Electric cars: my first time behind the wheel
By Jayne Wade Wednesday 14 April 2021
OVO writer and EV novice, Jayne Wade
“Oh no, we’re going to have to buy a car!” – a minor detail we hadn’t considered in our big move to Bristol. I’ve always avoided owning one, worried about the emissions and the costs. But moving out of Central London, it was looking increasingly likely. How would we cope without the capital’s amazing transport system?
Luckily, in our little corner of Bristol there is a thriving car club scene. So the tricky decision-making process of “cheaper fossil fuel car” versus “pricier electric car” never had to play out. Working at OVO alongside a bunch of electric car experts, I feel lucky to have a fairly decent knowledge of EVs. I’m aware that electric cars end up pretty much paying for themselves in the long run. And I know that, while it feels frustrating now, the cost of buying one will eventually fall: as battery tech improves, manufacturers ramp up production, and the second-hand market expands.
But, on the flip side I’m a consumer too. I totally understand how the price tag can seem daunting when the tech seems so new. And for now at least, it seems the cost of buying an electric car is too steep for us. That’s why I’ve been spurred on to join a green car club."
Car clubs are a great way to get familiar with electric cars
Whether you’re thinking about buying one, or just want to know what all the fuss is about, joining a car club is a fab way to get started. It’s a bit like taking an electric car for an extended test drive! And they’re especially good if, like me, you live in a city and don’t need a car on tap. Plus, they’re much greener and cheaper than driving around in (or buying a new) fossil fuel car.
So what are the benefits of car clubs?
As it happens, there are plenty. You completely avoid car tax, insurance, upkeep, MOTs, or any running costs. And, of course, you needn’t jostle with the neighbours over parking spots – bonus! Some 2019 research suggests that London motorists driving no more than 2,000 miles a year could save £1,000 a year by offloading their own car and joining a car club instead.
You’re also sharing the carbon emissions created when the car was made with all the other club members. According to Enterprise Car Club, car club cars produce 43% fewer CO2 from tailpipe emissions than the average car. It's a positive impact that’s amplified by the fact each club car displaces 10.5 private cars and defers 12 private car purchases (which is certainly what’s happened with me!). This means the more car club wheels that hit the road the fewer cars there are on roads overall, improving air quality and congestion.
The low-down on car club practicalities
If you’ve not tried a car club yet, they’re really easy to use – and becoming increasingly popular (there’s over 25,000 members in the UK). Usually you pay a monthly membership fee (we pay £5 a month). Then you download an app which allows you to book your car by the hour. The car club electric cars I use are always parked in the same reserved place (hello, VIP parking spot). And they’re plugged in and charged up when you collect them.
So far I’ve only driven one model, a Renault Zoe. But I’ve really enjoyed the feeling of learning about something new, and been impressed by how effortless they are to drive. The club that serves our area is Co-wheels. They operate in over 45 UK locations: from big cities like Glasgow and London to smaller spots like Frome, Orkney and Lewes. And because they’re a social enterprise, they’re not for profit, which I love.
With each drive, I’m learning more about EVs. And it’s even shifting my position on whether we need to buy one at all. Perhaps car sharing is the future for us? Of course, it won’t suit everyone. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool car lover the idea of sharing one might fill you with horror – and that’s fair enough. I’m speaking as someone whose relationship with cars is purely functional. Like fridges or cookers, I need them but you’ll never see me lust after them (sorry, Elon).
Here are 7 things I’ve learned as an electric car beginner...
1. Obvious when you think about it, but they’re all automatics!
EVs have motors not engines (of course!) so they’re all automatics. I’d only driven an automatic once – on holiday in the US 10 years ago – so my first trip got off to a slow start as I sat in the driver’s seat, anxiously searching on my phone to remind myself what the letters on the gear stick (P,R, N, and D) stand for. (Yes, it’s laughable that I had to look this up, but for the record it’s Parking, Reverse, Neutral, and Drive.)
This little episode sums up my first encounter with an EV perfectly. I was nervous and unprepared. But it’s testament to how easy they are that 3 or 4 drives later, I’m a convert.
It turns out that 2 pedals are (predictably) much simpler than 3. Plus, without a clutch to worry about, you wave goodbye to stalling, or any embarrassing crunching of the gears. In short: I’m a MUCH better driver when I’m behind the wheel of an EV.
2. The dashboard display shows you the charge levels of your car battery
This includes how many miles the charge will get you, among other things. Despite electric cars being so new and cool, once you’re inside they’re pretty much the same as fossil fuel cars. It’s only the little things that feel different. I particularly love the sci-fi-like “brrr-ing” noise the Renault Zoe makes when it bursts into life.
3. It’s easy to plug and unplug an electric car
My experience here is limited to car clubs, but unplugging involves tapping a plastic charge card on the charging machine on the road. This stops the car being charged and releases the charger, so you can pull it out. Similarly, a button by the steering wheel releases the lock that connects the other end to the car.
You do need to concentrate a little to begin with. I’ve forgotten the order you do things a few times. But just like the time I learned to fill up at a petrol station, aged 17, what felt odd at first has quickly become instinctive.
4. Electric cars don’t growl aggressively, they hum softly
One of the first things that struck me was how quiet it was to drive. Rather than the growl of a fossil fuel engine, you hear a serene low-level hum: a combination of the electric engine and the ambient noise of tyres on road. Where I live there are lots of electric cars and vans driving around now, so even as a pedestrian my ears have tuned into this subtle sound.
Many of us have clocked how towns and cities have become so peaceful through these weird Covid times. Nature’s subtler notes: birdsong, bees, and trees shivering in the wind have been turned up loud for us. I just really hope the electric rollout picks up pace, so we don’t mindlessly accept the old way of being, where the natural world is drowned out by combustion engines.
5. It's good to read the manual, first
Before I got behind the wheel of an electric car, I’d never driven a car with an “eco button” before. It’s basically an energy-saving function and it’s good to use when cruising at low speeds through a city – but definitely NOT when motorway driving. I discovered this in one of those “you’ll laugh about it later” moments when I attempted to overtake a lorry uphill on the M32 and realised I couldn’t accelerate beyond 59 mph.
None of us will ever read a car manual line-for-line. Some quick swotting before you hit the road is sensible, though.
6. Remember to stow your charger safely in the boot
It turns out that these sausage-like charging cables are quite pricey. Stowing them in the boot or on the back seat is a must, because if you leave them on the street, they might get stolen. Thankfully, I did read this much before driving off.
7. Electric cars please 3-year olds and 94-year olds equally!
To be fair, any car with a stereo equipped to handle the Frozen soundtrack on repeat is a winner with my 3-year old daughter. But she loves our drives in “lectric car”. And at the other generational end of things, my 94-year old Nan is also a fan. When I dropped some Christmas presents off for her (at a social distance), she was blown away by the tech and wanted to know exactly how it all works.
I guess what I’ve discovered over the past few months is that electric cars really can be for all of us. Yes, the cost of buying one outright may still not be accessible. But with more and more of us opting to use car clubs like Co-wheels, surely it won’t be long until we’re all able to enjoy a little slice of this amazing green tech…
Not yet tried one? Why not put it on your to-do list this year? (After hugging all your relatives, of course.)
Jayne and her daughter enjoying the EV lifestyle
Want to find out more about electric cars? Check out some of our other EV articles:
Are electric cars really better for the environment?
Running costs of an EV: how much it costs to buy, charge and run.
Smart EV charging: how it works and why you need a smart EV charger.
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