What needs to be done to electrify the UAE's roads

'The National' learnt a lot from participating in the Electric Vehicle Road Trip Middle East 2019

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They say you can't judge until you have walked a mile in another (wo)man's shoes. By that ­wisdom, and substituting "shoes" for "wheels", until you at the very least replicate the experience of owning an electric car, it's probably best to keep any negative opinions to yourself.

The Electric Vehicle Road Trip ­Middle East comes to the end of its third ambitious journey through the region on Thursday (January 24), and after I joined its opening stint from Abu Dhabi to Muscat, I found out first-hand the practicalities of such driving choices.

With that experience in my tank, I can safely add my own voice to this charged motoring issue. And charging is indeed the main facet that needs to be fixed if we are to win the valiant fight to electrify our nation’s roads.

Never mind walking a mile, though. This was driving 500 kilometres ­between the starting point of the EVRT at the Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort to the Hormuz Grand hotel in the capital of Oman. Non-stop in a regular petrol car, you would expect such a road trip to take a not-insignificant five hours, not including the unpredictable variable that is crossing the border to leave the Emirates, near Al Ain. With battery power, however, there are a whole bunch more variables.

My journey, in a Tesla Model S 100D, was suitably epic, stretching from a departure time at about 10am to an eventual arrival at midnight, with several stops en route. I shared the car with a revolving, multinational cast of fellow road trippers, featuring two knowledgeable American EV advocates, an amiable Lebanese vlogger and a fellow Brit who used to work for Tesla.

The first charging experience highlighted the fun side of electric motoring: our team’s need for a top-up before crossing into Oman involved a hunt that led us to a Tesla “Destination” charging point in an underground car park next to the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. There are dozens of the Destination chargers – not to be confused with the faster, more powerful Tesla Superchargers – around the UAE, yet finding it felt like discovering a mini life Easter egg. The free electricity it provided, as we stood around tucking into some much-needed lunchtime sandwiches, was a buzz that almost made you feel like you were robbing a petrol station. Shouldn’t somebody be asking us for money? Are the police going to turn up? No? OK, then, see you later. Less splash and dash, more unplug and play.

Our second charging stop, a planned sojourn at the Crowne Plaza at Sohar, a port city on the Gulf of Oman coast, provided similar camaraderie. We decamped to play pool and eat pleasingly greasy bar food for the duration of the three hours it would take to provide us enough charge to navigate the final 245km to our destination in Muscat.

That somewhat lengthy charging time was a problematic road sign, however, in the continuing quest to make electric vehicles equally viable to regular motorists as traditional petrol-powered cars. The charging points in Sohar weren’t fast outlets – although in addition to three Tesla Supercharger stations in the UAE (four Superchargers apiece at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, Last Exit at Jebel Ali and a newly opened site at Hatta), there are a rash of fast chargers available and opening in the near future across the UAE.

The other thing that quickly became apparent after our arrival in Muscat is that some EV manufacturers need to up their respective games to keep pace with Tesla. Our Model S was the first of the cars to finish the first drive of the EVRT (cue wild cheers, applause from the crowd), but other models taking part were less equipped for the task at hand. A small fleet of Renault Zoes and Chevrolet Bolt EVs arrived in dribs and drabs in the early hours, with the final cars limping into the hotel car park at 7am. Anecdotally, at least, it seemed that their charging times involved longer stints attached to cables than the increase in range would allow them to drive in hours. Not really practical for everyday use.

So what is required to truly electrify the UAE’s roads? Chiefly a much-improved network of fast chargers, particularly to the west of Abu Dhabi, and more EVs with improved ranges that allow regular motorists to enjoy the benefits of electric cars without the anxiety of running out of battery power.

With such measures, and 2019 promising UAE showroom debuts for Audi’s e-tron, Jaguar’s I-Pace, Mercedes-Benz’s EQC and, hopefully, Porsche’s magnificent-looking Taycan, I’m already looking forward to the EVRT Middle East 2020.

The grand finale of the EVRT Middle East is at The Sustainable City in Dubai on Thursday (January 24), with free test drives of electric cars during the day and a party in the evening. For more information, visit www.evrtmiddleeast.com


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