Page last updated at 14:26 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 15:26 UK

Q&A: Electric cars

The government's cash incentive scheme encouraging motorists to buy electric or plug-in petrol-electric hybrid cars from 2011 may sound tempting but are these cars worth it?

An electric car plugged into the mains
Charging times are getting shorter, but special equipment is needed.

Is it true that electric cars are slow and perform badly?

Some of the new generation of modern electric cars go much faster than you think, and since electric motors generate much more torque than combustion engines they also accelerate very quickly.

BMW is currently trialling an electric Mini that handles better than many ordinary cars, and Tesla's electric roadster is certainly no laggard, delivering 0-60mph in 3.9 seconds.

General Motors is developing a car called Volt which they say will do 100mph.

Later this year Mitsubishi are planning on bringing out the i-Miev, which will do about 85mph.

How far can electric cars travel before the battery goes flat?

It depends on the size of the battery, and a number of other factors. BMW's all-electric Mini E delivers 150 miles on a two-hour charge.

Toyota is testing out a plug-in petrol-electric hybrid car that currently only does six miles on one charge, after which time a petrol engine takes over.

The purpose of the trial is to identify what daily distance is most suitable for customers. They could decide to replace a battery that has a bigger range.

It is hoped the Chevy Volt will have a 40 mile range on one charge. But it also has a petrol engine that is used to charge the battery.

Such developments are made possible by new battery technology that is much lighter and lasts longer than old-fashioned batteries.

How and where do I recharge the battery?

General Motors' electric car called The Volt
The Volt can be re-charged on the move using a generator

If you have all the time in the world, you simply connect the car to the mains power supply to charge up the batteries. Instead of putting in a fuel hose at a filling station, you attach a cable that plugs into side of the vehicle.

But if you are in a hurry and want long range from a short charge you will need a special high-voltage charging point. This will cost about £2,000 to install.

At the moment people with their own driveway can run a cable out of their house and into the vehicle. But that is not practical for people who have to park their cars in the street.

The government is supporting efforts to install charging points in city streets and car parks. "Juice points" are similar to parking meters, but with electric cables attached, and will function a bit like petrol pumps where the revenue goes to electricity suppliers rather than to oil companies.

How much will it cost to recharge and how long will it take?

There is much talk of 2 pence a mile motoring, a fraction of the cost of filling up with petrol or diesel.

But over time the price of electricity might well rise, and as the government's tax revenue from petrol and diesel sales disappear it will be looking to other ways to tax motoring.

Will I have to change the batteries every two years?

That is unlikely. The life-cycle of modern batteries for electric vehicles is roughly 10 years. BMW's battery, for instance, is designed to last for at least 100,000 miles.

But in many ways this will not be an issue for consumers for a while yet. Carmakers tend to lease electric cars so the battery risk is carried by the manufacturer.

Are they more expensive to buy than other cars?

Yes they are. Manufacturers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars producing these vehicles and they want to recoup research and development costs.

Take the Chevy Volt. It is likely to retail at $40,000. A comparably sized combustion engine car in the United States would cost roughly half that.

Are electric cars green?

It is a controversial topic.

Critics claim they are not because generating the electricity to power these cars means burning fossil fuels or using nuclear power.

Those in favour argue power stations are more efficient at converting fossil fuels into energy than combustion engines in cars.

For more on this read environment correspondent Richard Black's blog here:

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