Some readers will know me as a classic enthusiast. Our newest car before we bought the LEAF was a 1990 Mercedes. This came about less out of nostalgia for the past and more from my inability to see any step forward in car design sufficiently big to justify replacing what we already owned. Manufacturers love to boast of “clean sheet designs” but this professional engineer begs to differ. Reasonably enough, manufacturers change what you can see and leave what you can't see alone so far as they can: it's known to work reliably and it saves the cost of re-tooling. Looked at upside down, almost any current vehicle looks nearly identical to its predecessor, predecessor-but-one, predecessor-but-two...
Until now. At last, there is real progress. The LEAF, the Tesla Model S and the BMW i3 and i8 have almost certainly emerged from the motor industry's cleanest sheets of paper since the Citroën DS in 1955. It's an exciting time to be interested in automotive engineering. I find that I am following developments in the industry for the first time since my teens.
One of the most vocal industry critics of battery electric cars is Toyota, which seems a shame given their pioneering work with the Prius. Toyota have backed fuel cell technology instead, and have just introduced their first fuel cell car, the Mirai, in Japan and California. Although fuel cells are inherently less efficient than battery cars, the hydrogen tank can be filled as quickly as a petrol tank. Toyota reason that customers won't be willing to change their habits to accommodate the long charge times required by a battery car.
With apologies to Toyota, we have had no difficulty at all in adapting our habits. It has certainly been a pleasure to get out of the habit of visiting a petrol station every few days. We were advised that we would want to have a fast charger installed at home, a task roughly comparable to installing a cooker point. However, we have found a normal 13A socket to be perfectly adequate. We put the car on charge every two or three days on arriving home, and more often than not it is fully charged before we go to bed. The LEAF draws about 10 amps when charging, so our home wiring and socket are not stressed right to the limit.
We have become accustomed to using public chargers whenever they are available, not least because they are usually free, funded by either government incentives or the philanthropy of Dale Vince of Ecotricity. Imagine BP handing out free petrol! Shopping in Letchworth or Hitchin? Leave the car on charge in the multi-storey. It solves a parking problem as well as a charging problem.
The LEAF has a realistic range of about 90 miles under most circumstances, so it is uncomfortable to attempt more than 80 without recharging. Longer journeys are possible with some planning. We have become used to organising journeys around Ecotricity's network of rapid chargers, which are installed at almost all motorway service areas and at every IKEA. To visit family in Derby, charge at Leicester Forest East on the way there and Watford Gap on the way back. For customers in Dudley, use Watford Gap and Frankley. For an evening in Oxford, charge at Beaconsfield both ways. We have also devised some range rules of thumb. 80% charge is fine to get home comfortably from either Watford Gap or Beaconsfield. 40% is plenty from South Mimms. We thought we would use the LEAF for local journeys, with our faithful Mercedes ready for longer runs. Instead, whoever is going further on any day will take the LEAF.
We live in the age of the two-car family: there are 26 million households in the UK and 32 million cars. Several of our friends seem sufficiently impressed by the LEAF, or at least intrigued, to consider going electric the next time round. While they are mulling this over, the charging network will expand and the range of the cars will increase. Perhaps, like us, they will buy one as a second car and find that they use it as their first car? I wonder how many combustion-engined cars will be sold ten years from now?