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Electric vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) are cars or vans which use a rechargeable battery instead of, or alongside, a petrol or diesel internal-combustion engine (ICE). This means they are better for the environment as the carbon emissions associated with electricity are lower than those of petrol or diesel.

Government figures suggest that up to 36,000 people a year die from air pollution and that vehicle emissions are a significant factor.

The first mass-produced electric vehicle was introduced into the market in 2000, and since then most car manufacturers have released their own versions, with UK sales taking off around 2014. New car sales currently have a 2.5% share of the market, although electric vehicles still account for less than 1% of cars on UK roads. However this percentage is increasing year by year, so change is coming.

The number of registrations of plug-in electric cars by year (2012-18) is as follows:

  • (2012) 2,254
  • (2013) 3,586
  • (2014) 14,518
  • (2015) 28,183
  • (2016) 37,092
  • (2017) 49,182
  • (2018) 59,911

If the government’s plan to ban the sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 are effective, then children being born today may never drive a non-electric car.

This page covers the financial and environmental benefits electric vehicles can offer.

There are four main types of electric vehicle:

1) Battery electric vehicles

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are fully electric vehicles with rechargeable batteries only and no internal-combustion engine (ICE). They store electricity onboard with high-capacity battery packs.

The battery is charged through plugging in to an external source of electrical power, with a small amount also through regenerative braking (which means electricity is produced when you brake and is stored in the battery to be used later). The majority of BEVs have a driving range of 100 to 250 miles on a single charge, depending on the model.

2) Parallel hybrid vehicles

Parallel hybrid vehicles (PHVs) also called hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) have both internal combustion and electric motors, but are principally ICE vehicles and cannot be plugged into a charger. They carry a battery which is charged by the ICE when driving, allowing the car to be run on its electric motor at low speeds. Regenerative braking is also used to charge the battery.

A PHV battery only carries enough charge for 1-2 miles, before the ICE turns on.

3) Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles

Plug-in Hybrid Electric vehicles (PHEVs) are similar to HEVs, but there is also the option of using an external source of electrical power. This extends their range, meaning most models can go anywhere from 10 to 40 miles before the petrol or deisel engine takes over.

4) Range-extended EVs 

Range-extended EVs (REXs), also known as Series Hybrid vehicles, behave like BEVs, in so far as they run exclusively from an electric motor. However, a small ICE is available as an on-board generator to recharge the battery if required – although this never drives the vehicle directly.

Cleaner and quieter cars will make outdoor urban places a more pleasant place to play

Would an EV be suitable for me? 

There are three main considerations when determining what type of EV is the right choice: access to a charging point, daily mileage and overall budget.

If buying a pure-EV, for maximum convenience driving mileage needs to be limited to around 120 miles per day, preferably on regular routes. In general, BEVs are perfect for city-driving, commuting, regular routes, and all short to medium distance journeys. You should be aware that mileage range in the EVs specifications is often reduced when driving in real-world conditions.

In contrast, PHEVs and REXs offer longer range and greater fuel flexibility – permitting longer, more unpredictable journeys, as they can be charged directly using any suitable source of electricity or can be refuelled using petrol or diesel. However, they have smaller battery packs than pure-EVs, are more complex mechanically (so increased purchase and maintenance costs), and grants and tax breaks tend to be lower.

What are the costs?

EVs of all types tend to be more expensive to buy than their ICE equivalents, with most new BEV models in the £15,000-£30,000 range, and higher for PHEVs. To help with this the Government offers a grant for some new vehicles. The maximum grant is £3,500 and you do not need to apply for it, as it is already taken off the sale value. Grants do not apply to hybrid vehicles since to qualify a car needs to have a range of at least 70 miles and CO2 emissions of less than 50g/km.

To help reduce the upfront price you could look at a finance scheme for the car, as with ICE vehicles. Some manufacturers also offer EV battery leasing as an option, although this is becoming less common as the market develops, with cars dropping in price and batteries proving themselves as reliable. Leasing will cut the upfront cost of a new car by £5000-£6000, and it can also be an attractive option if buying a used car since it means you don’t have to worry about long term battery deterioration. Rental costs are based on estimated mileage, and sometimes contract length, and roadside assistance and recovery is usually included. If you sell your vehicle, your obligation will cease and the new owner starts a new agreement based on their estimated mileage.

Batteries will deteriorate in the longer term, but with good battery care you are likely to get at least 100,000 miles before you notice any drop in capacity, with older batteries still typically maintaining 80%-90% of their original capacity. As an indicator your warranty tends to be between 50,000-100,000 miles and 8-10 years. It is uncommon for batteries to need replacing, which happens when capacity drops to 75% (if you lease your battery this would be done for free).

Electric vehicles: the benefits

Saving money

Once you have bought them EVs have lower running costs than ICE vehicles. Fuel costs drop by around 70% when you can charge at home, particularly if you have access to an off-peak overnight electricity tariff. On average, an EV costs 3-4p/mile compared to 12-15p/mile for petrol or diesel, and there are online calculators that allow you to compare specific models of car.

Most of the maintenance and repair costs associated with an ICE are eliminated (i.e. no oil changes, expensive exhaust systems, or gear-box repairs). This is because EVs have fewer components that require maintenance, making servicing and repairs simpler and cheaper than for conventional cars.

BEVs are exempt from vehicle tax, potentially removing a three-figure sum from annual car running costs. PHEVs have to pay the same rate as petrol or diesel drivers, but they are eligible for a £10 annual Alternative Fuel Discount.

Depending on where you live you might also save on parking or congestion charges. In London, for example, an eligible EV registered with the Congestion Charge scheme could save around £2,000 a year. In some other places EVs have free or discounted parking.

The environment

Even if your vehicle was to be fuelled exclusively by electricity generated by coal, EVs have a better emissions profile than ICE vehicles because they use less fuel overall. However, the electricity that powers EVs actually comes from many sources, including low-emission sources like natural gas and renewables (which are increasing each year), enabling EVs to dramatically reduce emissions that cause air pollution and helping lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The location and timing of the EVs emissions are generally better as well. While ICE vehicles often emit pollution during peak driving hours in the middle of the city, the emissions from fuelling an EV generally happen overnight at power plants in remote locations. Better air quality in cities means less health problems and other issues caused by air pollution.

Electric cars are much quieter than petrol or diesel cars, particularly at low speed. While reduced noise makes built up areas more pleasant to be in and has health benefits for everyone, it does mean there are safety issues from near-silent cars in residential areas. Typically electric cars are designed to emit  an artificial engine sound while driving at low speeds, for the benefit of other road users like pedestrians and cyclists.

The environmental impact of building EVs is higher than ICE vehicles, due mainly to battery production and the rare earth metals used, but over its whole lifetime an EV car is better for the environment. The environmental impact can be improved by responsible sourcing or developing alternatives to rare earth metal and by recycling batteries, such converting them for home energy storage. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions these are currently around 25% lower than ICE vehicles, and this could rise to 70% as more renewables enter the energy mix. There is also a trend towards eco-friendly production and materials for EVs, with some model’s bodywork and interior being made fully or partially from recycled materials.

How do you charge an EV?

EV chargers are classified according to the power output of the electricity connection, and therefore the speed with which they recharge an EV battery. The classifications are Level 1, 2 and 3. All EVs can charge at Level 1 or Level 2, but not all at Level 3. It depends partly on what type of on-board charger has been fitted, and the battery capacity – in general larger batteries are more likely to require rapid charging. Knowing your vehicle’s capabilities is therefore important.

  • Level 1 (Slow chargers) generally use a standard household outlet to plug into the electric vehicle. They provide power at around 3kW, and usually take 6 to 12 hours for a pure EV or 2-4 hours for a PHEV. This is done typically at home or at the workplace. 
  • Level 2 (Fast chargers) provide power from 7kW to 22kW. These are usually found at workplaces and public charging stations, and can also be installed at home. They take about 4 hours to charge an EV battery. 
  • Level 3 (Rapid chargers) are currently the fastest charging solution in the market, and will charge the majority of compatible EVs to 80% in around 30-60minutes. They are found at dedicated EV charging stations, in places like service stations and car parks. They are of two types - AC or DC. Current Rapid AC chargers are rated at 43kW while most Rapid DC units are at least 50kW. Tesla Superchargers are also Rapid DC and charge at 120kW.

EV chargers also come with different connection socket types. When charging at a new location check it has an option that suits your car. Some charging points will already have a connection cable, and at others you will need to use the cable(s) supplied with the vehicle. In some cases it is possible to use an adaptor, if needed.

Home charging

EVs can technically be charged using an existing three-pin socket, but because of the higher current demand and the amount of time the socket will be used, for safety it is recommended you get a dedicated EV charging unit installed by an accredited installer. These come as slow (3kW) or fast (7kW) units, and usually the householder will only have to pay a fraction of the cost and may be offered a home charger for free. This is because of subsidies offered by the government and car dealers, or as part of EV energy tariff deals. Any install cost the householder does have to pay will typically pay back very quickly, as it is estimated you can halve your electricity costs by charging at home rather than relying on public charging. 

