He’s part of the trio known worldwide for their love of everything petrol, a team which has traditionally taken great pains to paint electric cars as slow, boring, expensive and impractical.
But now BBC Top Gear presenter James May has come out of the closet: he’s buying a BMW i3 REx electric car.
Talking on BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours Bank Holiday Monday special today on electric cars, the 51-year old petrol head not only admitted that he ‘quite likes’ electric cars — but that he’s going to buy one, too.
“We’ve known for a long time that the electric motor is the ideal way to propel an electric car,” he said. “We’re discovering that there’s a different sort of pleasure in motoring in an electric car because of the smoothness, the silence.”
Extolling the evolutionary jumps made in electric car technology since the heyday of the electric milk float twenty or thirty years ago, May admitted that electric cars are no-longer seen as the “anti-car” by people, and that modern electric car battery technology has made electric cars practical for the first time.
May’s interview — part of the same show chronicling the trip made a few weeks ago by BBC reporter Samantha Fenwick — provided a fairly balanced view of electric cars, from the different models available to some of the current issues surrounding unreliable charging infrastructure.
Fenwick, who recently drove from Nissan’s Sunderland factory in a brand new Nissan LEAF to Nissan GB’s technical centre in Bedfordshire, experienced some major delays due to an Ecotricity Electric Highway DC quick charging station which failed to accept her RFID card.
Fenwick, who was forced to wait several hours to be ‘rescued’ by another LEAF driver with a working RFID card, was able to continue on the rest of her journey unimpeded, successfully using other Ecotricity Electric Highway DC quick charging points along the way.
Talking about the challenges Fenwick faced, May admitted charging infrastructure is still the weakest point.
“In terms of technology, the electric car works perfectly well,” May said. “The problem is still electricity, the difficulty in charging, the difficulty in storing it.”
“You do still have to think ahead,” he concluded.
Yet May still wants to own an EV — and he’s buying a BMW i3.
“I sort of want to be part of the ‘experiment’. I don’t know what the answer is — or if a car like the i3 is the long term future of the car,” May said. “It’s not that small. It’s actually quite roomy inside. It’s almost a small people carrier.”
Having been part of the BBC Top Gear team for many years — a show which has relentlessly criticised and made fun of electric cars for many years — May said it was time to go green.
“I talk about cars, as I was saying earlier. I make a living out of doing that…I sort of feel obliged to,” he said of his BMW i3 purchase.
Later in the show, May discussed range extended electric cars, and came clean that he is buying the BMW i3 REx range-extended EV rather than the all-electric i3 EV.
EV fan or not, May still has a little range anxiety.
“It’s called a range extender,” he said of the i3 REx’s tiny range-extending petrol engine. “It really ought to be branded ‘pure cowardice,’ because that’s what it is and that’s why I’ve got one,” he joked.
“You don’t have to use it, and I will try not to use it,” he promised. “It’s a bit like when I tell the doctor I’m not going to do any drinking or smoking but I will do a bit. I will try to use the electric car infrastructure as much as possible.”
Despite having a range extended BMW i3 electric car however, May says the BMW i3 isn’t going to be his only car — and when he goes long-distance away from his London home, he’ll use another car instead.
When pushed, May was a little sheepish as to what that car is.
“It’s a Ferrari,” he admitted. “I’m cheating I know. I really hoped you weren’t going to ask me that!”
Talking of a gradual transition from petrol to electric and a future where multiple different fuel options exist, May reiterated that the change from petrol to electric will be a little bit the change from horse-drawn carriage to cars in the first place.
“The real world is about money, and a lot of people have to make ends meet,” he said. “It sounds pompous I know, but electric cars are currently for the wealthy and electric cars will proliferate if they are made cheaper and more attractive.”
“I really don’t want anybody to think I’m buying an electric car so the Government is pleased with me. I couldn’t care less,” he said. “I’m buying an electric car because I’m thinking it’s exciting and I’m in the fortunate position of being able to do it and take part in this rather interesting experiment.”
As for improving electric cars for the future? Aside from the obvious points like price, range and charging capabilities, May says automakers need to work harder to improve the onboard noise generators used to alert pedestrians to an electric car’s presence.
“They kind of sound like vomiting robots,” he moaned. “They could sound like bird chirps or snatches of Oasis riffs or something. They need to make a bit more effort.”
Here at Transport Evolved, we’re pleased to hear at least one of the Top Gear trio is giving electric cars a real chance — but what do you think? And which electric cars would you recommend May’s fellow presenters — Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond — consider buying?
Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.