Bristol motorists find future is electric
It's the silence that is most surprising. All that can be heard is the sound of wheels on the surface of the ramps as we make our way up the multi-storey car park.
There is no engine sound from the silver VW golf. However, just as we manoeuvre into a parking bay on the second floor of Cabot Circus, the silence is shattered by the crackle of a walkie-talkie.
It belongs to a security guard, who is standing at the open window to tell Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield that only electric cars can park here.
In response, Nikki gets out, flips the front grille forwards and holds up a cable, declaring with a smile: "It is electric!"
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The days when electric cars were curiosities with the acceleration of glorified milk floats are well and truly over as far as Nikki and the other members of the Battery Electric Vehicles of Bristol group (Bevob) are concerned.
They just wish that others would start to realise it, too. "I'm not a hippy, and I'm not one of those people who says you have to live in a cave to save the planet," declares Nikki.
"I believe that modern scientific technology doesn't have to be a problem and can in fact be a solution, and that is certainly the case when it comes to electric cars."
The fact that we are standing talking in a special area for parking and charging electric cars at Cabot Circus shows how much attitudes are changing. There are also parking at charging facilities in the car park at Cribbs Causeway, and at the Better Food Company in St Werburghs.
Nikki has turned up in her VW Golf City Stromer, while fellow Bevob member John Honniball has driven in his single-seater CityEL, which is more in keeping with the common perception of an electric car.
"We both live in Stoke Gifford and came into the city centre along the Gloucester Road, as John can't drive on a motorway in his car as it's a three-wheeler," says Nikki.
"We got a lot of people looking at John, but no one seemed to realise that I was driving an electric car too.
"I recently drove a Tesla electric powered sports car, which has a fantastic, Ferrari-like performance. It can go from 0-60mph in four seconds and travel about 250 miles before it needs recharging."
Nikki, 29, is a music teacher and also works as a freelance motoring journalist. Her fascination with electric cars began in her childhood, when she was living in rural East Anglia. "My father was a dairy herdsman, but when I was about nine or 10 the marshes in Suffolk were flooded and he lost his job.
"I was quite keen on science, and I started to think about global warming and the damage being caused by pollution."
But how can electric vehicles, which need energy produced by power stations, be better for the environment than traditional petrol or diesel vehicles?
Nikki explains: "Although power stations cause pollution, they cause less pollution than cars per kilowatt of energy. Cars are very inefficient at using energy.
"If you charge an electric car during the day it only costs about 18p per kilowatt, and if you charge at night on off-peak electricity it only costs 4p per kilowatt, so you can charge up for less than 50p.
"Power stations can't help producing electricity at night, so charging electric cars after midnight helps to use up electricity that could otherwise be wasted." She adds: "Besides, electricity can be produced in an environmentally-friendly way. I believe micro-generation is the way forward, with more households having solar panels, and greater use of wind turbines."
As Nikki continues, it becomes clear that the benefits of driving an electric car are not confined to the ozone layer. "Electric cars also dramatically reduce traffic noise which can considerably improve people's quality of life," she says.
"And a country which has cars that don't need oil have no need for any political or military involvement in those foreign countries where oil is produced."
Nikki is so enthusiastic about the benefits of electric cars that it is hard to understand why we are not all driving around in them now.
Indeed, her Golf City Stromer was built by Volkswagen in response to the oil crisis in the Seventies, and such automotive engineering could have superseded petrol and diesel vehicles if the crisis had not been resolved.
"VW built 300 left-hand drive versions of this car, and just two right-hand drives. This is the only one that has survived and I bought it earlier this year," she says.
"It drives remarkably well for a 25-year-old car, and can go for about 25 miles before needing to be charged. I'm saving for new batteries which will cost about £1,500 and will make it possible to drive for 60 to 70 miles before having to charge.
"Unfortunately this car has a gearbox, but a lot of electric vehicles don't because the way they're designed means they don't need one."
Nikki adds that VW is currently working on a hybrid vehicle based on her Golf. Other car manufacturers are also producing hybrid and electric vehicles and the Government has just embarked upon a £25m trial of a variety of low-carbon vehicles.
However, electric cars are nothing new. Nikki says: "The first electric cars were produced around the turn of the last century. Apparently Henry Ford's wife had one and she said she preferred it to the standard Model T because it was quieter and cleaner, with no fumes."
It was Nikki who inspired John, a software engineer, to buy his electric car.
"I saw Nikki driving a yellow CityEL near my home and I thought it was a fantastic gadget," he says.
"I've always liked the idea of bubble cars, and I liked the idea of driving a single seater.
"I've had it just over two years, and driving it feels completely different to anything else. There are no gears, no engine noise, it doesn't make any fumes.
"You're low to the ground so you feel every bump and pothole, but you can get up to about 35mph on a straight, level road and it plugs into a normal 13 amp socket."
John, 47, adds that he always gets a lot of reaction when he is driving in his electric car.
"People wave at me as I'm driving along and give me thumbs-up signs all the time," he says.
Both John and Nikki emphasise that the distance which electric cars can travel before they need recharging is improving all the time thanks to more powerful modern batteries that weigh less.
"The technology is there," declares Nikki. "The Toyota Rav4 EV, which unfortunately is no longer produced, could travel for 100 miles on a single charge."
The Bevob group has around 20 members, and meets on the last Friday of every month, usually either in the Beaufort Arms in Stoke Gifford, or at Cabot Circus
"Anyone who is interested in electric cars can come along, we very much welcome new members," says Nikki.
What does she think should be done to encourage more people to drive electric cars in Bristol?
"I'd like there to be incentives for owners of electric vehicles, such as being allowed to use high occupancy lanes, and getting free or reduced parking," she replies.
"I'd also like to see better use of the Car Club to provide vehicles that could be used for driving long distances, while people could use electric Car Club vehicles – or electric cars of their own – in the city.
"But the most useful thing would be for families who have two cars to ask themselves what their second car does, and whether they really need a petrol or diesel car for doing the school run or short trips to the supermarket when they could use an electric car."