Best of Robert Llewellyn… all fired up about nothing

Bobby’s best ever columns for

By Gavin Conway on January 23, 2012 6:50 PM

If there’s one thing that gets electric vehicle-haters hot under the collar, it's stories about how EVs are prone to bursting into flames for no reason at all. And the anti-brigade piled in boots first when the Chevy Volt got fingered as the villain in a piece about flaming batteries.

They are even madder now that the Volt has been declared officially safe by American authorities (don’t you hate when that happens?).

And in what seems to have become a day of electric-vehicles-going-up-in-flames-related news for, rocker Neil Young is having lawyer trouble over his EV Lincoln, which did cause a bit of a conflagration. 

So as we’re on a flaming theme, and with Robert currently filming a new series of BBC comedy Red Dwarf (he plays rubber-headed android Kryten), we thought we’d revisit Bobby's brilliant column about how to deal with EV questions, including ones with the ‘f’ word. Well, the last couple of paragraphs mention fire, anyway. Regardless, it’s a typically cracking read… take a look below.

By the way, the new series of Red Dwarf will be broadcast in the UK on Dave later this year, but Robert will be back with us with fresh scribbling as soon as filming is over (late February or early March, depending on how long it takes to get the make-up off).

Robert’s LEAF diary – week 17: Getting grilled over electrics (quite literally)

First published: 19 August, 2011

Although many aspects of driving the Nissan LEAF are relaxing, calm, quiet and very low on the stress-ometer, it’s often when I’m not in it that I get a bit tetchy.

I have no one to blame but myself – I nailed my colours to the mast of the battery electric vehicle and it’s entirely my fault if people ask me stuff about it. For 99% of the time, when I drive into a car park, pull up on the street or visit friends there is no mention of the car, disruptive technology, battery replacement cost or range anxiety. No one knows, they’re not interested and they don’t say anything. If they were later asked by secret agents what car Robert was driving, I think most of these people would say, “I think it was blue."

I have to remind myself that, quite sensibly, most people aren’t interested in cars. They may use them to get about, they may worry about the cost of fuel, road tax and the difficulty in parking them, but other than that, they have become a seamless part of our lives, like it or not. The problem only occurs when even people who have no interest in cars discover that the Nissan LEAF is electric.

"I have to remind myself that, quite sensibly, most people aren’t interested in cars. If they were asked by secret agents what car Robert was driving, most of these people would say, “I think it was blue."

When someone I normally talk to about gardening, parenting, relationships, architecture or Obama’s chances of re-election finds out the car I arrived in is electric, this becomes the topic of conversation no matter what I say.

“I think Obama’s in with a chance,” I’ll say almost pleadingly.

“What happens when the batteries run out?”

“Honestly, I know he’s been compromised into oblivion by the Tea Party nut-bags but he’s still got a year to go, anything could happen before the next election.”

“Aren’t the battery replacement costs prohibitive? I read something about that.”

I sigh and shrug – there’s nothing I can do to steer the topic and I dive in, answering the questions as best I can.

People who don’t even drive – who hate cars altogether and think they’ve ruined the world – want to know what electric cars are like and are full of questions. So I explain the cost of running the car giving, comparative pence per mile statistics.

I explain about the battery technology, the history of electric cars from 1900 onward, the turning point when Charles F. Kettering invented the starter motor, which made the previously deadly, dangerous and unreliable petrol engine easier to live with (Mr Kettering’s best friend was killed when trying to crank-start an early petrol engine).

I explain about the national grid and charging at night and how there is now more information coming out about the benefits to the grid we’d see with a mass adoption of electric vehicles. I try and underline the important point that the cleaner the grid gets, the cleaner the cars get, something which can never be achieved with oil burners.

I point to the work the likes of Ecotricity are doing with their re-charge network, I inform them that refining petrol uses vast quantities of electricity, that by continuing to buy oil at the level we do now supports some of the most corrupt and cruel regimes on the planet.

I explain the rudiments of Cambridge Crude, which is the development of a charged liquid that can literally be pumped into a ‘battery tank’ to re-charge a battery; the fact that there are around 30 electric cars hitting the market in 2012; that range extended plug-in electrics are likely to have a huge impact; that more and more investment and innovation is taking place around wireless charging making it possible to charge a car without wire or charge posts.

"I can usually bore even the most ardent enquirer into the ground in about thirty minutes. I am a veritable global database of information housed in a sagging middle-aged male body."

They nod and listen intently, sometimes praising me for my wealth of knowledge on the subject and sometimes just yawning quite openly. I can usually bore even the most ardent enquirer into the ground in about thirty minutes. I am a veritable global database of information housed in a sagging middle-aged male body.

But just occasionally they’ll hit me with a doozy.

“So what happens if you’ve parked your car on the street and there’s a riot and someone sets fire to it?”

This, I admit, is a very new question but I’ve been asked it twice in the last week. I tell them I have no idea. I imagine it will burn but I don’t think it will explode as an oil burner does. I don’t actually know that. I’ve seen footage of an electric Volvo smash into a concrete block, but I haven’t seen footage of a fire test on an electric vehicle. This is clearly something I’m going to have to discover.

But not – just in case my son reads this – with the Nissan LEAF currently re-charging in my garage.

About Robert Llewellyn

Weekly columnist Robert Llewellyn is a comedian, actor, presenter and writer. He’s perhaps best known for his role as Kryten in hit BBC comedy Red Dwarf and as co-presenter of Channel 4’s Scrapheap Challenge, but since creating the Carpool series he has been invited to test drive all kinds of cars, from the pure electric Tesla Roadster sports car to the Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell car. As a result Robert has become an expert on green cars, in particular electric cars, launching EV web series Fully Charged in 2010.

REVIEW: Want to know what we thought of the Nissan LEAF, voted 2011 World Car of the Year? Click here

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