Electric vehicles (EVs) have never been far from the headlines in both the automotive press and mainstream media in recent years. Increasing pressure on vehicle manufacturers to meet ever more stringent emissions standards, in conjunction with political rhetoric and public mobilisation against climate change, has put petrol and diesel cars under the microscope. However, doubts over the viability and widescale affordability of EVs have lingered, while attitudes among petrol heads range from scepticism and denial to fear.

When it comes to measuring what’s ‘on trend’– to borrow the phrase recently used by Chris Harris – in the automotive media, there’s surely no better barometer than Top Gear. So, when the show – in its new guise with funnyman Paddy McGuinness at the helm –dedicated the entire second episode of its current series to EVs, was this a signal that the tide has turned?

Whilst Top Gear purists, not least Jeremy Clarkson, no doubt recoiled at this departure from the show’s usual content, the EV revolution is evidently something that producers could ill afford to ignore. And sure enough, in amongst the juvenile antics of McGuiness and co-presenter Freddie Flintoff, there were some nuggets of informative content about the electric future, and even a begrudging Harris acknowledged the way things are inexorably heading.

When will EVs break the mass market?

This acquiescence to the rise of EVs was most hard-hitting in Harris’ test drive segment in the Tesla Model 3. This is the car that threatens to unlock the mass market for Elon Musk, coming in at around half the price of the Model S and seeking to disrupt the ultra-competitive executive saloon class. Behind the wheel, Harris was unenamoured by aspects of the 3’s design and handling, but was otherwise impressed – to the extent that he recently announced on Twitter that he intends to buy one!

So perhaps the future looks bright for Musk, but one of the big question marks hanging over the future direction of the EV market as a whole has been when, and how, the established carmakers will come to the table. Up until recently, the major VMs had merely been dipping their toes in the EV water, but in June, Torque client Jaguar Land Rover decided to wade further in, announcing a collaborative project with BMW to develop electric motors, transmissions and electronics.

Of course, this wasn’t the first alliance between VMs with the stated aim of sharing the costs of developing EVs. Volkswagen and Ford, Honda and GM, and Tesla and Daimler, for instance, have already got into various beds together, while FiatChrysler and Renault also recently explored a similar deal. With cost being one of the largest barriers to mass-scale production and uptake of electric cars, perhaps these strategic partnerships are crucial steps towards the trusted household car brands producing desirable, affordable EVs on a mass scale.

Range

The Top Gear electric episode served as a microcosm of the debate surrounding EV range, with most of the discussions between the presenters couched in terms of the so-called ‘range anxiety’ that precludes many people from investing in an EV.

It’s no secret that EVs struggle to compete with their combustion engine-endowed rivals when it comes to long haul journeys and the practicality of refuelling – a fact that was not lost on Paddy McGuinness, whose souped-up Nissan Leaf struggled with the distance involved in ‘The 24 Minutes of Le Mansfield’.

Recent months have seen a flurry of localised stories detailing the installation of new charging points across the UK, in locations as far-flung as The Lake District. The West, in particular, will see a huge boost to its charging infrastructure over the next year, with £7.1m of government funding to be pumped (sorry, invested) into new charging points in Bristol, Bath and Somerset.

But accessibility is just part of the charging solution; speed is what it really boils down to if drivers are to be persuaded to make the switch. So, nationwide installation of fast-charging stations has become paramount. These stations can charge EVs in approximately half an hour, compared to the eight hours it takes at a regular charging point. One such station was recently installed in Sunderland, and there are others springing up across the UK – a positive sign that the national network will soon rival Tesla’s Supercharger infrastructure and offer a genuine alternative.

What about safety?

The Top Gear EV episode probably isn’t the most useful point of reference when it comes to safety (have you seen Andrew Flintoff behind the wheel?) but the safety of EVs, on a number of levels, is a gristly bone of contention that naturally has to feature in any discussion of their viability. Indeed, wide-ranging fears exist over the safety of drivers and pedestrians, but also the technicians tasked with repairing these high voltage vehicles.

One of the most cited issues with EVs is the fact that they are too quiet, making it difficult for pedestrians to hear them before they see them. It is now the case, however, by virtue of an EU rule that came into effect on Monday 1st July, that all new electric vehicles will have to include a noise-emitting device, which apparently sounds like an engine (you can almost hear Clarkson scoffing). The device can be deactivated by the driver in situations where they feel it is necessary, but the appropriately named ‘Acoustic Vehicle Alert System’ (AVAS) must sound when the vehicle is reversing or travelling below 12mph.

As for the safety of technicians repairing, servicing and maintaining the new wave of EVs, the statistics paint a worrying picture. A report published by the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) at the back end of last year revealed that a paltry 3% of automotive technicians in the UK are qualified to work on EVs. Of those, the vast majority are employed in dealerships, rendering the independent sector essentially redundant in servicing the EV market.

And so it is that while the VMs sign multi-billion pound R&D contracts and Chris Harris eulogises on BBC Two about the Tesla Model 3 being “the traffic light king”, the under-skilled service and repair market braces itself for an influx of vehicles that potentially can’t be fixed when things go wrong.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Torque client, MG Motor UK, is leading the way in arming its dealerships for the EV age, having begun implementation of an all-new set of standards specifically for hybrid and electric vehicles in May. The developments will include industry accredited training qualifications to equip MG staff and technicians with expert knowledge and tools to support customers. In addition, each of the company’s 92 dealerships will feature a minimum of two on-site charging points, ahead of the MG ZS EV going on sale in September.

This kind of concerted, forward-thinking approach is what’s needed from dealer networks and aftermarket organisations if the repair sector is to keep up with the increasing consumer appetite for EVs. There’s still time for this to happen, but the clock is ticking.

Where now?

Top Gear paying lip service to electrification isn’t epoch-making, but it does feel somewhat symbolic. It is indicative of changing attitudes towards EVs among consumers, and the content of the show went some way to demonstrate that it might not be too long before even the staunchest petrol heads could be swayed.

It’s fair to say that, amid the glamour of high-profile R&D collaborations and trendy tech companies entering the EV arena, questions about the ‘boring’ issues like range, charging infrastructure and aftermarket repair remain, at least in part, unanswered. This still gives EV naysayers a crumb of comfort, but the list of counterarguments is diminishing by the week.

From a Torque perspective, electrification has brought with it new industry players, new technologies and ideas, and therefore a myriad of new information and messages to be communicated to, and through, the media. Recent EV-related projects have seen Torque assist Jaguar Land Rover with the launch of its iconic I-PACE, work with Automobili Pininfarina on the global debut of the Battista electric hypercar at Geneva Motor Show, support Millbrook in strengthening its position as the UK’s leading independent battery and e-propulsion test facility, and announce MG’s bolstering of its dealer network’s EV capabilities.

It might still be some time before all of the cars in the Top Gear studio are fully electric, but the tide appears to have turned.

Written by Alex Juggins