Ben Collins talks electric vehicles at the Regent St Motor Show

I mentioned yesterday that, as part of my time at the Regent Street Motor Show, I got to interview some of the drivers from Team British Gas. So today, here’s the first of two interviews. This one is with Ben Collins, known for, among other things, being The Stig on BBC’s Top Gear, and stunt driver on Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie. My words are in bold, Ben’s are in italics.

You’re in Regent Street after taking part in the Future Car Challenge. Did you manage to escape the rain showers in Brighton?

Yeah, we got away with that – as soon as we set off the clouds left and we had a pretty good run up, so sweet.

British Gas branded Nissan Leaf

Which car were you driving in the challenge?

I was in the Nissan Leaf.

You’re obviously much more used to driving high-powered cars, so how did you find the Leaf?

Well, I’ve driven pretty much everything; I suppose more famously for the fast stuff and the racing at Le Mans and what have you, and the supercars on Top Gear, but I just as much enjoy driving the other end of the spectrum too. I’ve driven the Leaf before and I was really amazed – it drives like a completely normal car, very easy to use, and really fast to recharge it. When it’s 80% drained, I think you can recharge it in 20 minutes through a high-powered socket. That only costs about £1.60, so it compares pretty well when you think of  what we’re paying for fuel these days. Yeah, we had a great run up.

I think it’s a cracking event. British Gas are sponsoring the Future Car Challenge, which is showcasing all this new tech so people can see it. The best thing for me is that they’re putting the network in place that means you can really take these things home and use them. Until then, who would you go to? You’d be wondering what company was going to supply the energy for it, so I think it’s great there’s a straightforward solution.

Some commentators say that EVs [Electric Vehicles] are not yet a viable solution for everybody; what are your thoughts on that?

That’s true; I mean, I couldn’t survive with just an electric car. I drive huge distances, and anybody that does a big commute intercity, which I do – it wouldn’t necessarily work for them.  Saying that, the majority of people don’t do that. The majority of people that do city driving would find you can do a hundred miles on this “tank”, and that’s a lot more than you think. I think it’s a genuine solution for a lot of people, perhaps even the majority of people.

When you think about how many households have two cars, it makes sense to have a long-range and a short-range when you’re saving ten times on the fuel. If you get a solar panel stuck on your house as well it really starts to work. Electric cars are cheaper to service, too, because you haven’t got all the running gear like gearboxes and all that stuff, or all the dirty stuff you get with a combustion engine. So they’re cheaper to service, and it adds up to big savings for a lot of people, but everybody makes their own plan.

So, it really depends on what your own circumstances are whether an electric vehicle will suit?

Yeah. With a Bugatti, you can empty its tank in twelve minutes. You would travel a decent distance in that time, but you wouldn’t get to work.

When Top Gear did their piece on the Honda FCX Clarity, they spoke to Jay Leno. He was saying that he thought technologies like hydrogen and electric would be the saviour of the petrol-engine car in the same way as the car was the saviour of the horse, freeing petrol cars up to be used more for leisure and fun while electric and hydrogen would be used for everyday transport. Would you subscribe to that line of thought?

Well, this has got some way to go on pure electric. At the moment, the best solution depends on what distance you travel. If you are a city driver, electric is perfect. If I was retired and I didn’t have to go far, electric would be the only car I would need. In terms of getting performance, distance and efficiency, for big commuting, you start looking at hybrids, and those are the sort of things that are winning at Le Mans at the moment – solutions where you get performance and longevity. I think the tech’s going to change and develop all the time and, as batteries improve, which they will, you’ll be able to update the battery in your car. So, I think the pace of change is going to be pretty rapid.

If it’s not too cheeky a question, what is your everyday car?

I’ve got a VW Transporter van, diesel, and that’s my family car. I’ve also got an Audi A5. The thing is I work away from home all the time, so I need my car. If I worked in the city I lived in, I would definitely be looking at something like the Leaf to go alongside the van. I guess it’s not the sexiest stable, but I’m saving up for a Ferrari.

The fact is petrol cars at the moment are the pinnacle of supercars – there’s no way around that as a fact. So all the money and development over the last hundred years has taken Ferrari, Porsche and Audi to where they are and it’s going take a while for electric to catch up. Tesla is nibbling at it, and Jaguar is coming in now too. It’s a good sign. If you think about the origins of cars in the nineteenth century, it started with electric and we’ve had a hundred years of developing combustion but the tech is there to make electric work. Motorsport is getting involved now, and so are companies like British Gas and Nissan. There are big companies involved with it now rather than purely being cottage industry with entrepreneurs doing it. The pace of development will kick up another notch.

Chatting with Ben Collins at the British Gas standWhat do you think is the biggest barrier to EVs taking off at present?

People still worry about the range, but that’s an individual choice. The barrier in my mind was always about the network where you can charge up. That’s still a problem, except that you can now have a charging point in your house, put in by British Gas, so that’s less of a barrier now. You don’t know what you’re missing until you get it. When Waitrose, Tesco, or Sainsburys put charging points in their car parks, when more councils start doing what they’re doing in London where you’ve got charging points in parking bays and tax breaks and all those sorts of things the barriers will really start to fall.

And what’s the biggest advantage of an EV?

It’s cheaper to run. That’s it – it’s just so much cheaper.

Huge thanks to Ben for taking the time to chat with me, for his interesting points, and for being gentle with a newcomer to celebrity interviewing! What do you think of what he said? Is there anything you particularly agree or disagree with? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. If you want more, read yesterday’s post about the Future Car Challenge and Regent Street Motor Show.

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