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Electric cars: hurdles on the road to electrification

The transition to electric vehicles will have significant implications for the driving test and car maintenance. We take a closer look...

Fiat 500 electric

It’s estimated that there will be 6.5 million electric vehicles (EVs) on our roads by 2030, when the petrol and diesel new car ban is due to start. After the law takes effect, the percentage of the UK’s 31.7 million cars that are fully electric looks set to soar. 

The number of pure electric and hybrid cars for buyers to choose from is growing as manufacturers launch new models, and the Government and other organisations are working to improve the charging infrastructure so the road to electrification is as smooth as possible. 

However, there are a number of other areas that require attention now if we’re going to be ready for this greener future. Two of the biggest aspects of motoring that will change are learning to drive and keeping your car maintained. 

Learning to drive

We asked the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) if it was planning changes to take account of the switch to EVs. We were told that it had “already started work to look at the impact of electric vehicles on driver and rider education and assessment, and to plan for any changes that this shift in vehicle type and use will need”. The DVSA was unable to provide any details about planned changes. 

Fiat 500 electric

At present, there is no difference in the practical driving test whether you arrive in a petrol-engined Ford Fiesta or an electric Porsche Taycan. While few learners are likely to take their test in a high-performance EV such as the Taycan, there are many differences, including some massive potential safety issues associated with all EVs, that novice drivers ought to know about. 

Richard Gladman, head of driving and riding standards with advanced driving charity IAM RoadSmart, says: “Gaining the knowledge to do some basic car checks is part of the process of learning to drive and part of the ‘show me, tell me’ section of the driving test, but how many learners know that they must not touch anything under the bonnet of an EV that’s marked in orange? 

“Novices need to know which areas under the bonnet of an EV are safe to handle and which aren’t, otherwise they risk being electrocuted, because voltage levels of 400 to 800 are needed for EV electrical systems.” 

Fiat 500 electric

There are also big differences in the way conventionally powered cars and EVs are driven, according to research by insurer LV= General Insurance, which was the first UK insurer to offer a bespoke car policy for EV owners. It says the majority (87%) of drivers haven’t been behind the wheel of an EV and that means they’re unaware of the differences. 

Most EVs have more linear and swifter acceleration than their petrol and diesel counterparts, so inexperienced drivers could get into dangerous situations because they’re not used to having so much power on tap. 

The other side of the coin is the issue of regenerative braking and ‘one-pedal’ driving. Most EVs harvest energy as they slow down and put it back into their batteries to help eke out their range. This means that in some driving modes they decelerate quite rapidly when you lift your foot off the accelerator – in some cases so dramatically that the car can come to a complete halt without you needing to use the conventional brakes at all. This can take some getting used to. 

Many of the core skills that make a good driver won’t change so learners will still have to hone them. For example, the most common reasons for failing the driving test are still likely to be a lack of mirror checking and not having enough awareness of other road users. 

Fiat 500 electric

All the same, there could be a new focus on maximising the range of the car, with more emphasis on making smooth progress, anticipating the actions of other road users sooner and slowing down earlier at junctions.

Learners might also be expected to have a general understanding of how to charge up an EV and how long it should take, along with knowledge of how long the batteries should be expected to last and the limiting factors, such as air conditioning use and cold weather, that could lessen a car’s range. 

Although it makes sense for learners to experience EVs, you’re likely to have to hunt around for an appropriate driving instructor if you want to learn in one because the take-up among driving schools has been patchy so far. 

Part of the reason for that is that all EVs have automatic gearboxes. Research by the AA suggests that most people want to pass their test in a manual car even if they’ll be driving an auto so they’ll be able to drive cars with either type of gearbox in the future. 

Even finding driving lessons in a conventional car with an automatic ’box might be tricky. Although 40% of the new cars sold last year were automatics, only 10.9% of the 1.5 million people who passed their L-test in the year between April 2019 and 2020 did so in a car with this type of ’box, so there’s a big shortfall in experience with non-manual cars. 

Demand for lessons in automatic cars is increasing. In 2015, 45,000 learners passed their test in an automatic with the AA out of 723,000 passes overall, but by 2020 this figure had nearly doubled to 80,000 out of 734,000 test passes. 

“While we don’t offer full EV driving lessons yet, we have been running a pilot to test EVs, including the Vauxhall Corsa-e and Peugeot e-208,” says Robert Cowell, the AA Driving School’s interim managing director. “This is helping us to understand how the use of EVs affects the learning experience, as well as the practicality of delivering lessons in EVs.” 

Fiat 500 electric

IAM RoadSmart believes the driving test should be modernised as soon as possible to maximise the uptake of EVs.

“New drivers need to be able to access the skills required to use these new vehicles as safely and efficiently as possible,” says Neil Greig, the charity’s director of policy and research.

“Availability of electric car learner driving courses is very limited and financial support might be needed to spark interest in supplying them. It is vital that the Government doesn’t forget the role of training in helping to get drivers to adopt new technology.” 

LV agrees that the practical driving test needs to change to keep pace with our electric future. It says research among its policyholders reveals that almost three quarters of drivers (72%) think the test needs to be updated, and this figure rises to 92% when those who already own an EV are asked. 

“New registrations of electric cars are already outstripping diesel, and my children will learn to drive in an electric car; it will absolutely be the norm by then,” says Gill Nowell, head of EV at LV= General Insurance. “Changing the driving test would not only send a clear signal to learners that their needs are being catered for, but it will also encourage more first-time drivers to make the switch to electric.” 

Next: The challenge of servicing electric cars >>

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