London's Electric Avenues New Playground for Alternative Cars

Since the introduction of stringent congestion fees, London traffic has loosened up and cleaned up. Britons are now increasingly cruising their capital in cars running on alternative energy to avoid the charge.

Formerly a traffic nightmare, London city center has become a playground for drivers of alternative energy cars. Since the British capital introduced a congestion charge of 8 pounds sterling for each conventional car between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., Londoners have begun trying out new models that discharge less CO2, freeing drivers from the fee.

"The congestion charge is a great success," says John Mason, head of enforcement at Transport for London's Congestion Charge. "Every day there are 100,000 fewer cars in the city than before the introduction of the fee." That's a 25-percent reduction, and the vehicles that do venture into the city center have become cleaner. "In February 2003 there were only 90 electric cars in London, in June 2008 it was more than 1600," says Mason. Tallies of other eco-friendly cars, including gas and hybrid models, also rose sharply, from 1,000 vehicles in 2003 to more than 20,000 by the last count. "The British buy about twice as many hybrid cars as Germans, and most of those who do drive in London," explains Debbie Fox of market monitor Jato Dynamics.

The charge has paved the road for vehicles that would not otherwise be taken seriously. For example the top-selling electric car in London, the Reva G-Wiz (marketed in Germany as "Greeny"), is a battery-powered car manufactured in Bangalore, India. Not much larger than a cardboard box on wheels, the four-seater can barely accelerate to 80 kilometers per hour. Every 70 kilometers or so, it has to be plugged into an outlet to recharge its battery. The tiny car costs 10,000 pounds and has a cult following in London. In some neighborhoods it is a more common sight than a Mini Cooper or Mercedes SLK.

Electric Autos from around the World

The congestion charge has also been bread and butter for English company NICE, short for "no internal combustion engine," which buys electric cars abroad to resell them in London. "Last year alone we put 250 vehicles on the road. This year it will be considerably more," said a company spokesperson. Through NICE Londoners can get ahold of an all-electric hatchback called Ze-O, "developed in Europe, built in China." The car will cost 13,995 pounds and offer a range of up to 100 kilometers.

Also in the works is two-door MyCar, which looks like a snazzy version of the Smart Car. The vehicle reaches speeds of over 60 kilometers per hour, has a range of 90 kilometers, and costs 9,000 pounds. "Simply the coolest, cheapest, and most convenient way to get around town," crows NICE on its Web site. But the company presented their coup de grace at the British International Motor Show in July: a prototype of a battery-powered Fiat 500. Pending sufficient consumer interest, Italian specialists will retool the small car to run on electricity.

One Hundred Electric Smarts in Test Stages

Chances are good. "There's no lack of demand," says Tom Morrison-Jones of Mercedes. He runs a pilot program that distributed one hundred refitted electric Smarts to public authorities and businesses in London during the past few months. "We could put more cars on the road without any difficulty," he says. According to Chris Rutherford, fleet manager for the Islington Council, "driving these cars in a city is really a lot of fun." He powers through the city every day in an electric Smart. The car accelerates as readily as a bumper car, leaving even sports cars in the dust at traffic lights. The car's maximum speed of 110 kilometers per hour is plenty fast for Rutherford. Only the range bothers him: after 100 kilometers it's time to recharge the Smart.

Because his Smart is a company car, Rutherford is indifferent to price. "The car's lease is about four times that of a comparable Smart that takes gas," admits Morrison-Jones of Mercedes. "But when you save 8 pounds a day and can often park for free because it is an electric car you make that money back fast."

Not Just Cars

Delivery vans and trucks are also looking greener. Mitsubishi Fuso recently delivered 300 samples of their electric light truck, Canter, and some of the vehicles were pressed into service in London. Ten of the 7.5 ton trucks deliver mail and provide courier services, forming part of a Europe-wide test for hybrid trucks. The target is 15 percent less fuel consumption than a standard Diesel truck.

London Assembly member Nicky Gavron approves of the initiatives but avoids recommending individual technologies. "There are many ways for people to reduce their emissions," says Gavron. Her advice? "When you buy your next car, simply choose the most economical option."


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