The government’s Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme applies to eligible cars and provides up to £500 towards the install cost  (a charging unit costs around £1,000 to install by a qualified electrician). The grant is capped at £500 and one grant per vehicle (and two charging points per household). There are certain criteria, including being the named user of the car, having suitable off-street parking facilities and using an approved installer. Visit the Office of Low Emission Vehicles website for more details.

EVs and charging units can also be digitally connected, allowing you to control charging from a smartphone app.

On-street charging

Public charging points are being installed at a rapid rate, but electric charging infrastructure is still limited in some places.

If you are parking somewhere for any length of time check if there is a charging point and the network that operates it (see network box). Doing this regularly will keep your vehicle topped up, extending your range for local driving. To see what is available nearer your home either check the maps or speak to your local council.

The On-street Residential Chargepoint Scheme provides funding to local authorities to improve local charging facilities, so even if there are no current charging points the council may be planning to install some, and you will help them forecast demand. Some councils are using lamppost charging, which allows 2-3 cars to charge at a time, or pop-up chargers which reduce the amount of street furniture, while other councils have approved private kerbside chargers that use the householder’s electricity supply.

Public charging networks

There are a wide variety of charging networks in the UK, which operate their own chargepoints. However, since November 2018 all public chargepoints should be accessible to anyone. This means you can pay-as-you-go with any charging network you use, although you may need to download the relevant app. If you use a certain network frequently, though, obtaining membership may mean you have access to lower rates.

There are various websites and phone apps to help you find out where the charge points are. Our favourite is Open Charge Map, a non-commercial EV data service. There's also ZapMap, a leading charging point platform, and Carwow, a car price comparison website. All of these show all charging stations in the UK and whether they are working or not. There are plenty of other EV charging apps out there, and you should do your own research to find one to suit you.

EV Energy Tariffs 

Charging your EV at home is cheaper than paying for petrol or diesel, but you will see your electricity bill increase. If you charge at home regularly you should consider some of the new tariffs energy companies have introduced specifically for EV owners.

These tariffs work similar to Economy 7, in that they have cheaper overnight unit rates, which is when the majority of EVs are charged. The tariffs often have additional benefits, such as a renewable energy promise, a discounted home charge point, free EV miles as credit or membership to a public charging network.

What impacts on driving range? 

Cold weather  

Battery cells rely on a series of chemical reactions which are slowed down by cold weather, meaning EVs have a reduced range in winter. Most  manufacturers tend to be upfront about this and provide calculations for reduced range at different temperatures, and most models of EV are fitted with a battery heater to help minimise it.

In cold weather, if you pre-heat the car interior before unplugging the charger, this will also help. But bear in mind that keeping the heating on while driving can reduces your range by 10-30%, with the impact being less over long journeys (the same is true for the air conditioning). To counteract this, many models of EV have an eco-mode which typically gains you a few extra miles through increased efficiency, although makes acceleration a little slower.

If you’re worried and you typically take long journeys you might want to consider a PHEV or REX rather than a pure-EV, but for regular shorter trips just make sure that you keep the battery topped up.

Battery size  

A commonly stated reason why EV ownership is low is that EVs don’t have enough driving range, and it is why some manufactures are packing in giant battery packs capable of 300miles on a single charge.

However, an unintended consequence of this is the environmental impact when you look at the lifecycle of the car. This is alongside taking into account the larger weight and longer charge times. It is estimated, though, that over the next few years battery technology will improve, allowing for smaller batteries with increased range.

More important is a change in attitude towards driving. Most people will be travelling on journeys within the capacity of their battery, and just need to create a mindset of charging little and often. Longer journeys will need some advance planning on where to top-up, which is becoming easier as the public charging network expands.


In general you should anticipate further ahead and avoid harsh acceleration and harsh braking. EVs have a surprising fast acceleration, although, as you’d expect, driving uphill requires more energy than driving on the flat. Driving downhill will conserve or even generate energy through regenerative braking.

Regenerative braking means the vehicle brakes automatically as soon as the acceleration ceases, as it causes the motor to operate in reverse. This both slows the wheels and also means the motor becomes a generator, transferring kinetic energy into electricity for the battery. Regenerative brakes only provide a certain amount of stopping power, meaning that traditional brakes are still needed, but less often. Energy recapture through regenerative braking is around 10% through normal driving and up to 30% on descents.

But they're still cars ...

While an electric car has many benefits over a conventional ICE vehicle, it is still a car, with many of the issues involved with this form of transportation.

Electric cars still contribute to congestion, road accidents, parking demand and the dominance of roads in city centres. Also, as mentioned above, they still have an environmental impact. If you need a car then consider an electric one, but where possible it is still preferable to use a form of public transport or cycle.

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