The sign on the side of the truck is simple yet evocative – “The Power of Dreams” it reads.
I’d been looking forward to EcoVelocity, London’s Low-Carbon Motor Festival. The choice of venue, the now defunct Battersea Power Station, was inspiring. I could picture the decaying edifice, a symbol of the once might of its smouldering furnaces, now nothing but a fossil, left for generations to wonder over. And there, emerging from the ruins would be living incarnations of the new era; cars and bikes, powered by clean, renewable energy and travelling through air fit for all to breathe.
Dreams, it transpires, do not always come true. For all the merit, hype and attention, the vast majority of the assembled ranks of hybrid and electric vehicle providers left me wondering just how seriously they, and government for that matter, are taking the challenges ahead.
The easy countenance to any such argument will be a pointer to the tens of millions of Euros, Yen and Pounds being spent on the development of alternative powertrains; and equally so, the funding originating from Whitehall for engineering initiatives and charging facilities. But it’s not a case of money, it’s the approach that concerns me.
If “the industry” is going to convince us to change our dirty habits, it needs to engage us and I’m afraid that I just didn’t get that from EcoVelocity. “Yes”, it was really easy for visitors to experience any of the available cars on the test track, but the sight of a dozen or more vehicles, whispering quietly along at a sedentary pace did nothing to arouse my interest. Neither did the approach of those recruited to champion the cause. This was not a fairground or a boot sale, yet at times, it resembled both.
If I was disappointed by what I was seeing, then I can only describe myself as infuriated by the “Supercar Paddock”. I would love to have talked about technologies and applications, and to discover how innovative British firms are carving their reputations on budgets a fraction of those enjoyed by the others.
What I saw was a large tented area enclosed by a futuristic white picket fence: Access was implicitly denied. To their credit, the guys from Lightning were happy to stand across the barrier and make the effort to discuss their GT, a car which, despite a significant price tag, I greatly admire. But this was the sum of the experience. No electric Westfield donutting; no Tesla whistling down the track; no LMP car full-stop.
The truly frustrating thing about this event is that key ingredients were in place to really make us think differently about our motoring. Over a dozen main manufacturers attended, though interestingly, of these, only Lexus and Volvo were there from the many premium brands who could have been.
Some of the key infrastructure providers were also attending, but strangely, many appeared to have sent their “trade show” hosts, with displays so sterile and uninviting that they were often by-passed in favour of side-attractions such as Honda’s electric model car racing. Only EDF made a credible attempt at showcasing how they work with EV consumers, but then I must ashamedly admit that our French cousins seem to understand this business far better than we do.
This reflected too in the calibre of offering from vehicle makers, yet it wasn’t Peugeot, Citroen or Renault who could claim the honours here. Oh no, in true Gallic fashion, this went to mia, the quirky, compact, all-electric micro-bus manufacturer. mia produce functional vehicles. They can transport three people, a pet and luggage, all in relative comfort, safety and ease, and all with that certain je ne sais quoi.
Already selling well in France, mia are now establishing their brand with the urban chic of Germany and are expecting to head across La Manche by February of next year. But like so many trend driven products, what looks good on paper might not be so endearing to us here in the UK. I asked about their plans for selling cars and perhaps more importantly, for servicing them. The company genuinely expects to sell 15,000 models per annum by 2012, of which 1,000, they believe, will find their way here.
Sales will be handled directly from a single source, whilst according to their representative, a service network will not be required . . . “There is nothing to go wrong” she told me! “Well things do go wrong” I countered, “and besides, accidents also happen”. With the squarest of reposts, the young lady smiled and opened her hands. “Then we will send a vehicle to recover it..” I suspect that mia might need to rethink some of their plans, but there’s just a possibility that the people buying into this concept will happily go along with anything, providing it’s said so expressively and in such sultry tones.
* The mia starts from £22,012.00 for the basic three-seat model; cat not included.
As far as the future for hybrid and electric vehicles is concerned, there’s no doubt that they’re here for the long-term, however, much still has to be done to encourage the motoring public to make the transition. Battery life and technology is improving continually and it won’t be long before distance and re-charge are no longer the barriers they currently present. But if we are to see a credible alternative to urban driving, then perhaps those responsible for our nation’s transport strategy need to consider how effective, not isolated, town and city-centre solutions can be delivered.
For all the political correctness that accompanies such thinking, the fact very starkly remains that we are generally creatures of comfort. Cost savings for fuel, taxes and charges are all a significant plus but most drivers will still prioritise the ability to get from A – B, to undertake their business, and then return with ease and in comfort as the most important aspect of their journey.
Ironically, in London, Mayor Johnson’s bike-hire scheme may just provide the inspiration required to convert us to low-carbon power. If planners can throw-away the rule book and bring mass low-cost charging / parking into key areas, allowing for a workable pay per journey car hire scheme, then who knows, maybe our future friends will be electric.