How do people really use electric cars? Now we know

Published: 14 September 2010

Mini has just released a batch of research papers showing how trials of 40 electric Mini E prototypes in the UK are going. It reveals how real-world customers in the UK are using the battery powered Mini – and how customers are coping with the limited range of electric cars. The results make fascinating reading, as our carscape gradually shifts to one dependent on electricity in one form or another.

BMW is holding Mini E trials in the UK, America and Germany, as it prepares to launch the electric Megacity Vehicle in 2013 to understand how drivers use EVs in reality, as opposed to some laboratory boffin’s head. And it seems that the – mainly urban – Mini E users are adapting to life under battery power with ease.

Test results of Mini E at a glance

The average daily distance driven by the Mini E drivers in the first three months of the trial was 26.7 miles (average private daily mileage in the UK is 22.8, according to the Office for National Statistics)
BMW is running a control experiment with drivers of Mini Cooper and BMW 116i drivers, whose average daily distances is 27.0 and 26.1 miles respectively
44% of British-based Mini E drivers said they would pay a third more to buy a Mini EV over a petrol Mini
That points to an acceptable price point in the UK of £16,000
Users like the quiet drive, cheap cost of refueling, rapid acceleration and regenerative braking
They were less keen on the limited range precluding longer drives, cramped boot and poor performance during Britain’s harsh 2009-10 winter

An overwhelming 89% of users said the lack of range had forced them to seek alternative transport on longer journeys – showing that even urban users do need to drive longer distances from time to time. Interestingly, 67% said they had been unable to use the Mini E on occasion because of lack of space (the Mini E’s rear seats are removed and boot tiny – an issue the four-seater Megacity Vehicle will address, argues BMW).

Driving an average of 26.7 miles a day meant that the typical Mini E trial driver doesn’t even have to charge up every day, the average falling every two to three days. Only 6% of respondents are recharging daily (which takes two and a half hours). Mini claims a 149-mile range, but admits 112 miles is more realistic on one charge.

What about charging up? Surely a pain in the backside?

The lack of infrastructure required for charging up EVs is often cited as a shortcoming of electric cars. It seems the Mini E trialists are early adopters or environmental champions ‘with a high level of interest in ecological interests’, who may be more prepared to put up with hitches of a nascent technology, but three-quarters of users reckon they could own a Mini E without a nationwide network of public power points. That said, nearly 90% said they’d prefer it if the infrastructure was improved.

Such trials are becoming commonplace. Audi today announced it would launch a trial of 20 Audi A1 e-tron models in Munich from mid-2011. It seems that the French and Japanese really are one step ahead with their electric cars going on UK sale next year, as opposed to being rolling testbeds.

Should we trust the findings made public today by BMW?

A good point. The above stats are carefully stage-managed data designed to throw the Mini E in a good light. But would your responses vary if you actually had the chance to drive an electric car?

I know that EVs are one of the most hotly debated topics on CAR Online. Perhaps we should get some manufacturers to let us – and you – loose in some early electric vehicles to blog on our findings. I suspect the results might be somewhat different to the carefully managed guinea pigs chosen by BMW.

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet