The benefits and limitations of electric vehicles

Laura King takes a look at what a fleet manager might need to consider.

There is a growing public expectation for businesses to be accountable for their environmental impact, and with the business sector responsible for around 18% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the UK, it is no surprise that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is at the forefront of many efforts to demonstrate environmental credentials.

Transport, and particularly road transport, is an obvious target for improvement. Accounting for around a third of the UK’s total carbon emissions, there are a lot of gains that can be made in this area. A switch to electric vehicles is one such opportunity. Indeed, according to the Energy Saving Trust, battery electric vehicles, or electric vehicles (BEVs or EVs), emit 60-66% less CO2 than their petrol or diesel counterparts offering a sizable contribution to many companies’ greenhouse gas targets.

Benefits of electric vehicles

Aside from the obvious benefits of CO2 reductions, the main advantage of an electric fleet is cost. This may seem counterintuitive given the hefty price tag of EVs, but although the initial outlay is high, they are cheaper to run and maintain. For example, according to the Energy Saving Trust, an EV covering 100 miles of driving will typically cost around £2-4 to fully recharge; the equivalent traditional fuel costs would be more like £13-£16.

Maintenance is also cost-effective. EVs have fewer moving parts, and so are easier to service. Battery-powered vehicles also use regenerative braking — ie using the kinetic energy of the vehicle when braking to recharge the battery. Not only does this help top up the charge, if used properly the technology also reduces wear and tear on brakes.

In addition, if there is a requirement to drive in current or future ultra-low emission zones, then EVs will offer huge savings. For example, in London's ultra-low emission zone, EVs do not attract a fee – compare this to the £12.50 or £100 charge applied per vehicle per day for other, more-polluting vehicles, and going electric starts to look very attractive.

Alongside day-to-day running costs, Government policy is also driving uptake. In its Road to Zero report, the Government pledged that it would ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040. In Scotland, this date has been set eight years earlier. To accommodate this shift, there are a number of incentives on offer to help people make the transition. For example:

  • the workplace charging scheme which provides support towards the up-front costs of purchasing and installing charging points

  • grants towards the purchase of electric vehicles, for example the plug-in van grant

  • the ability for businesses to write down 100% of the purchase price against their corporation tax liability

  • lower vehicle taxes

  • £0 benefit-in-kind taxes on EVs in 2020/21.

Factors to be considered

One of the top concerns about EVs is range anxiety — ie how far each vehicle will be able to travel on a single charge. Most cars can now cover between 100-200 miles, and so although the concerns are not as valid as in the early days of EVs, a company would need a good understanding of their vehicle usage to ensure that this is not a problem. It should also be noted that the actual driving range of the vehicle is less than that advertised — for example, a van might have an advertised range of 170 miles but this will equate to around 125 miles in practicality. The true range will also depend on a number of factors, including the speed the vehicle is driven at, outside temperature, heating and payload.

Secondly, organisations will need to consider how the vehicle is to be charged, and many vehicles will need to return to a workplace or residential charging point overnight. For efficient charging, it is likely that the site will need off-street parking, as well as enough grid capacity. If there are constraints at the organisation’s base, then it might be necessary to install charging points at employees’ houses. Although grants are available to support the development of this infrastructure — and public infrastructure is likely to increase as government funding and policy pushes it forward — for many companies, developing suitable charging infrastructure will be a key consideration when integrating electric vehicles into the fleet.

Another issue to consider is charging time. Some rapid chargers can provide an 80% charge in around 40 minutes, but a normal plug socket might take an entire day. As a result, charging time, as well as charging infrastructure, needs to be considered.

Thirdly, the potential lifespan of the battery also needs to be calculated. As we all know with mobile phones, the performance of batteries will deteriorate over time. Current batteries are likely to last around four years for hard-working vehicles (for example in buses and taxis) and up to ten years for cars before they need to be replaced. Currently, there are no good recycling solutions for lithium ion batteries, and although there is a growing industry finding second, less power-hungry uses for spent vehicle batteries, work does need to be done to ensure these batteries stay out of landfill.

Other sustainability considerations

Although there are many environmental benefits in terms of carbon emissions, fleet managers would be wise to be mindful of some of the environmental and human disbenefits of electric vehicles.

Firstly, CO2 is still emitted in the production of the electricity needed to charge the battery. As a result, although the carbon footprint is less, to some extent the vehicles are only as green as the energy used to recharge them.

Secondly, the supply chain for batteries is troublesome at best. Lithium ion battery technology uses cobalt, the extraction of which has been linked to human rights abuses including the use of child labour. Other metals, such as the lithium itself, have been linked to environmental pollution and land use conflict.

Furthermore, although electric vehicles release less CO2, they still cause some pollution. For example, they are heavier and will put additional stresses on tyres — in the process releasing particulate matter that is also a major form of air pollution.

Finally, it should be remembered that electric vehicles do not solve greater societal issues caused by traffic on the road and the impact cars have on our lifestyle and levels of activity. The fact of the matter is that ultimately a radical rethink of business and personal transport is needed if we are to have healthier lives in cleaner, more cohesive cities and communities. Ideally, companies should look to introduce EVs alongside other campaigns to improve how vehicles are used, for example by reducing unnecessary journeys or by promoting walking and cycling.


Electric vehicles offer an immediate and attractive solution to the climate emergency as they release significantly less CO2 than the equivalent petrol or diesel car. Although companies should be mindful of the inherent social and environmental problems associated with extensive vehicle use, electric vehicles are nonetheless a good option for companies looking to improve their environmental credentials.

Organisations will need to consider the whole lifecycle of the vehicle to assess whether the cost of the vehicle is counteracted by savings made. This would include:

  • calculating how many miles the vehicle would need to do to make fuelling cost-efficient

  • maintenance costs

  • availability of charging infrastructure and the cost of installing charging points

  • reduced fees to drive in cities

  • taxes, and financial incentives.