Electric Technology

Some families spend their Sunday evenings at church. Some gather round the kitchen table for homework. Some have a nice family meal, complete with conversation, before sharing the washing-up. But for many British families - and I would have to include my own in this category - the Sunday evening ritual is Top Gear, in which we slump on the sofa to watch Jeremy Clarkson and his fellow petrolheads as they celebrate the motor car in all its glorious forms. So when the invitation came through to make my second appearance on this landmark of our national culture, I did not hesitate. It is hard to do justice to the richness of my emotions as I revved at the start of the famous Surrey circuit, helmeted and trussed in my aviator's harness. Ahead of me was the bonnet of my Chevrolet Lacetti, the "reasonably priced car" that I had to flog around the former aerodrome. Ahead of me lay ridicule or triumph - and in a few minutes I would find out which. Arum-arum-arum went the Chevrolet, straining against the clutch like a greyhound in the traps, and now the chap was counting down with his fingers: five, four, three, two - and I had to make my mind up about how to handle it. Was I going to try my hardest - and risk absurdity - or was I going to play it cool and just lollop round the track like Terry Wogan? One of my top City Hall aides had come down with his son to watch and, on the whole, he counselled a dignified detachment. "No one is going to mind if you just drive sensibly," he said. But my own son took a different view. "You've got to try," he said fiercely, and I knew he was right. The last time I was on the show, in 2003, I turned in a lap time significantly slower than almost anyone else. I was slower than Tara Palmer-Tomkinson; I was slower than Michael Gambon. In fact, the only person I am sure I beat was Richard Whiteley, and he is no longer with us. It was, therefore, with a keen sense of an endangered family honour that I finally let that clutch all the way out and with smoking wheels howled off towards the first bend. And at first I thought I had it licked. As you know, guests on Top Gear have the benefit of coaching by "The Stig", a mysterious white-uniformed driver whose visor is never lifted. After a few warm-up laps, the Stig had been getting almost complimentary. He'd shown me how to do the chicane and how to charge flat-out at the tyre wall, and once he'd hopped out of the car I was naïve enough to believe I could repeat it without my tutor. Well, I don't know if you stuck your head out of the window on Sunday, but it was raining, and it was raining with particular vehemence in Surrey. The water lay on the track in pools and - to cut a long story short - I spent the next hour in a total skid-fest. I ploughed repeatedly into the grass. I took out one of the runway lights. I span like a bar of soap on a wet bathroom floor, and my course was so unpredictable, I was informed, that there was some risk to the health and safety of the camera crews. Finally I completed a lap. I had a time to enter on the board, and though they refused to tell me quite how laughable it was (the full humiliation will be revealed on Sunday), I prised myself from that sweaty Lacetti with a sense of accomplishment, a sense of relief - and also a certain wistfulness. Top Gear. The very name is a tribute to a technology that is increasingly archaic. After I had finished my skidathon, I was allowed to drive the track in a vehicle owned by James McAllister, the proprietor of the circuit. His vehicle was a Mercedes; it had good acceleration and a decent top speed, and yet it had no gears. It was an electric car, and it cost him about a penny a mile to run. It is that single factor - the relative cheapness of electricity - that makes me think we are on the verge of a huge change in our motoring, and a change that is long overdue. As they have discovered on Top Gear, electric cars are not just glorified milkfloats these days. There is already something out there called the Tesla, which can apparently do 125mph and go for 250 miles without needing to have its batteries recharged. With zero emissions, no noise pollution and no dependence on foreign oil, what is not to like? This Tesla can apparently do 0-60 in four seconds, which makes the Chevrolet Lacetti look like a golf buggy. I know there are those who say that electric technology is a blind alley and that we should wait for hydrogen engines. There are those who complain that the batteries are bulky and take hours to recharge. But think of those brick-like 1990s mobile phones and compare them with the power of the wafer-like gizmos today. It strikes me that, after years of false starts, the electric market is on the verge of triumphant maturity, and all it needs is the encouragement of consumer demand. So here is my proposal to the motor industry, now languishing in the credit crunch. My Toyota people-mover is so old and tired that if it were a dog, you would have it put down. But I intend to keep it on the road for another year, for two years, for three years - for however long it takes the car manufacturers to produce a zero-emission electric family car. Come on, folks: you must be able to do it. I don't want to buy another internal combustion engine; there is a market waiting to be satisfied, and if that isn't an economic stimulus I don't know what is. Of course it will be sad for us petrolheads to say goodbye to the vroom-vroom of the 120-year old technology. But then I am sure Clarkson and Co can just tweak the name of the show. Top Spark would do. Or Top Plug. [First published in the Daily Telegraph 02 December 2008 under the heading, "Top Gear sways Boris Johnson to electric cars."]

32 thoughts on “Electric Technology”

  1. I can’t drive, know nothing about cars, do not wish to know anything abut cars, and will never in my life speak about cars. I have never watched Jeremy Clarkson’s programme, and would hardly recognise Jreremy Clarkson, because he is to do with cars, even if I tripped and fell right into his arms.

