Could falling speed limits in UK help town EVs?

Those red-blooded, meat-eating petrol-heads aren’t going to like today’s motoring news from the UK; The Government is planning to reduce the speed limit of some UK roads to help reduce fatal crashes, improve fuel economy for drivers and reduce pollution. The reductions? The national limit on single-lane (one lane in each direction) roads could be lowered from 60mph to 50mph in rural locations – and the normal town speed limit of 30mph in built-up areas could be reduced to 20mph.
According to this times article, local councils wishing to keep the current speed limits would have to make some seriously impressive cases to be allowed to keep the current 60mph and 30 mph limits. There’s no plans to reduce the speed limit on major roads such as dual carriageways and motorways. That will stay at 70mph.
The idea behind it all of course is to make roads safer and reduce death and serious injury in the next ten years by a substantial amount. Will it be obeyed? Or will it just mean more fines for unfortunate drivers caught out by confusing (and changing) speed limits?
Or is there another effect of this announcement which some of us may actually benefit from in other ways?

Could town speed limits of 20mph raise interest in Small NEVs?
Could town speed limits of 20mph raise interest in Small NEVs?

Photo by John Honniball

One of the issues facing the cheaper end of the EV market is speed. When the speed limit in the country is normally 60 mph and most of the sub £10,000 electric vehicles will only just about peak at 50mph (sometimes even as low as 30 mph), then buying a clean, green electric vehicle is sullied by which roads you can take it on. No-one wants to buy a vehicle which will hold up traffic.
However, if new, lower speed limits are enforced then perhaps more town-dwelling potential EV owners may make that jump from petrol to electric. I’m not for a second defending the fact that it’s okay to make EVs with a low speed. It’s not. I’d much rather see EVs on an even keel with petrol and Diesel cars. But when the vehicles currently on the market quite clearly aren’t on an even keel you can forgive me I hope for hoping that a reduction in speed will make life easier for the low speed EV owner. For the purposes of this post, I’ll deifine a low-speed EV owner as someone who has a vehicle capable of a speed not in excess of 50mph.
And that, right now, is pretty much every commercial EV on the market today (with the exception of the deliciously expensive and luxurious cars which are every EVangelist’s electron-dream fantasy (but oh-so-expensive) vehicles. People aren’t used to driving a vehicle whose top speed is lower than the speed limit. They want to have that extra oomph. That extra power. That knowledge that they can go that little bit faster than is legally required if they need to.
My last car, the City El, was a case in point. There were days when I felt truly vunerable in it. Even on roads where the speed limit was 30 mph I sometimes found myself struggling. I ended up modifying my car to go faster and further to cope with town traffic. But most people don’t even want to start to modify their vehicle just so that it’s safe to drive and able to keep up with the traffic. That’s an expectation on purchasing a vehicle. If the vehicle can’t meet that expectation it won’t get purchased.
Perhaps then this is why the little town EVs with low top speeds aren’t favoured so much by the general public. That and the Jeremy Clarkson effect, of course.
But every NEV or low speed EV I’ve driven is absolutely fantastic up to about 25mph. Even the ones which are little more than glorified golf-carts. Up to 20 mph, thanks to the fantastic torque produced by electric motors, even the cheapest of NEVs will smoke a petrol car at the lights. Fast acceleration and nippiness. In a 20mph top speed town, that is somehow more achievable with the current market vehicles. Sure, we’d all like faster vehicles, but on a cost level a £5,000 EV may actually make more sense.
Now let’s examine the countryside. If rural speed limits are going to get capped at 50mph then suddenly an EV like the G-Wiz isn’t going to hold up traffic any more. It’s going to be capable of going at the national limit. Suddenly it’s a viable vehicle for someone making short trips between villages. We could actually see it going outside of the towns and into the rural communities.
Of course, the only way that any of this would actulaly happen is if speed limits are enforced. At the moment, the 20 mph speed limits around schools and in certain town streets are not enforced. Anyone caught going over a 20mph limit (but under 30mph) is likely to get let off with a stern word. Take that to a national scale and you end up with a very expensive exercise in sign changing with no-one taking notice of the new limits. On the other hand, if new limits are enforced we in the UK may end up seeing the rebirth of the EV in smaller areas (much in the same way as the NEV is popular in gated communities and low-speed zones). It could be just the perk the cheaper end EV manufacturers need to keep them in business when the big boys come to the party, with 150 mile, motorway ready EVs with an expensive price tag to match (£5,000 grant or not!)
For those driving regular, combustion cars there has to be a benefit too. Lower speeds equals more efficient driving (certainly for the 50mph limit)
So, am I a fan? Yes. 20 mph in towns will help a great deal for anyone wanting to improve EV range in low speed vehicles. The slower the further the range. That’s great. And the 50 mph rural/national limit? You betcha. Besides, at 50mph you get to see so much more…. Just don’t hit the car in front.

4 Comments

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  1. 20 mph just isn't a viable speed limit. It's ridiculously slow. It's fine around schools and in very high-risk areas, but if it were enforced in all towns it would cause some pretty nasty congestion and just irritate the hell out of most people. Speed limits in the US are interesting. The highway speed limit in New York is generally 55 mph, and the highway speed limit in Missouri is 70 mph, but drivers generally end up moving about the same speed – 70-75 mph – in both states. If anything, highways move faster in New York. The limits are pretty rarely enforced unless you're egregiously speeding or weaving in and out of traffic.

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  2. At 20mph, I'd be breaking the speed limit on my bicycle, and I'm not a cyclist.

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  3. I think a 50mph rural limit is too low, personally; and similarly a 20mph town limit – I think it *is* appropriate for highly built up residential areas, and near schools, but for the majority of town areas I think it's restrictively low. In Ireland, the limits are lower than here, and initially, while I was obeying the limits more or less exactly, I was in everyone's way, because they just ignore them. The argument is more about falling driving standards – rather than address the fact that the standards have fallen (there are various things they don't teach anymore because people found it 'difficult'), they want to wrap everyone in cotton wool. As for EVs, the answer is to build better EVs, not to make everyone endure the not-very-good ones we have now. Jeeze, the Enfield managed 50mph on knackered marine batteries and 70's technology.

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  4. That's a very good point. I used to cycle everywhere, and at the time 20 mph was the cruising speed.

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