As humanity continues to fight a losing battle to save the planet from the hands of ourselves, the list of things chalked off as being Not Good for the environment grows ever longer. Oh, you like red meat and drinking straws, do you? Not in 2018, you don’t.

Though we may struggle to wrap our heads around the extent of the sacrifices we still need to make in order to prevent irreversible damage to our world, it is vital we all play our part. Since shifting to heavy industry 200 years ago we have treated our planet with contempt, allowing it to grow withered and dirty like a dog’s favourite chew toy. It may already be too late to undo the damage we as a species have caused, but we must do all that is possible to limit further harm.

One of our biggest insults to the environment is our use of fossil fuels for – well, everything. But as we all know, this fuel can’t last forever and with the last drop on the horizon, the UK government has set a target to end production of petrol-operated vehicles by 2040. No more powering your car with dinosaur bones; electric cars are the future, with all the major manufacturers looking to hop on the bandwagon. So why then does it feel like we’re making such glacial progress?

Current number of EV charging points in the UK

Number of EV charging points expected to be required by 2020

There are currently around 200,000 electric cars on the road in the UK, a number which is expected to rise as high as 1.4m by 2025. But with just 20 years to completely eliminate the manufacture of non-electric cars and a campaign in parliament to reach that goal even sooner, there are doubts over our ability to achieve what we have set out to do.

For years, electric cars have been hailed as the future of the automotive industry. However, it seems as though their mainstream acceptance is being halted by a perceived lack of accessibility outside of the privileged elite. With even the cheapest electric vehicles (EVs) currently on the market costing around £10,000, it is simply not yet financially viable for everyone to go out and switch to electricity today. Meanwhile, the government has slashed grants to purchase EVs and eliminated them altogether for partially electricised hybrid vehicles, making them about £1,000 more expensive on average – more than just small change for most of us. The cost of electric vehicles means that many prospective buyers are forced to look at the second-hand market, where many of the cars suffer from drained battery life due to repeated charging.

A Genuine Concern?

However, the financial drawbacks of electric cars might not be as bad as they initially appear. Costing just 2p per 100 miles to run, EVs are far more cost-effective to run than standard cars in the long term. Also, the fairly high depreciation factor of electric cars in the current climate means you can get a significant discount on cars which have only been slightly used. Besides, the issue of batteries being worn out by heavy usage could well be something of a myth anyway, with a 2013 study showing that Tesla vehicles only lost around 8% of their battery capacity after racking up 150,000 miles.

Electric vehicles charging

Another major turn-off about electric cars is their supposed inability to travel any significant distance before needing to be recharged. 95% of journeys made by EVs in the UK are under 25 miles in length, suggesting a reluctance by users to put their car’s battery to the test. Justin Ott, CEO of Spark Technology, whose intelligent range prediction software aims to increase EV uptake,  attributes the slow change in attitude towards EVs to concerns over reliability. “Essentially, at the moment drivers don’t trust what it says on their range display,” Ott claims. “They don’t believe that they’ll be able to make it to their destination, creating worries that they’ll run out of power or leading them to unnecessarily charging their vehicles, wasting time. Overcoming these anxieties is really key to accelerating EV sales and that’s what our AI-powered range prediction technology delivers to drivers and the automotive industry.”

The newest electric cars are more than capable of going the distance for most people’s day-to-day needs, with the 2018 Nissan Leaf able to travel 150 miles on a fully-charged battery and higher-end models, such as Tesla, able to surpass 300 miles. For most journeys, all you have to do is charge your vehicle overnight, and in the morning, it will have enough juice to get you where you need to go.

The Problem with Batteries

So, is the failure of electric cars so far to replace standard vehicles purely the result of fear and public perception? It is clear that our own attitudes need adjusting as much as the vehicles themselves, but still the truth is somewhat more complex. Possibly the most crucial issue that could make or break EVs is one that many people are unaware of.

The issue I refer to is the use of batteries to power EVs, many of which rely on cobalt. This presents an ethical issue due to the fact that much of the planet’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation whose mining industry has been exposed for its human rights abuses. Not only that, but there is evidence to suggest that cobalt production is simply not able to match the increasing demand as use of electric vehicles continues to grow. According to a study by Mining Pundits, cobalt is predominantly only mined as a by-product of nickel and copper mining, resulting in ‘fluctuations in production as miners respond to global demand for their primary products’. The conclusion of the study is that EV manufacturers have made a glaring error in their supply chain management that could damage the industry going forward – an alarming prediction as the push to go completely electric continues.

The good news is that EVs might not be dependent on batteries forever. Researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology believe that carbon fibre could be used to replace battery packs in the future, with power being stored in the actual chassis of the car itself. Not only would this circumvent the issues surrounding cobalt, but it would also make cars lighter and potentially increase their mileage.

The Next Steps

Confused yet? Me too – in fact, it seems like most of us are. The truth is that while EVs do have the potential to revolutionise the way we look at cars, there is too much uncertainty at this moment in time to enact the level of change we are pushing for. A good first step towards rectifying this would be to clear up some of the biggest misconceptions about EVs, such as their price and efficiency. Changing public attitudes towards issues like these is no easy task, but it can be done.

Secondly, it is pivotal that the companies leading the charge on EV manufacturing are able to guarantee the sustainability of their products. This means getting to the bottom of the cobalt issue and finding a clean, ethical and viable means of powering electric cars in the long term.

Electric vehicles are, in essence, a great idea. This is reflected in their rise in popularity around the world, a trend that most first-world governments are keen to jump on as part of their initiatives to scale back our damage to the environment. From Ott’s perspective, “The good news is that we’re seeing growing momentum behind the switch to electric vehicles, from increasing sales to legislation to ban petrol and diesel-engined cars across the world.”

The potential to ease the strain on the planet with this technology should be welcomed, but with an air of caution. The ambition of the UK government to convert entirely to EVs so soon is admirable – all the same, there is still plenty of work to be done.