Just because one of Britain’s best loved vehicles rolled off the production line for the last time last week doesn’t necessarily mean it should be confined to the history books.
Jaguar Land Rover called time on the popular 4×4 Defender after almost 70 years, largely because tough European emissions limits and outdated safety features rendered it near obsolete.
Ironically, however, strict emissions controls could hold the key to its rebirth – this time as an all-terrain electric model as the world moves inexorably towards a low carbon future where electric vehicle (EV) demand promises to grow exponentially.
The international Electric Vehicles Initiative, that includes members such as China and the United States, has set a target of 20 million EVs on the road by 2020.
Inspired by Tesla’s success, big automobile manufacturers from Nissan to Chevrolet and BMW are busily marketing models. Even Apple Inc. is quietly working on a version.
Despite still representing only a fraction of the overall market in Britain, EVs are strongly outperforming the wider market. And that’s in spite of rock-bottom pump prices. Demand for pure EVs soared 48 per cent in the UK last year to 10,000 vehicles versus 6.3 per cent growth in the auto market as a whole, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
What’s more, we have already seen how successful the revamping of iconic models like the Mini and Fiat 500 have been. With a bit of creative thinking the Electric Defender could come to dominate the larger off-road EV market this century, just as its predecessor did in the last.
Having personally joined the growing numbers of EV drivers, it is clear that they are redefining what is cool – a social trend bosses at Jaguar Land Rover would do well to acknowledge.
The next generation, for example, are choosing their parents’ electric BMW i3s over a Ferrari. Successful Dads grappling with a midlife crisis are trading in their Porsches for a Tesla and middleclass couples find themselves routinely squabbling over who takes out the new electric Renault Zoe leaving expensive Audis sitting in the driveway.
It is clear that EVs are magnets for attention: from the admiring glances at their silent progress through sleepy towns, to getting chatted up at charging stations, and enquiries about performance in the school playground. EV drivers are ambassadors for the brand – and often know more than the salespeople at car dealerships – having done their research and bought into the dream.
Below is my take on what Land Rover management should consider when toying with the idea of a possible electric revamp:
There is a lot of anxiety about battery range. But if you accept the mileage limits before you buy, then you won’t be in for a nasty surprise. Chatting to other EV owners, it appears weak bladders are the main cause for concern.
For pensioners there is a need to stop regularly to use facilities and have a cup of tea by which time the car can be charged and will easily last until nature calls again.
There are sceptics too who ask what I would do if I wanted to drive from London to Scotland. My answer would be that that I didn’t buy the car to cover 400-odd miles; I bought it to do the school run and drive to the station for my daily commute. If I want to drive to the other end of the country I can simply get a train or hire another car. To me, this is like asking someone wearing their work clothes what they would do if they had to go to a wedding. Obviously they would buy or hire an outfit fit for the occasion.
Most people charge their cars at home although some clearly can’t resist a freebie, stopping off at the supermarket, coffee shop or Swedish homeware store to charge-up instead. Perhaps this will provide an incentive for retailers to provide more charging points in the future. In any case, although charging infrastructure is cited as a barrier now, once range increases the problem disappears.
We all know saving pennies comes before saving the planet for most people. But EV owners have done their homework and found that savings on tax, maintenance, and fuel make it cheaper than a conventional car. Most EVs are also available to lease, limiting the consumer’s exposure to technological leaps or market forces. This means in a few years’ time when the lease is up, you can shop around.
Another issue that crops up is whether EV owners miss the purring of the combustion engine. In my experience most people enjoy the tranquility of a noiseless engine.
The simple controls in EV cars have also been a hit. For instance, there is no real need to use the brake except in an emergency, as the energy recovery system provides sufficient braking when you lift off the accelerator in most cases. People like playing games it seems – on their phones, tablets, computers – to pass the time. Driving an EV smoothly, so as not to waste energy thereby extending the range of the car, can be an art in its own right.
This also overlaps with advanced driving approaches, making for safer roads. This smooth and somewhat more Zen-like driving style also translates into less road rage for some drivers, as they avoid accelerating unnecessarily and braking sharply. EV motorists are playing a very different game to racing other drivers.
Electric vehicles have the most potential to destroy oil demand as motor fuels account for oil’s biggest share of the market; they also use the latest technology, making them more desirable than their internal combustion cousins. As investment research analysts at Bernstein have noted – if they can capture three per cent of the global fleet additions, next stop will be 97 per cent.
The campaign for the reincarnation of the Land Rover Defender starts here.
James Leaton is research director at the Carbon Tracker Initiative
First appeared on Business Green.