Car friends electric?

In charge: Transport Minister Norman Baker and David Martell of Chargemaster at this week's launch

In charge: Transport Minister Norman Baker and David Martell of Chargemaster at this week's launch

First published in News Herald Series: Photograph of the Author by , covering business. Call me on 01865 425433

The case for buying an electric car for anyone living in or near Oxford became a good deal stronger this week.

Transport Minister Norman Baker unveiled a plan to make the city Europe’s leader in promoting electric cars — with more charge points per head of population than anywhere else.

Speaking at a launch ceremony at Rhodes House this week, he said: “This scheme puts Oxford in pole position to lead the country in introducing electric cars.”

Chargemaster, one of the world’s largest developers of charge points for e-cars, has already installed 40 of its so-called POLAR charge points in and around the city and will install another 24 in a matter of weeks, at a cost of £5,000 each.

The company also plans to install another 50 charging points in Oxford’s surrounding area over the next 12 months, and another 100 will be installed within 40 minutes’ drive of the city.

The programme will mean the city and its immediate environs will, in the next couple of weeks, have 64 charge points, which translates as one for every 2,500 people — a better ratio than any other European city.

On top of that, during the next month, the city will also see the start of a new electric car sharing club. It will be run by Hertz On Demand, a division of car rental company Hertz and will initially consist of 10 electric Nissan Leaf cars being parked in strategic bays around the city for the use of members.

Membership will be free and hire charges £5 an hour. Joining the club can be completed online, as can booking your car.

Then you simply pass your membership card over the radio-frequency identification reader (RFID) on the car’s windscreen, and set off.

Drivers will also find a card in the car giving them access to all the new charging points now being installed around the city.

Neil Cunningham, general manager of Hertz UK, said: “The hire cars will be in university campuses such as Oxford Brookes, at the station, in major employers’ car parks, supermarkets and in other strategic locations in the city centre and surrounding areas.

“The city council have allotted three locations but we shall only start up when we have at least five. We expect that will be in the next month.”

David Martell, chief executive of Chargemaster, the company installing the charge points at a cost of about £5,000 each, said: “We see this as an ideal way to introduce people to the joys of using electric cars and so we are delighted to be working in partnership with Hertz.”

He added that Oxford had been selected as the hub of UK electric car development because of its central position in the nation and because students and academics are seen as good potential customers for e-cars.

Also Chargemaster received support and help from the Oxford Electric Vehicle Partnership led by Oxford Brookes University and from both the city and county councils, which invested time in the project but not money.

Mr Martell, who said that Chargemaster was funded by about 30 private backers, added: “In the long term we aim to make our money from charging about £10 a month for access to our charge points and then £1 a charge.”

But what are the pros and cons of electric cars?

Environmental expert and author Chris Goodall, who lives in North Oxford, said: “They are the future. The internal combustion engine is on the way out. The drawbacks at the moment are the initial cost and their limited range. But plans like Hertz On Demand and the POLAR network will begin to overcome these.”

Other plus points include the fact that running costs are only about 15 per cent of petrol-powered rivals, with a full charge giving up to 100 miles driving, costing about £2.

Also e-cars pay no road tax or London congestion charge, though naturally the Government — faced with declining motor tax revenue — will soon be forced to review that situation if e-cars ever became mainstream transport for too many of us.

On the downside, an electric car typically costs about £25,000 to buy including a £5,000 subsidy from the Government.

The charging process takes at least 20 minutes, even at the fastest points (or as long as overnight if you charge the car in your own garage at home).

But manufacturers clearly see a future in electric vehicles.

Nissan manufactures about 50,000 Leafs a year, and other mainstream companies, including BMW, are gearing up to introduce another 25 models over the next two years.

So, for the time being at least, if you live in or near Oxford there is a strong case for buying an e-car — if you can afford the initial cost.

You will also, according to the Transport Minister, be helping the nation in its drive towards a low-carbon future. Mr Baker said: “We can create growth and at the same time cut carbon.”

Be that as it may, I can attest that driving e-cars is fun, having once got behind the wheel of an experimental electric Mini.

I left much larger and more-powerful looking cars standing as I pulled silently away.

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