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The rise of eco cars

Buying Advice - Cars
The Rise of Eco-Cars

In a recent article from The Guardian, which looked at the findings from a study by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), it was revealed that the amount of eco-cars and vehicles on UK roads has risen dramatically. Statistics from the study shows that a total of ‘37,842’ eco-cars including electric, hybrid and alternatively-fuelled vehicles (AFVs) were sold in 2014 in the UK, ‘a more than 50% increase’ on 2013.

The article also revealed how the SMMT ‘expect this trend to continue in the future’ as the ‘number of models increases’, particularly amongst electric and plug-in hybrids which ‘saw the greatest year on year growth, rising 181% and 1,101%’ respectively.

So what is the reason for this continuing rise and increased demand amongst UK car buyers for eco-cars? Here, we take a closer look into the history of these vehicles, examining how far they’ve come since their inception. Plus, we look at some of the most popular models and consider what the future might hold for the green automotive industry.

Eco-cars explained

However you refer to them, whether it’s as ‘eco-cars’ or ‘green cars’, these vehicles are quite simply considered to be more environmentally friendly than typical petrol or diesel models. This can be because they have lower, or indeed zero, carbon emissions, or because they use more sustainable fuel or power sources; both of which being less harmful to the environment.

Two of the more well-known types of eco-car are:

Hybrid cars – these cars are powered by an electric battery-powered motor and standard internal combustion engine, hence the name ‘hybrid’. These naturally use less fuel and have lower emissions than a normal engine, as how the car is powered can be shared between the two components. Plus, in certain models, the internal combustion engine can be used to recharge the batteries.

Electric cars – these simply use an electric battery powered motor that can be plugged in and charged. They create zero emissions and on the most part produce little to no noise when in use.

There are other models that fall into the ‘eco’ category though such as:

Biofuel cars – you can find vehicles that run on biofuels, which in straightforward terms are fuels synthesised from crops, plants and waste food oils, mixed with small amounts of petrol or diesel. While these aren’t emissions free, they are considered ‘carbon neutral’ as they only produce as much carbon dioxide as is absorbed by the plants used to create them.

Hydrogen cars – these are quite rare and are very much still in their infancy although they can still be found. They work by hydrogen being simply used as an alternative fuel, or as a ‘fuel-cell’ where the hydrogen is converted into electrical power like a typical battery. Again, these are carbon-free and the only engine waste product is water.

A brief history

You’d be mistaken for thinking that these different types of eco-car are a relatively recent invention; they’ve actually been around for quite some time. According to a historical timeline from the Edison Tech Center, the first rudimentary electric cars date back as far as the 1850s coinciding with the creating of the first rechargeable batteries. The timeline also shows that in 1881 Charles Jeantaud created a drivable electric vehicle in France which he ‘continued to modify…installing a British motor in 1887’.

What’s more, in this post by the Electric Auto Association about the history of electric and hybrid cars, in ‘the late 1890s electric vehicles…outsold gasoline cars ten to one’. It was only when the creation of the electric starter motor came about that their popularity started to wane. This is because it was this starting mechanism that offered a safe and efficient starting mechanism for fuel-powered cars.

While it’s fair to say these early inventions weren’t necessarily designed for environmental-protection reasons, they pay testament to the fact that eco-cars, in one form or another, have withstood the test of time. You need to jump forward on the Edison Tech Center’s timeline to see that it was in the 1960s and 70s when interest in more eco-friendly cars came about – when high fuel prices saw buyers looking for a more affordable option.

We then see that over the next few decades, steady interest in electric cars remained but didn’t impact too much on buyer habits. It was when the first widely available hybrid cars were unveiled in the 1990s by Toyota, Audi and Nissan that things really took off; especially with the continued rise in fuel costs and emissions taxes.

The modern eco-car

Today, hybrid and electric cars are available from the majority of vehicle manufacturers and in many cases feature all the conveniences and specifications you’d expect from a typical road car. Furthermore, the investment by car companies into improving performance, and indeed the economical appeal from the high mpg modern eco-cars have to offer, continues to add to their popularity.

What are the popular choices among UK buyers?

These are a few of the most popular eco-cars from different brands, with information about their specifications and how eco-friendly they actually are:

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

Renault Twizy

Renault Twizy

Mitsubishi i-MiEV

Mitsubishi i-MiEV

Vauxhall Ampera

Vauxhall Ampera

Incentives to invest

Along with the obvious financial benefits of lower fuel expenses and taxes, there are other incentives to buy an eco-car which may well be a big contributing factor to the current rise in demand.

The Government’s ‘Plug-in car and van grants’ have been a success since they were introduced in 2011. This scheme can see you ‘get a grant towards the cost of each new electric (plug-in) car or van you buy’ with ‘35% off the cost of a car, up to a maximum of £5,000’ and ‘20% off the cost of van up to a maximum of £8,000’. These are subject to your chosen electric car meeting certain criteria, details of which can be found here.

In some instances there’s a necessity to choose an eco-car because of current and impending legislations. For example, in accordance with the 2008 Climate Change Act, the UK Government has targets of reducing ‘greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% (from the 1990 baseline) by 2050’. Equally, there are aspects like the London Congestion Charge for vehicles and the Greater London Low Emission Zone which penalises vehicles that fail to meet their standards.

Finally, there is of course the ‘green’ reason for choosing an eco-car. It’s no secret that the amount of fossil fuels we’re consuming is having a detrimental effect on the planet, so having one of these vehicles is at least doing something to help tackle this issue.

Fast cars, exciting events and famous fans

There’s more to eco-cars than just cost saving and being green though, there’s also the fact they can be great cars to drive. There’s sometimes an unfortunate stigma attached to electric and hybrid cars, that you sacrifice performance for economy. While this might be said of some models built several decades ago, as alluded to above, you can still get fantastic performance and incredible speed.

Two notable examples include the Tesla Model S – an electric, luxury sports car with top speed of 120mph and up to 416bhp – and the BMW i8, a plug-in hybrid sports car coupe that can go from 0-60 in under 5 seconds and has a top speed of 159mph. Such is the popularity of these eco sports cars, new racing events such as Formula E and the Isle of Man TT Zero race – both exclusively for electrically-powered vehicles – are now in existence and continue to grow in reputation.

It’s not just in the racing world where eco-cars are in demand; a number of Hollywood A-listers and other celebrities are known to drive electric or hybrid vehicles. Morgan Freeman, Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio are just three high-profile owners of the featured Tesla S. The in-demand Toyota Prius is also the car of choice for many of Tinseltown’s elites, as Brad Pitt, Jessica Alba and Julianne Moore are all known to own one.

All of this is certainly a far cry from those first basic models of the 1850s!

The future

As discussed, demand for eco-cars is expected to grow even more in the coming years, but really with the number of incentives and positive attributes they have to offer, it shouldn’t be a surprise. What will be interesting to see though is what direction the technology will head in and what we might expect to see on our roads in the future.

Based on current trends, one possibility is the continued improvement of electric and hybrid cars to become even more efficient and cost-effective. Also advances in alternative sources of power like the hydrogen fuel cell, could indeed revolutionise not only how we power our cars but our homes as well.

Another viable option is solar power. There’s already experimental solar powered cars in production such as this prototype ‘C-Max Solar Energi Concept’ model from Ford or indeed this recent design from a team of British students, which if successful, could be hugely beneficial for us.

Whatever the future brings, the reality is that we need to do something to address problems like climate change or the supposedly dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. It would appear then that choosing an eco-car, much like many other UK residents, is certainly a step in the right direction – plus you can get a quality, cost-effective vehicle at the same time.

next: Advice on buying a car privately