The arrival of Tesla in Ireland is just one of the signs that the electric vehicles market looks set to go into overdrive, reports Philip Connolly.
In July last year, under the Californian sun, Dan Kiely saw the future. The co-founder and chief executive of the Irish outsourcing provider Voxpro, Kiely was at a meeting in Silicon Valley when he first spotted the glistening BMW i8.
The futuristic styling was striking, but Kiely was more mesmerised by the technology under the hood of the hybrid supercar, which is jointly powered by an electric motor and a turbo-charged petrol engine. For a self-confessed petrolhead, it was love at first sight.
Back home in Ireland, he bought his own electric-blue i8, making him a highly visible part of a lesser-spotted community: the Irish electric car owner. Kiely’s car, which retails at just shy of €150,000, is never likely to be a mass-market choice but, a year on, he is an evangelist for electric vehicles (EVs).
“The number of people driving around our business campus in Cork in electric cars is increasing to the point that we are putting in charge points,” said Kiely. “It is something that is only going to increase into the future.”
Kiely’s enthusiasm got a boost last week, with reports that Tesla, the electric car maker headed by the billionaire Elon Musk, will open an Irish store and EV charging stations next year. The company is tight-lipped on its exact plans but has confirmed it is “looking for opportunities and recruiting talents in Ireland”.
Tellingly, Tesla is running a test drive event in Ireland in December for its Model S and Model X cars. Irish drivers can then get a first glimpse of technology that would not look out of place in SpaceX, Musk’s mission to Mars.
Tesla’s plan, unveiled last week, is for its cars to have the hardware for “self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver”. The cars, according to Musk, will park themselves and return to their owners when summoned.
The reality on the ground is somewhat more prosaic than Musk’s high-flying ambition.
Michael Grant Renault, a Dublin garage, last week had a 2012 Renault Fluence ZE electric saloon with just 4,650km on the clock on sale for €8,995. A 2011 diesel Fluence with 90,000km at the same dealership is priced at €10,950.
Amid concerns about the limited range of EVs and the reliability of earlier models, fewer than 1,700 EVs have been sold in Ireland. To meet EU transport energy targets, the nation is likely to need almost 50,000 EVs on the road by 2020.
To push adoption, the government has extended relief on vehicle registration tax for electric vehicles to the end of 2021, and on hybrid vehicles to the end of 2018. EV buyers can get a grant of up to €5,000, a VRT rebate of up to €5,000 on a new car, and most charging points are free.
The Nissan Leaf remains the top selling electric car, then the Renault Zoe — both relatively cheap and family-friendly hatchbacks. Third and fourth on the list, however, indicate the change that is coming to Ireland: the BMW i3, priced about €46,000, is followed by the Tesla Model S, which is not yet on sale in Ireland but can be imported.
Manufacturers insist the new generation of EVs is different. Several car makers, including BMW, now claim a fully charged EV can cover 200km. Nissan, BMW, Volkswagen and others have backed up the battery pack in some of their cars with a petrol engine.
Colm Brady has single-handedly provided a spike to EV sales this year, buying 10 BMW i3s this year for GoCar, the Dublin-based car-sharing company he heads. Brady, whose company also runs standard Ford and Hyundai models, is looking to double the number of EVs in the next few months, in response to demand. “We were asked about it constantly,” he said.
“We are going to prove that the issue people have with electric cars is just perception. A lot of corporates, particularly around Barrow Street [where Google has its European HQ] and the Dublin docklands, have expressed interest.”
Lars Himmer is also likely to play a big part in any revolution in the Irish car market. As managing director of Volkswagen Group Ireland, his brands — including Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda and Seat — account for almost a quarter of the country’s car market. The Dane has first-hand experience of switching to electric in Ireland, having driven EVs since he arrived here in 2015, starting with an e-Golf and now a Passat GTE.
“The experience has been great, apart from the issue of non-EVs being parked in spots blocking charging points. This is a pet hate.”
Himmer sees a change coming but admits that the technology needs to keep up. “There will, no doubt, be a focus on moving to electric mobility in the future,” he said.
“There has been a recognition that the range of the batteries must improve, but we are already starting to see this. In the interim, hybrid, mostly plug-in hybrid, will be our focus,” said Himmer.
The VW chief is positive about Ireland’s ambitions for EVs and said the government has “put the work in to make the country properly set-up regarding infrastructure”. He believes, however, that more can be done.
Enda Kenny, the taoiseach, does not drive an electric car; despite calls from the Green Party to switch to an EV, Kenny has stuck with his Mercedes and Audi sedans. Denis Naughten, the environment minister, drives a Toyota Prius hybrid, but said last week there were no plans for a broad adoption of EVs or hybrids at Leinster House. Naughten was also rebuffed in his efforts to allow EVs to use bus lanes in Dublin.
The ESB, meanwhile, is seeking funding to upgrade its network of publicly accessible EV chargers. Almost 900 public charge points have been installed nationally, but The Times last week reported that 1 in 20 was out of service.
The state gave ESB €25m to run a pilot charger scheme but the cost overran to more than €33m. According to documents published by the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) last week, the electricity company recovered €3.2m of the overrun via EU funding and is seeking €6.1m from the CER to upgrade to faster chargers and replace others. The ESB remains in talks with the CER on the future funding of the charger network. One funding route was shut off, however, after a plan to charge EV drivers a minimum of €16.99 a month was scrapped over fears it would deter people from switching.
Ultimately, the shift to EVs may be driven by bigger factors than driver preferences or government policy. Under EU rules, at least 10% of energy used in the transport sector must come from renewable energy sources by 2020. Otherwise, there will be big fines.
A report from the consultancy group McKinsey signals a global shift is under way. Citing stricter emissions regulations, falling technology costs and more consumer interest, it estimates EVs could account for two-thirds of all cars on the road in cities such as London and Singapore by 2030.
Transport & Environment, a Belgian lobby group, published a report this month showing EV sales in Europe doubled in 2015 to 145,000. It expects demand in China will lead to the number of plug-in electric cars on the world’s roads passing the landmark 2m figure by the end of the year.
Markets are also taking notice. A Fitch report warned last week that oil companies were facing an “investor death spiral” as EVs take over. “In an extreme scenario, where electric cars gained a 50% market share over 10 years, about a quarter of European gasoline demand could disappear,” the ratings agency said.
Kiely needs no convincing, but he does confess to fretting as his i8 battery drains with no charging point in sight. Like Ireland’s electric drivers, the state is hoping its electric ambitions won’t be stranded in the middle of nowhere.