    Why drive when you can take the bus, or even better, a taxi?

    There is a reason for this though – I have been traumatised because the one time I did try to learn to drive, the instructor jumped out of the car. We were in a field, so no damage done, but the horror and humiliation are still with me. Things were not improved by the comment of a young lad who used to work for me. He said “He jumped because of your talking, nothing to do with your driving!”

    STICK TO BUSES AND TAXIS.

  2. ps. I know that I have told the above story before on this website, but it just goes to show how traumatised I must have been, if I have to keep talking compulsively about it.

    I might tape the Jeremy Clarkson show with Boris on it and watch it, because if it is funny, we need some laughs at the moment, what with the way our parliamentary freedoms are being trashed, our social services is going to rack and ruin and the economy is going down the pan.

    Maybe the Mayor’s car turns over! (THIS IS A JOKE)

  3. Electric cars are NOT zero emmision. The emissions do not come from the cars but the electricity has to be generated somewhere, somehow.

    As our current inept government is letting our nuclear reactors wind down without replacing them with anything sensible we are going to have trouble generating enough electricity to power our central heating in a few years, there will be no capacity to power millions of electric cars as well.

    And please don’t think our cars will be powered with electricity from these laughable windmill things. They are great, until the wind stops. And we simply don’t have the technology to efficiently store that much electricity…

  4. I trust, Mr. Johnson, that you saw the Top Gear bendy bus trials last Sunday, then? I look forward to seeing your lap on Sunday.

    I would like to add to your piece that an electric car is only ’emissions free’ if it is powered by electricity that has been generated by nuclear or renewable power. Any chance see some more investment in energy generation to allow us to use electricity without emission-guilt?

  5. Yes
    No
    Yes
    No (we have… er had a dishwasher)
    Yes

    But Boz: “With zero emissions, no noise pollution and no dependence on foreign oil” ??

    Come on dear heart put your brain in gear – zero emissions? So the power station produces zero emissions does it? There are no losses compared with an internal combustion engine, it’s as efficient? And what does a power station run on? Our own coal after Thatcher crushed the industry or foreign gas or oil, hmn? And even politicians produce emissions. Even riding your bicycle will produce emissions. Though not as many as the average cow. Think!

    Please reader – THINK!!

    People are chopping down the rainforest, you know – the lungs of the earth – to grow bio-fuels so you can go shopping without catching the bus. That’s like a vegetarian chopping their legs off because they object to wearing leather shoes. Really really stupid. But hey let’s not use bio-fuels (which can be made from waste chip fat) lets use electric cars which are magic! No they’re not – the energy has to come from somewhere and chances are there’s a fossil fuel at the end of it. Duh!

  6. Oh yeah, forgot to add that nuclear power doesn’t count as ‘zero emissions’ as some people would say that radio active waste rolling through our towns is the most dangerous and polluting ’emissions’ of all.

    I’d rather choke than die of cancer, thanks. Or alternatively we could reduce car use (congestion and emissions) BY GETTING A BETTER PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM! In addition to opening a few more post offices etc. so people didn’t have drive.

    Ithenku.

  7. “Or alternatively we could reduce car use (congestion and emissions) BY GETTING A BETTER PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM! In addition to opening a few more post offices etc. so people didn’t have drive.”

    I’m with you on this one Jaq. Get rid of private cars in cities totally, ( except for very special occasions, because boys will have their toys.)

  8. Angela, boys come out the womb with their own toy so let them get a bicycle. Look at Boz, Stanley and Peter Hitchens? Real men ride bicycles – they don’t need big toys in the city. And outside the city Peter takes the train 😉

  9. Well I was just being nice and letting them have their big toy for special occasions, but there is a lot of truth in what you say.

  10. Oooh er! didn’t mean that! I just don’t get on with electrical equipment full stop, you know, DVDs, video machines, etc.

  11. I intend on sticking with my 3 litre German motorway cruiser. If it isnt broken dont fix it. Its far more economical to run a car into the ground than it is to invest money in a new electric car. It seems nonsense that we are meant to be reducing carbon emissions. Im sure the mass production of electric cars will generate far more emissions than my 3 litre will generate over the next 5 years.

  12. Angela – that’s what I meant, you naughty minx! I meant that when it comes to changing a plug men seem to step up to the plate. When it comes to cleaning the loo they’re too busy watching Top Gear.

  13. Whatever is said and done about emmissions and power sources both polluting and supposidly non polluting, Moving any form of vehicle will require energy from some source. Even the footware used for a human to physically push would require energy to produce these at a greater rate to replace the quicker wearout as a result. So shut up all of you. Stop wasting energy with all of this documentation of your ill founded beliefs.
    That is except for me!

  14. What the dickens are you talking about, and the hot air you are expending will cause a nuclear reaction, if you go on like that, so you shut it, bossy boots.(ONLY JOKING)

    Geez mechanical things are boring.

