cars – a nice concept, but not really something you would take seriously? Think again. With the automobile industry seriously affected by the global economic downturn, and the next generation staring down the barrel of a disappearing oil industry, more R&D than ever is being pumped into creating the perfect electric automobile.

The Reva electric car has been available for just over a year. So far, while purchasers have mostly been early adopters, Olivier Vander Elst, the  director of Reva’s Irish distributors GreenAer,  says there is scope for great growth if the Government takes advantage of going electric.

“We are now living in challenging times; people don’t have the same access to credit, and motor loans are not as easy to come by as they were before.

“This is an opportunity for the Government to encourage the switch to electric transport by offering incentives such as subsidies,” he explains.

Vander Elst points to the recent announcement by London mayor Boris Johnson to look into establishing a working group to make the city ‘the electric capital of Europe’, a scheme similar to the mooted car-for-rent plans in Paris by 2010.

“In order to really make the concept of the electric commuter car take off, there must be an incentive, such as taking the price base down or providing people with the ability to charge their car in certain parts of town and also on the streets at night.

“If Dublin introduces a congestion charge as London has done, then exempting electric cars such as the Reva would help uptake.”

As far as savings go for those considering an electric car for the daily commute from satellite towns into Dublin city, Vander Elst says drivers could save €50 per week in fuel charges, depending on distance travelled, because the cost of electricity to charge the vehicle is quite low.

Another significant financial drain for the petrol or diesel car is the cost of check-ups, oil changes and so on. However, as an electric car like the Reva has very few moving parts, check-ups need not be half as frequent, and its battery-life clocks in at about 3.5 years.

While research is being carried out into developing long-haul electric cars with greater speeds, for now the typical electric car is the equivalent of a low-speed urban commuter car, so it is not for everyone’s needs, Vander Elst explains.

“The Reva is designed for specific needs; commuter runs, school runs and so on. It is not designed for long journeys but, naturally, the benefits include the feel-good factor of not polluting the air.”

One unusual aspect of the Reva is the almost complete lack of noise: “The experience of very low noise is sometimes confusing for those new to the Reva, but it makes it perfect for a city environment as it lowers noise pollution.”

So what about petrol heads who want to experience a decent, robust and powerful motorcycle experience, but dismiss the electric motorcycle as a mere scooter?

“Bikers will walk past the Vectrix motorcycle in our showroom, do a double-take and come back to have a second look,” says Robert Noland, managing director of Green Machines, the Irish distributor of the Vectrix.

When leather-clad bikers take an interest in a 400cc-equivalent electric bike, you know it is serious and appeals to more than those simply looking for an environmentally friendly, lightweight scooter, explains Noland.

And the downturn appears to have had no effect on the level of interest in the Vectrix: “We had our best year last year, and that was at the start of the recession. For 2009, we expect sales to pick up at the start of the motorcycle season.”

The Vectrix range of electric bikes have a 10-year lifespan and power on in three seconds flat. The vehicle is charged up through a normal three-pin socket, so it is just like plugging in your mobile phone, Noland explains, and it charges in the same amount of time: 2.5 hours.

“We have customers who drive from places like Kildare. They reach their place of work in Dublin city centre and just plug the Vectrix in when they get there.

“Professionals, including doctors, are beginning to buy these bikes. They can do their rounds easily and charge the Vectrix wherever they need to,” he adds.

Much like the Reva electric car, aside from the fact you are driving a carbon-neutral vehicle, the main benefit of these bikes is the pay-off in terms of savings.

“To keep the bike charged up year-round costs about €200, which represents a saving

of between €1500-2000 per annum, and apart from checking tyres and brakes, there is no maintenance,” says Noland.

Taking into account that your electricity is coming from coal and fossil fuel, 21g of CO2/km is produced by a Vectrix bike, whereas the best hybrid car on the market produces around 120g of CO2/km.

Looking into the future, Noland sees exponential growth for the electric-vehicles market, especially given the drive for clean electricity: “If you buy your electricity through Airtricity you will be 98pc carbon-neutral, and the ESB is also looking to generate more power from carbon-neutral sources.”

For the automobile industry, the future is looking bright, and electric.