electric Hyundai with woman driving

Will EVs change the way we drive?

As we all transition into electric cars over the next couple of decades, will we change as drivers? Craig Thomas took part in a fascinating experiment to discover what might happen

Whenever the ban on petrol or diesel comes – whether it’s 2040, 2035 or 3032 – one thing is certain: electric cars are the future.

If you’ve already driven an electric car, you’ll already know that it won’t be a hardship. EVs are easy to drive, so we’ll all adapt pretty quickly.

But will the quietness of electric cars also have an effect on how we feel when behind the wheel? Will the calmness within a car’s cabin also promote a greater sense of calmness within the drivers inside?

One carmaker has decided to try and find then answers to these questions.

Hyundai has a vested interest – it already has electric variants of its Kona compact SUV and Ioniq hatchback on sales, as well as the Nexo hydrogen SUV – which is why it has conducted some research into how people drive in a car powered by a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE), compared to how they drive an EV.

The experiment that Hyundai conducted involved a group of subjects being wired up like a NASA astronaut in training while on the road, to measure reactions. I know because I was a willing guinea pig.

Ultimately the brave new world is nearly here, so we must peacefully embrace it and, who knows, it might lead to less road rage

Edmund King – AA president

Picked up at my south London home, I was fitted with a wristband to measure my pulse, while in-car cameras monitored my facial expressions and eye movements. Force-sensitive resistors were also fitted to the steering wheel, to measure how tightly I gripped the wheel, while an accelerometer gauged the degree of smoothness with which the car accelerated and braked.

The monitoring technology in place, I set off on a short three-mile drive in a petrol-fuelled Kona, to rendezvous with a Kona Electric, which I would then drive back to my house. The drive took place in mid-afternoon London traffic, so the speedometer barely registered anything above 20mph. The accelerometer definitely didn’t get too much to do.

Around 30 people took part at various times, in various parts of the capital, so it’s not a big enough sample size to draw any definitive conclusions, but the findings were still worth of study. All the readings from the monitoring equipment were collated and overall scores were extrapolated.

The results showed that drivers were calmer in the EV, but also more confident, more efficient and more aware. Confidence was lower overall, but as I had previously run a Volkswagen e-Golf for six months, I was more at home, and thus more confident, with the controls and how an EV drives. However, it was clear that overall drivers tend to be calmer and more efficient behind the wheel of an EV.

The implications for us, as a nation of drivers, 10 or 20 years down the line, are intriguing. Will we see less road rage? Will the method of driving an EV using just one pedal – the accelerator that, as soon as you lift off, also starts to slow the car down as regenerative braking kicks in – mean that we all become more used to anticipating what other drivers are doing?

Results in hand, I asked AA president Edmund King for his reaction: “There is no doubt that driving an EV changes the way we drive. Despite the great performance from most EVs, we tend to drive them more slowly and more carefully.

“Psychologically, we are more at peace in the EV. There is no roar of the engine that excites. We are more aware that pedestrians can’t hear us, so we slow down to ensure nobody steps out.

“Ultimately the brave new world is nearly here, so we must peacefully embrace it and, who knows, it might lead to less road rage.”

The response from driver training organisations was more cautious, however. Neil Greig, policy and research director for IAM Roadsmart said: “The fundamental principles of safe driving will not change that much. It’s about training yourself to observe what’s going on, anticipate hazards and deal with those hazards. The hazards will still be the same whether you’re driving an electric vehicle or a conventional vehicle. Most of what we do at the moment will still apply.”

Greig added that as we transition into electric cars, the small, but important differences will be enough to make some retraining useful for most drivers. “I can see people getting into an electric car for the first time, dealing with the interior, dealing with the single pedal, looking at the new readout, will mean they’re going to be distracted by what’s going on inside the car – and that is potentially dangerous. That’s where a bit of training would probably help, before they go out on their own.

“We know we’re going to have to change our training to reflect things like the single-pedal approach. The fact that when you’ve got an electric vehicle, the way you brake and accelerate is different: some of these electric vehicles are incredibly fast and brake incredibly quickly as well, as soon as you lift off the power. It is a slightly different driving technique and we are still formulating our final response to that.”

This is an approach that was shared by the Driving Instructors Association, the UK’s largest organisation representing driving instructors. Karen Bradley, chief examiner for the DIA’s Diamond advanced driving course, suggested that an EV’s automatic gearbox is a major factor in improving calmness. “Automatic vehicles are easier to drive and people have less to negotiate, in terms of gears. This is probably why people feel less troubled with an EV. Technology also has a big impact on people knowing their cars and how they operate. There’s a lot more to think about in terms of cameras and other technology.”

Bradley was, however, considerably more sceptical than the AA president about whether the UK’s drivers will be calmer behind the wheel of an EV. “I don’t think we can suddenly become calmer drivers because it’s an electric vehicle. Unfortunately, if drivers are aggressive towards others on the road, that’s not going to change depending on the vehicle they’re in. Calmness has to come from within.”

It’s much too early to tell whether we’re going to be calmer drivers when the roads are full of EVs, but the Hyundai test does offer some hope. And in a world in flux, hope is a precious commodity.

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