Electric Deception

I know that Top Gear only has two kinds of review; serious reviews of fantastically fast cars, or making an utter mockery of themselves and everything else. I watch and like Top Gear for that very reason. I don’t like cars much; I like the comedy and the messing around. And I know that Clarkson has to keep up his appearance of generally hating any effort to halt climate change. As you would expect, electric cars don’t come across very well on this show. Historically electric cars have been small and weedy, AND they are less harmful to the environment. Of course they aren’t going to like them.

So I know that it is pointless to write this criticism, but I can’t not write it. Not for the first time, their dislike has gone beyond entertainment and into the realms of lying to their viewers to seriously damage the take-up of electric cars.

The review was introduced and for the most part presented as a serious review. Introduced in a typical Top Gear fashion:

“Now the fact is that the electric car is very much with us. You can actually go into a dealership and simply buy one. But the big question is, should you? What are the pitfalls, what are the advantages?”

“To find out, James and I decided to do a sensible test. No cocking about, no catching fire, no Richard Hammond.”

The cars tested were the Nissan Leaf and the Peugot iOn. At the start of the review we were treated to genuine comments on the cars, which came across well.

When it came to price, it was correctly pointed out that both cars cost roughly twice as much as equivalent petrol driven cars. What was not mentioned was the fact that taking into account the vast difference in fuel prices, the electric cars would be far more economical over the lifetime of the car.

Even worse, Clarkson was very wrong about the cost of charging. The most expensive daytime electricity is provided to those that use “Economy 7” meters, where off-peak (overnight) electricity is very cheap indeed at about 5 pence per unit, but peak electricity is correspondingly more expensive.  Assuming that a completely flat battery would be charged purely on peak time electricity, it would cost about £2.50. (Source: LlewBlog) Clarkson stated that it could cost £8.30. I challenge Top Gear to tell us exactly how it could cost that much. Anyway, for the most part, people will drive their cars in the day and charge up overnight, at an approximate cost of £1.50.

It should also be noted that for the most part electric cars will need far less maintenance than cars with combustion engines as they have far fewer moving parts. They will however need replacement batteries after between three and ten years.

The review actually went wrong as soon as the choice of test was made: a trip to the seaside. Electric cars are limited by their batteries. The cars being tested have a range of about 100 miles, and take up to about 12 hours to recharge from empty. This is a widely known problem, fully acknowledged by the manufacturers. These cars are not intended for long distance trips. What they are perfectly suited for is the school run, shopping trips, and commuting to work within 30 miles or so, and then recharging the batteries overnight. And this isn’t as big a limitation as it sounds, since the manufacturers have done their research and most journeys are of this short range category. By setting the task of a long distance day trip, Top Gear have immediately taken the cars far outside of their intended use. Perhaps this would be acceptable if they said as much, but they didn’t. And it isn’t possible that Clarkson or May or the producers don’t know what they have done there.

At the current time, cars like those tested are ideal for people that commute to work in them, perhaps in the next town, that use their car for shopping and for getting around locally. It will quickly become a habit to plug the car in on arrival at home, charge it up on cheap off-peak electricity, then unplug it in the morning before setting off. In the rare event of a longer distance journey, fast chargers are beginning to appear at motorway service stations and so the car can be recharged in a half hour break in the journey. At the moment the use of charging points away from home requires planning, and no one is denying it. In the same way that people plan to stop at a filling station when they know their journey is longer than the range of their petrol car, people will have to plan to stop at a charging station for long journeys in their electric car. That the Top Gear team did not plan their journey appropriately shows a deliberate effort to mislead.

Top Gear are allowed to dislike electric cars. They are allowed to think that hydrogen powered cars are better. (They aren’t, but that’s just my opinion.) But they are misleading their viewers. They:

  • Did not properly compare the lifetime costs, only the purchase price
  • Mislead over the cost of charging
  • Did not test the cars in their intended use, nor state that they were not using the car as intended
  • Deliberately did not plan their long journey around a charging stop, despite knowing the range of the cars
This is on top of all the other occasions when they have deliberately mislead about the capabilities of electric cars, including the episode in which they faked an empty battery on a Tesla car, for which they are currently being sued.

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

15 thoughts on “Electric Deception”

  1. Given the price of petrol round Chipping Norton, maybe electricity is more expensive too?

  2. Steve, I’m gonna have to disagree with you on this one. I don’t know about the cost of electricity, they may have overstated it, but I think the point that they were making was when comparing the cost of ‘leccy with a VW Polo BlueMotion (~600 miles range, 60mpg) diesel, there is less difference in fuel than you might think. 

    Also, I don’t think you can dismiss spending £7k on a battery after 5-10 years. That’s not to mention the fact that during that time the car will lose range because that’s what happens with current batteries. 100 miles range new is not going to equate to 100 miles range after a few years.

    I think the point Top Gear were trying to make, in a nutshell, is that electric cars – as in, electric cars that you can go out and buy today – are impractical for a lot of people. Sure, most people do short trips (commuting etc) – but then most people do longer trips from time to time as well. And a lot of people can’t afford to run two cars. So the choices are to either buy an electric car and run a petrol/diesel engine car for when you need it (which a lot of people probably couldn’t afford), or just buy the petrol/diesel car only – which would last for a lot longer without suffering any of the problems associated with current day batteries.

    I think that was the basic point that Top Gear were making. Electric cars do have their uses and I don’t think they were against them in principle, I just honestly think they’re not going to be practical for a large part of the car-driving population.

    Although it’s not about a Top Gear review, this article on The Register has some interesting points: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/01/18/bbc_tesla_edinburgh_e_car_shenanigans/

    1. If their point is that commercial electric cars are not yet any good at long distance travel and if you need that you shouldn’t buy one, I would agree. It’s the deceptive way in which they tried to make electric cars look really bad and _completely_ useless that I object to. They’re great for an awful lot of people, and perhaps some of the others should consider a combination of an electric car for local travel and trains for long distances.

  3. as someone who lives in Lincoln I found it odd that shortly after the local newspaper ran a story that the County Council were looking at getting a grant to install outdoor fast charging points in the future (2014 or something), that Top Gear would take a drive to the Lincolnshire coast. Surely it’s just a coincidence.

    I was hoping that they would mention what the range was, instead they started somewhere near London (possibly), drove along the A46 (did they go up the M1 or A1) and ran out in Lincoln. As someone who on occasions makes the opposite drive to visit family it would have been a useful measure.

  4. Robert Llewellyn’s take on Top Gear is worth reading. http://llewblog.squarespace.com/electric-cars/2011/8/2/assault-on-batteries.html

    I also note that Nissan will refurbish battery packs, so the replacement costs are not a big issue, while maintenance costs for petrol cars are much higher than for electric ones.

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