Team British Gas’ Robert Llewellyn talks energy and EVs

Right, on to the third of my posts about the RAC Future Car Challenge and Regent Street Motor Show. This time, a transcript of my interview with Robert Llewellyn or, as some of you may know him better, Kryten from Red Dwarf. As with the interview with Ben Collins, my words are in bold, Robert’s are in italics.

I feel as if I’ve been hearing about you ever since I arrived here today. You’re one of the case studies highlighted on the British Gas stand and, I guess, a bit of an ambassador for them. I noticed that you’re now driving a Nissan Leaf – have you got rid of your Prius?

No, no, I have a plug-in Prius as well, and a leaf. The plug-in Prius is actually my wife’s car, but I do drive it sometimes… when she lets me. She drives the Leaf a lot. We do have rows about which car we’re going to drive.

And you’re now running on solar power for your cars?

Yes. Not 100%, but I know that, because some really clever engineers know how to read the meters in my garage, that I did about 4,500 miles last year purely from solar energy, and I’ve done probably about 3,500 this year because the summer was lousy. So, less this year, but the solar panels have certainly given us an extraordinary amount of energy. It really makes a difference, there’s no question about that and it’s great to learn that from actual experience rather than just reading a leaflet that tells you.

Yes, seeing the stats on the wall is all very well, but you’ve actually lived those stats.

Yes, absolutely.

British Gas branded Vauxhall Apmera, as driven by Robert LlewellynSo, you were driving the Vauxhall Ampera in today’s Future Car Challenge. What did you think of it?

It’s a fabulously engineered car, really beautifully made, really easy to drive. I still have some questions in my mind because, if you were doing, say, a thirty mile commute every day, you wouldn’t buy any petrol. You wouldn’t need to, you’d plug it in at home and drive on electric. And then on the weekend when you want to drive to North Wales or Scotland, you could do it. But what that means is all the time during the week you’re dragging around a tank full of petrol and an engine, and then when you’re driving a long distance, you’re dragging round a huge battery and an electric motor. You kind of ask, “does this really work?”

So it’s either the best of both worlds…

…or the worst, and I can’t decide! I’m not saying one or the other, but I think you would need to drive it for a long time to find out. Certainly the people I’ve spoken to, particularly in the United States, who’ve driven them a long way are saying three or four thousand miles on a tank of gas, because they don’t use the petrol very much. From that point of view, it’s tremendous. I think it’s a huge step forward, and I congratulate General Motors on doing it. From an engineering standpoint, the joining of the electric and petrol, you cannot tell when you switch between them. Suddenly the petrol engine is running and you think, “I didn’t even notice that!”. It is extraordinary.  

Having driven pure electric, it feels like a slightly backward step but, that said, what I think it’s done is open that door for a lot of people to see, “Oh, actually, I could drive an electric”, and they then realise that they could drive a pure electric car. General Motors might not be thrilled with that concept, but it’s a proof of concept. You go, “Oh yes, I haven’t use the petrol engine for a month – do I really need it?”

I guess it does away with that whole thing of “range anxiety”.

Yeah. That doesn’t even come into it. I’ve driven the same drive [Brighton – London] in electric cars that were literally on the edge of their range and you’re saying, “Oh god, we’ve got another fourteen miles to go, are we going to make it?”. Didn’t even think about it in the Ampera, so it removes that altogether.

Were there any other cars on the Future Car Challenge you looked at and thought, “I wish I was driving that”?

The Renault Zoe. Today is the first time I’ve seen it outside a motor show – I’ve seen it going along the road today. They are, I think, another game changer; probably the next game changer after the Leaf. The Leaf is a mass-produced electric car that’s just around and people are starting to use and clock up 20, 30, 40,000 miles and they’ve very reliable and just work. I mean, we’ve done 22,000 miles in ours. The Zoe, I think, is the next one. It’s much cheaper to buy initially, has a slightly longer range than the Leaf, is slightly smaller but looks like a normal car, and it’s not really advertising the fact that it’s electric. I can understand that. I’ve driven weird electric cars that I’m happy with but you can get people saying, “Oh, it looks so weird, it’s not like a proper car”. Well these look like proper cars.

You do get some odd reactions, don’t you? I’ve seen some of the comments you’ve had on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

You could call them “odd”.

Talking with Robert Llewellyn at the British Gas standYes, being charitable, perhaps!

Yes, but I’ve noticed a slight shift in that there used to be a lot of hostility, and a lot of anger, which I couldn’t quite understand because it’s just a car – it’s made in a factory like every other car. But that’s fading now, and I think there are more and more people thinking, when they will a tank up and it costs £80 or £120, well, for the same amount of money, I could drive 10,000 miles. We’ve worked out that 22,000 miles has cost us around £300. Some of that charging we’ve done outside the home, but not very much – 10-15% maximum. Most of that is charging at home. Now, OK, that’s with solar panels and we try to use off-peak electricity where possible by charging at night.

