Electric cars — they’re ugly, have rubbish range, and quite frankly are a snooze-fest (apart from the Tesla that is), or at least that’s what you’d think. The RAC Future Car Challenge is attempting to change that perception, with awesome electric, hydrogen and random prototype eco-cars, but has it worked? I took part, joined by none other than the venerable Robert Llewellyn (aka Kryten from Red Dwarf, or Mr. Scrapheap Challenge) to find out.
On the face of it, the RAC Future Car Challenge sounds like the lamest kind of ‘race’ you can imagine. Drive from Brighton to London using as little energy as possible powered by new technology engines, but you’d be amazed how much fun it really is. Super-efficient diesels, hydrogen-powered cars, all-electrics, range-extended electric cars, and the more conventional hybrids are all allowed, and it’s a proper battle to see who uses the least energy, as measured by the boffins at Imperial College London.
Along with Mr. Electric Car himself, Robert Llewellyn, I drove in the British Gas Vauxhall Ampera, which is a Chevrolet Volt over in the US. It’s an extended-range electric vehicle, which means it’s driven by a battery-powered electric motor, but it has a petrol engine to generate electricity when the battery runs dry — essentially the best of both worlds. The petrol engine doesn’t directly drive the wheels (but can through some super-fancy gear box, should you whack the thing in ‘Mountain Mode’ for extra grunt up a very steep hill); it sits there and runs at the optimum energy-efficient rate all the time it’s required, generating electricity to power-up the battery and the drive train. That distinguishes it from the likes of the Toyota Prius, a traditional hybrid, where the petrol motor directly drives the wheels along with the electric motor. The Ampera is also capable of regenerative braking, which, like an F1 car, puts electricity back into the battery when you brake. I say ‘brake,’ it actually does its thing when you take your foot off the accelerator, which is a very surreal experience indeed. It meant that I barely touched the brake pedal unless we were coming to a complete stop at a traffic light (or on the world’s largest car park that is the M25).
That doesn’t mean the Ampera is slow by any stretch of the imagination, though. Like most electric vehicles it’s pretty rapid up to around 50mph, and you can drive it just like a regular automatic car. Cruising on the motorway is absolutely no issue, as is a fast getaway from the lights; not that in our attempts to use as little power as possible we booted it a few times or anything.
As the FCC pit us against all sorts of super-efficient cars and drivers, we had to turn off literally all the toys, of which there are many to play with, as everything used electricity. In fact, the heater was banned, as were the windscreen wipers unless absolutely necessary, but it all paid off in the end. Through incredibly gentle acceleration — granny-style — and barely ever braking, for which the Ampera awards you with ‘driving style’, we managed to actually win the ‘most energy efficient regular car’ award. That genuinely made us the best in class, apart from the prototype cars, which were in a league of their own.
It was an incredible experience, ending up by rolling along the Regent Street Motor Show, the official end of the race, with hordes of people looking on. Above is a highlights reel from the in-car camera we had mounted on the windscreen where you can hear Robert and I wax-lyrical about all sorts of things, from electric cars to scaring the crap out of your pets with flying drones, and experience it all with us.
It seems electric cars are awesome, and who’d have thought it? Now all I need is a spare £34,000-odd and I’d be laughing. The future looks bright with cars like this out now; who knows what’s just around the corner. Maybe we’ll all be driving super-fast electric Teslas to work soon.