Cleaning Up Episode 90 Edited Highlights – Robert Llewellyn
ML So, Robert, what is the Fully Charged Show and how did it come about?
RL The Fully Charged Show started 12 years ago, when electric cars barely existed. In 2010, I had a Mitsubishi i-MiEV - a very early electric car - for a year. After I had driven it 15,000 or 16,000 miles, I thought, “Okay, this stuff does work.” I thought it was worth doing a car show around electric vehicles, and I pitched the idea to the BBC with a producer that had worked on Top Gear. They weren't horrible or negative, but they just didn't know what we were talking about. So, I did it on YouTube. It took two years to get to a million views, but we now average about a million views a week.
ML What does a typical episode look like?
RL A typical episode could be about the batteries in my house, or the solar panels on my roof, or how a company is charging a load of electric delivery vehicles. But there could also be a review of a new car; we've certainly done a huge amount of reviews of electric cars from all over the place. We have presenters in Norway, the Netherlands, South Korea, China, the United States, and we’ve reviewed amazing Chinese cars, some of which we will never see in the West. We’ve also reviewed electric bikes, trucks, boats, even a plane.
ML So it's not really a Top Gear analogue. Do you notice patterns in your viewership?
RL One of the things we've noticed is now, particularly for European and North American cars, if we're doing a review of another big heavy electric SUV, or a large car, the views are lower than if we do a review of a smaller, cheaper, lighter, more compact electric car. That is where a lot of interest is and we get so many comments when we do that. I think it's fantastic.
ML And you've tracked the whole journey from the i-MiEV to the supercars we see today. When you started, did you see that coming?
RL No, not at all. The key cars that fully turned on the transition, right at the early stages, were the Nissan LEAF and the Tesla Roadster. The Tesla Roadster because the performance in it was extraordinary. It's a very uncomfortable car to drive a long way in, but it showed that electric cars can have very impressive performance. The LEAF I picked up because it was the first production car built as an electric car - the i-MiEV was a petrol car in Japan for many years before it was electrified. Those and the Renault Zoe showed that there was a commitment within sectors of the automotive industry to make this work.
ML Are there any other models you would you pick out as having readjusted your views on the sector?
RL I think it's very difficult not to highlight Tesla. We had a Model S and we went to Italy on holiday in it without a second thought. That was the difference: it’s got the range. It meant the last thing you worried about was charging. Besides, the supercharging network in in Europe is now double the size it was when we did that. Regarding Tesla, I now understand a lot more about the automotive industry than I did 12 years ago. It's not that hard to build a very glamorous-looking car that you can take to a car show. The difference between that one sample and 10,000 a week coming out of a factory is huge. The fact that Elon Musk has done it with Tesla is a remarkable achievement. What other car companies started up since the war have been a success?
ML We can't get through this episode without mentioning hydrogen. All of this is just an evolutionary dead-end, because really the answer is hydrogen, right?
RL What I think is interesting is that it goes in waves. When I first started, everyone said, “Well, these are all well and good, your fancy battery cars, but they won't last, you have to throw out the battery, hydrogen is the future.” One of the nicest cars I've ever driven is the Honda Clarity - that was a hydrogen fuel cell car that cost about €1.5 million, if you could buy one, which you couldn't. The Toyota Mirai, the Hyundai Nexo; those are all hydrogen fuel cell cars, but they all have batteries. Not as big as you'd have in a Tesla, but they still have fairly chunky batteries. They are incredibly complex pieces of machinery, and there was a telling clue I got when I drove the Nexo across South Korea: There was yellow tape around the one hydrogen fuelling station because it didn't work. It is a technically complicated way of fuelling a car.
ML Do you worry about minerals? That the minerals supply chain will either just not materialize, or it'll be so filthy that we shouldn't do it?
RL Definitely worried about it, the minerals thing is a huge challenge. One mining engineer I spoke to a couple of years ago said that we have to stop digging by 2050. And, we need proof of industrial scale recycling. I think the one glimmer of hope is that one of the many, many alternatives to lithium ion as we know it now will work, a solid-state battery. I think eventually, we may have carbon batteries. But more broadly, one of the critical arguments that have come out of my experience from Fully Charged is that our relationship with cars might need to change. Do you really need to own a car privately, that's your car? That you use for between 5% and 10% of the time that you own it? In the Netherlands, in Utrecht, people are getting rid of their cars and having better experiences with car sharing. Not even for environmental reasons, but because it’s better. With more cycling, we would have fewer cars on our streets that aren't being used. Imagine if it was reduced by 80%? It would be a far nicer environment to live in.
ML What about the grid? Because the other thing you hear a lot in the UK is you need 60 more nuclear power stations to charge all these cars…
RL I understood it first by looking at the demand graph, the daily usage of electricity in the UK, those enormous dips and peaks in the way that we consume electricity. That peak, the top of that peak, is the dirtiest and the most expensive electricity that we ever use. The stuff that's being turned on to fill that peak isn't running during the day, and keeping it on 24hrs means energy costs more. One solution is, certainly, don't plug your car in and charge it between 4:30pm and 7pm; I never use electricity from the grid at that time. The next step I think is vehicle-to-house. The car sharing scheme I mentioned in Utrecht, all those cars have bidirectional charging. If I could run my house off my car for three or four hours, it would use about 20 miles’ range - you're not draining it to nothing. When enough electric cars are on the road and they can connect like that, we will need less generating capacity, not more, because we can spread it out and run it more efficiently, rather than in peaks.
ML You meet lots of people who love this stuff, right? That's your crowd. But there are also a lot of people who absolutely hate it. Why do they hate it so much?
RL It is fascinating. The electric vehicle, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of, became a political football in the United States. In the UK people say “I know my next car will be an electric one. They're not ready for me yet.” That’s a very common thing I've heard. When people ask about having to throw the battery away, I ask them if they have ever worried about the recycling of materials in a coal-burning power plant, of which there are many millions of tonnes, or in a gas plant or in a big electrical substation. Saying that, I think we're right to be suspicious of a new technology, because that makes the people who are producing it go, “We're not going to get away with it like we have done for the last 100 years.”
ML There definitely is misinformation being propagated by the car and fossil fuel industries. Do you think that's been effective or not effective?
RL I think it has been effective. I'm very influenced by the extraordinary book The Merchants of Doubt. All they're doing is delaying, and they can do that very successfully. I've always defended their right to do it, but I think the tide of history is on the side of cleaner and more efficient technologies.