Electric vehicles: unplugged or switched on?

I have to say, I’m genuinely intrigued by BMW’s new i brand, and particularly the new BMW i3.

Not heard of it? It’s BMW’s electric small car built for so-called megacities.

Or, as BMW puts it, the very first electrically powered premium vehicle. It’s due here later this year.

I just feel that if anyone can make electric vehicles work – known as EVs – then it must be BMW.

But BMW will be swimming against the current if the i3 is a success.

EVs have not been the great saviour of the motor industry – or the planet – as they were once hailed, mainly due to their limited range (about 80 miles before a recharge is required).

And while there have been individual stories of businesses using EVs successfully, such as the Bruichladdich distillery on the island of Islay distillery with the Nissan Leaf, sales have been disappointing.

So do have EVs have a future? Well, of course they do, but perhaps not as significant as some industry pundits might have once led us to believe.

Only some 50,000 Leafs have been sold across the world, while Nissan missed its US target of 20,000 sales by over 50%.

And when former Volvo Cars chief, Stefan Jacoby, goes public with a highly sceptical view of EVs, then you have to take notice.

Mr Jacoby reckons that fear – fear of a dead battery – is the key to the failure of EVs to engage.

“If the battery goes down on their cell phone people feel really bad. If it’s your car in the middle of a traffic jam you will feel even worse,” says Mr Jacoby.

And not only that fear of running out of juice; but price too, is an issue, reckons Mr Jacoby.

The rise of petrol and diesel hybrids, along with plug-in hybrids and range-extenders, provide low emission fleet transport without the fear factor of running out of charge. And I suspect, as technology progresses, they will play an even greater part in the future fleet model mix.

So do have EVs have a future? Well, of course they do, but perhaps not as significant as some industry pundits might have once led us to believe.

I do see a role for EVs in urban cities as part of an integrated network, providing emission-free motoring where distance – ie the fear factor of running out of charge – is unlikely to be an issue.

But for mainstream fleet use, the current mix of diesel cars and hybrids – plus some of the opportunities presented by small size/high output low emission petrol engines typified by Ford’s 1.0-litre EcoBoost unit – will continue to take centre ground.

As they will, I suspect, for some time to come.