  15. Last night watched about 10 minutes of TOP GEAR, which was all I could stand. A load of laddish louts lounged around talking about hunks of metal, when they were not driving them into brick walls. It was like the mating ritual of the aardvark. Is TOP GEAR code for something else?

  16. Still, David Mamet, the American playright says that men need these innately masculine conclaves, to reassert their maleness and rebuild testosterone, bond with other alpha males, show off in the shower…….

    Sales of the electrical car have flopped.

  17. Sweet article, but what we all really want to know is, what happened between you and Inspector Clouseau, Boris?

  18. Oh yes, yes! That is what the nation really wants to know! And when you exchanged views with the instransigent, but bumbling Inspector Clouseau, over the case of the arrested MP, was the film you were starring in THE REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER or A SHOT IN THE DARK?

  19. God, people do take things seriously don’t they? I just wanted to say that in my opinion After Rome has been superb so far and I love Top Gear also.

    So pooh to all the naysayers.

  20. Boris, now that you’re a convert to the zero enission car – can you posibly jst re-think the lower/zero congestion charge for these excellent vehicles sorry to drone on but we did get a Clio eco – warrior especially so my poor RSI-ridden IT whizz of a husband could scrape a slightly less meagre return on necessary trips into town to assist his (slightly less IT literate)clientele. if you have been, thanks for listenbing.PS after rome was great. you should use conditioner on your hair though – and lengthen those suit trousers…but brilliant programme – and absolutely right for the times. and great academics you spoke to, i could go on but it would be progressively duller.

  21. Electric cars will not be a practical proposition for at least ten years even if heavily subsidised to speed its introduction. It will take at least three years to develop ones that even an Eco freak want to buy let alone some normal sane non city driver. After this it will take at least three years to get into limited production and get the bugs which will be many and serious, ironed out. Once this has been done productiuion can be scaled up if generating capacity and infrastructure are in place.
    Instead of the Routemaster Boris how about a new generation trolley bus. They were killed off firstly by cheap oil ( Tears of nostalgia being wiped away by many who remember this.) and secondly by pick up arms dropping off the wires at the points.
    The latter problem is now easily soluble because the better batteries will easily allow travel between stops where sufficient charge can be added to the batteries via automatically raised and lowered computer controlled pickup arms.

    Even with these electric buses how can the additional load be supplied when the government is dominated by the same people who have ensured we have no nuclear power. The same people who blocked the Severn estuary hydro electric scheme and the same people who have forced us to pay hand over fist for wind farms. Changing to the Conservatives won’t help as long as their paymasters are funding the acquittal of eco vandals.
    My aged Clio is overdue for replacement but who would chance buying a replacement petrol car while Eco nuts rule with no idea of reality. This clearly includes you as you have shown by your inability, brashly flaunted by comparing a no expense spared one off vehicle using unsustainable rare metals in the batteries with a budget mass production vehicle.
    As for taking the train as one comment suggests where do trains go other than to other cities?

  22. Dear Boris

    I watched Top Gear last night and haven’t laughed so much in ages, your interview with Jeremy Clarkson was just genius….though your driving could do with a little bit of a heavier right foot 😉

    Thanks for the laughs

    Dave

  23. Geez what an appalling programme TOP GEAR is! I didn’t understand one single word of anything they were saying, and it was all about lumps of metal and plugs and muddy, dirty places. The presenters were butch guys who looked as though they punched people for no reason. Boris was quite sweet, apart from that TERRIBLE.

    As for the car thing, soon we will probably access parallel universes and we will be able to use the power of the mind to transport ourselves into different dimensions, so all this car stuff will be defunct.

  24. “It was an electric car, and it cost him about a penny a mile to run”

    It may cost a penny to run now but if everyone was doing it then taxes would go up elsewhere.
    Look at Diesel prices; as soon as there were enough people using them to reduce the petrol fuel tax revenue diesel tax revenue was increased.

    As things stand tax on fuel is roughly 58% (duty tax,Value Added Tax on the petrol – and the Value Added Tax on the duty tax). Tax would have to be added to electricity sales to make up the margins; Automotive Recharge Tax, anyone?

  25. Mikey – are you sure it’s only 58% ??

    Just wondering. And what about the by-products of petroleum production? If demand for petroleum decreased I mean. I still say if public transport was better and small communities had the amenities they once had then fewer people would drive. Train prices can be ridiculously expensive. And most cars have only one person in them.

    I agree with you that if we changed to flying by goose then the government would tax geese somehow.

  26. If I come across Top Gear on TV I switch off. The programme should be banned. It encourages young drivers to drive recklessly and dangerously. They are both overgrown senseless school boys. Don’t the manufacturers realize that this programme discourages sales of cars because of the irresponsible attitude of the programme. Think about it?

  27. Would I receive any grant or financial assistants if I were to change my fleet of driving school cars from petrol to electric powered vehicles?

Comments are closed.