Electric Car S.O.C.: London
By Bill Moore
If you think the drop in sales of hybrids in America because of the recession is serious -- down more than 46% March 2009 over March 2008 -- talk to Lawrence Holland about electric car sales in London.
I did. It's "not brilliant" is how he puts it. In the first five months of the year, just 30 new electric cars have been registered in all of Britain.
But amidst the gloom there are some rays of hope, he reports. Holland manages Aixam Mega's operations in the UK. The French firm manufacturers quadracycle-class vehicles -- very small, light cars and trucks -- to the tune of 15,000 annually. Most of these are powered by small diesel or petrol (gasoline) engines, but 600 of them are electrically powered, with half of those destined for the United Kingdom and Lawrence Holland's operations. The remaining 300 are sold across the European Union.
Originally, another company called NICE (no internal combustion engine) Cars imported Mega's electric vehicles and sold them mainly to customers in London looking for a way get around the city inexpensively on electric power instead of quite dear petrol, while dodging London's punitive congestion charge of £8 per day.
Introduced in 2007, sales of the Mega City and Mega Truck were just beginning to take off when the housing bubble imploded in America, Europe and the UK. Sales of electric cars crashed, forcing NICE Cars into receivership, compelling Aixam Mega to assume the business. [NOTE: You can still buy cars through NICE Cars Company].
What Holland finds troubling is that with all the talk on the part of both the British government and Lord Mayor of London about providing serious incentives for the adoption of electric vehicles, little has been forthcoming. A significant part of the reason is because consumers appear to be waiting for more highway capable, plug-in vehicles from Mitsubishi (i-MiEV), Daimler (Smart EV) and GM/Vauxhall (Volt). While Gordon Brown's government has been talking about electric vehicle financial incentives, little seems to be making its way into the marketplace at the moment. Holland is a member of the London EV Partnership made up of various stakeholders, including the aforementioned large automotive OEMs. He explained that despite a serious lack of charging infrastructure -- there are only about 100 public charging points scattered around the city for as many as 1,600 electric vehicles, including G-Wiz electric cars, Smith Electric, Modec and Mega -- London borough councils have been slow to even request what funds are available to install public charging stations.
"What's needed are real incentives," he said. "London is completely congested. It took me three hours to drive 16 miles from south London to north London."
The kind of incentives he'd like to see added to those already available include giving electric cars access to bus lanes as they do in Oslo, and city-wide free parking. At present only the borough of Westminster provides free parking for electric cars.
"Noting is harmonized," he explained. Borough councils are self-funded so the Mayor, Boris Johnson, has less influence than might be imagined. The Lord Mayor is also starting to retreat from his predecessor's controversial congestion charge by shrinking the size of the zone.
"Today, Chelsea, where I am at, is inside the congestion zone, but next year it won't be." Holland speculates that Johnson is capitulating to political pressure to do away with the whole zone idea.
Not that the congestion charge system actually improved traffic in London. While the number of cars entering the city each day dropped by some 71,000, the average speed in the city rose only 1.5 mph to just 10 mph, the same as it was more than a century ago in Victoria London when travel was by horse-drawn carriage.
Holland worries that since manufacturers like Mitsubishi are so heavily dependent on taxpayer subsidies in Japan, where the $47,000US i-MiEV will receive the equivalent of nearly $15,000US in subsidies, what incentives will the UK government have to offer?
"Those of us in the quadracycle industry have to survive without those kinds of subsidies."
Amidst the general gloom, however, there are a few bright rays, Holland notes. Interest in Mega's Truck platform is starting to pick up in the public sector, he reports. Inquiries and test drives have begun to increase in the last two months. In order to help reduce their carbon footprint, local governments are looking to buy the small electric truck, which can be ordered in more than half-a-dozen configurations from a simple chassis to outfitted panel vans. Also, increasingly government contractors are being urged to start utilizing electric vehicles in their businesses in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Holland expects to sell 250 truck platforms this year, down from last year, but encouraging.
Have his Mega City car customers -- all 160 of them -- been pleased with their vehicles, I asked?
"The feed back has been generally positive," he responded. "They like the car because its nippy and small enough to park anywhere. It's really ideal for urban commutes where the average journey is five-to-ten miles."
Now if only it didn't take 2 hours to drive it.
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