That’s the other argument people make, actually, “Oh, you’re just burning coal to charge it, so it’s just as dirty as my diesel”. No, it’s not, and night is when there’s the least amount of coal burned and the most nuclear and wind used. It’s genuinely a very low-carbon transport system and, if you’re using solar as well, it drops it even more. 

What do you think is the biggest barrier to EVs taking off as a mainstream car?

I think, at the moment, it’s certainly the initial cost of purchasing. If you’re buying a car, which is the most expensive thing people buy other than a house, it’s a lot to ask of people to, instead of buying these cars that we’re used to, that we know work alright, and that you can refuel in a few minutes… buy this one that’s completely different and totally challenging. It’s a big step to make, so I think what we’ll see is, generationally, there will be a shift. So there will be people who are now between 15 and 20, who aren’t learning to drive as much as they used to, the number of people taking their test has dropped quite dramatically, but when they come to be interested in buying a car they’ll be more likely to rent them on a short-term basis, like a car club, and they’ll be much more likely to drive electric cars. Both my children, the first vehicle they moved in under their own power, steering it, was electric. There was none of that stuff with learning how to use a clutch, or hill starts, or anything like that.

I’ve driven a couple of Electric Vehicles, and they are genuinely a pleasure to drive.

They are, because they’re very, very simple and, and this has surprised everybody who’s had a go in my car, and these are blokes who are used to cars with a little bit of power [doing a cracking Jeremy Clarkson impression here], they are always staggered by their performance. They can really shift – you can still lose your license driving an electric car. 

It was interesting talking to The Stig earlier on, which is an odd thing to find yourself saying, and he was saying the Leaf is a perfectly fine car to drive.

Interestingly, for him, because we were all teasing him last night that he was just going to thrash it and go really fast, we did follow him through the streets of London and he was slightly more aggressive than I would be, but he did really well. He ended up with quite a lot of extra miles in his battery over other people who’ve driven the same car. That’s the skill of the driver, that he didn’t hammer it. He knew how to get it going, not accelerate too hard, it’s all those things you learn when you’re in an electric vehicle. 

This morning was the quietest start to a “race” I’ve ever seen.

It is bizarre, isn’t it, because they’re counting down, AND GO! 

Nothing. It is very different.

And what would you say is the one big advantage to EVs?

One of the things I think when I’m in London and it’s just jammed solid with traffic, it’s noisy, and all those engines are running but not going anywhere, EVs could transform that so that, sure, they could still be sitting in a traffic jam and that’s really annoying, but none of the engines are running. There’s nothing coming out of the exhaust, there’s no noise, it would transform our city. If taxis were electric, which they are thankfully introducing, that would make such a difference to the middle of London. If the busses were electric it would make an enormous difference.

The ground-level pollution for human beings, nothing to do with CO2 or Climate Change, is really toxic, and particularly for children. Strangely, one of the recent discoveries, is that the particulates from Diesel cars in particular, and trucks and busses, are low-lying. We’re OK, because it’s around our knees, but a toddler walking along the streets is breathing in… you may as well just give them a fag [cigarette for any US readers :) ], they’d be better off. It’s so bad for them!

There’s the takeaway line right there: Robert Llewellyn says, “Give your kids a fag – they’ll be better off”!

Hah! So not what I meant! But the pollution is a really toxic mixture that we’re pumping out into the atmosphere. 

So I think of it from the point of view of energy efficiency, and the local air pollution. Those sort of things are a huge advantage. You could then argue that it automatically spurs cleaner energy generation because people start to think they don’t want the electricity for their electric car to come from a coal plant, they want it to come from somewhere cleaner. That encourages people to start investing in those other areas of generating power. That and a combination of microgeneration. When you see microgeneration on a grand scale, Germany, Denmark, or Holland being good examples, where most houses have solar panels… you may say, “Well, they don’t really do that much” but when you’ve got 10,000,000 houses with solar panels on, it makes a massive difference to a national economy. 

Germany, last year, got 50% of their energy purely from solar. That is unimaginable in this country, but that is 20 years of investment, 20 years of putting solar panels on roofs, and when we were driving through Germany in an electric car we were playing I Spy for houses that didn’t have solar panels on them. You can find them, but there’s not many.

Again, huge thanks to Robert for his time and his interesting points. It was a real pleasure to chat with him and chew over some of the benefits and pitfalls of Electric Vehicles, and of home microgeneration. What do you think about what he said? Is there anything you particularly agree or disagree with? Do you have experience of running an electric car or, perhaps, powering it by renewable energy generated at home? Please feel free to chip in with your thoughts in the comments.

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