A version of this article appeared in the Times Eureka magazine
It’s said that you never really learn to swear until you learn to drive. Indeed, I’ve only ever heard my father say the word ‘fuck’ twice: once after being cut up by a Volvo on the main road out of Uttoxeter, the other when he emerged from the shower and was leapt on by a litter of newly born kittens who had mistaken a piece of his anatomy for a play-thing.
It seems that as soon as we take the wheel we lose almost any ability to be forgiving or think kindly of our fellow auto-nauts. Even the Dalai Lama, it is rumoured, once flipped the V’s at a motorbike courier – although in his defence this was probably an emotional reaction having just been cheated out of a parking space by a sneeringly triumphant Michael Palin.
The growl of the engine stirs a primeval desire for confrontation. The road is a battlefield, the family saloon a chariot of righteousness and it’s dangerous to break these well-understood rules of engagement. Once, at some traffic lights, I foolishly wound down my window to apologise to the van driver I had just troubled with a lane change that was, shall we say, ambitious. He had no idea what to do. My apology left him literally dumfounded, so much so that he forgot to move off when the lights changed and someone ran into the back of him.
Electric cars therefore offer us only danger. Without the guttural roar of the internal combustion engine or the smell of oil and gasoline (that heady aroma known as Eau de Clarkson) an unsuspected side effect of ‘going electric’ may be that the driving public are nudged into a politer and more genteel mindset – an erosion of one of our culture’s cornerstone pleasures, i.e. the unspoken permission to regard ourselves as completely superior to everyone else (also called ‘doing a Piers Morgan’). And there’s physical peril too. The quietness of electric cars has led to worries that pedestrians and cyclists might not hear them coming (something viewers of Top Gear may consider an advantage) with calls from the EU to provide EV’s with an external sound system that mimics the noises made by petrol vehicles – the motoring world’s equivalent of Take That doing a Black Sabbath cover. There is a terrible fear among petrol-heads that electric cars will dial down the take-no-prisoners joy of ‘real’ driving to the level of playing Scalextric – that owning a hybrid or electric car will somehow infantilise us (like putting on a nappy, or going into politics).
But perhaps they can trade one game of one-upmanship for another, that of The Righteous Green? An electric car silently mocks the neighbour’s gas-guzzling four-by-four. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, fossil-fuel powered cars won’t become obsolete because they are evil, only when they become vulgar. How flaccid and unseemly the hulking turd of next door’s BMW X-5 might appear when compared to the nippy new generation of e-vehicles. Or what about enjoying some financial smugness? How will you feel telling your rival that while they spent £80 on a tank of BPs finest lagoon-raping hydrocarbon gloop you can get the same mileage for £3.50 (all generated via the new solar panels on your roof of course). But is it enough? Are we trading in a grand and long-cherished arena of fierce mutual contempt only to replace it with tepid forums for exercising mild disdain? Surely quoting energy efficiency figures can never be as satisfying as the petrol-driven joy of questioning both the intellect and sexual practices of our fellow drivers? Damn it! I don’t want an Apple i-car, I want my motor made by the devil himself – and I reserve the right to drive it with all the social grace of Michael Winner.
This is why I lobbied, as one of the guest drivers of this year’s Oxford to London eco-rally, to be behind the wheel of a Tesla Roadster, the electric car that even Jeremy Clarkson described as ‘biblically quick’. At £92,000, and modelled on the Lotus Elise, it is cock-rocking face of electric motoring that allows me to offset my green tendencies coming, as it does, with all the trappings of conspicuous consumption typical of the complete banker. It could also be the new face of car-as-misogyny-powered-chick-magnet, a car that says, ‘Hey honey, not only am I stupidly rich, I also really care about the planet.’ In fact I’m sure it won’t be long before enterprising heavy-walleted banking types, in an attempt to look planet-friendly, are retro-fitting their hybrids and e-cars with petrol engines while no-one is looking, echoing the green-wash of many of their employers. As always, when someone touts their green credentials it’s a good idea to check under the hood.