From TV to EVs

Robert Llewellyn is a British actor, comedian and writer. He plays the mechanoid Kryten in the TV sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf and formerly presented the TV engineering gameshow Scrapheap Challenge. More recently he has become an advocate for electric vehicles and presents YouTube series Fully Charged. In an exclusive interview with Network editor Alec Peachey he talks about his passion for EVs, gives his views on the energy sector and provides an insight into his TV career.

From TV to EVs


Q. When did you first start getting interested in electric vehicles?

A. I think it was 2001 or 2002, while filming Scrapheap Challenge in California. Many of the engineers I met were working on various aspects of the very early developments in electric cars. I had my first ride in a Prius in 2001 and was fascinated why anyone had made the effort to marry an electric motor with a combustion engine. I then learned about all the problems cities like LA had with air quality, childhood asthma, etc.


Q. What regulatory and technical barriers must be overcome to allow for the widespread adoption of electric vehicles?

A. In terms of regulatory, I think this is happening already. More and more cities around the world are introducing clean air zones and tightening restrictions on which types of motor vehicles will be allowed on city roads. In the next four to five years, most major European and many American cities will increasingly restrict access to diesel vehicles. This will particularly affect light delivery vans and I think we’ll see electric vans and buses long before the mass adoption of electric cars.

Technical barriers are also rapidly disappearing but this is as much a matter of general public ignorance, psychology and hands on experience as technical issues. Electric cars are mechanically simple, with far fewer moving parts than combustion engine cars and require less servicing, another challenge to the established motor industry. Public perceptions are changing, the public understanding of air quality, particularly in cities is growing and both local and national governments are responding to this. The automotive industry as a whole, and the oil industry are doing all they can to delay the process, while knowing that the changeover to non-combustion transportation is inevitable.


Q. How should the electricity industry work with the automotive sector to enable growth of the EV market?

A. This is a crucial area but possibly not as doom laden as some reports might suggest. It’s essential that the framework for private companies to invest and run public charging infrastructure is laid down, particularly allowing new technologies like grid level battery buffers to be installed near rapid charger hubs. Without question, on the long road to the electrification of transport, some improvement in DNO infrastructure will be necessary, but recent reports from the national grid indicate that with the adoption of the right technology, with smart charging, timed charging, the need for major new generating capacity will be drastically reduced.


Q. How important is collaboration amongst the network operators and wider industry when it comes to delivering a future energy system that is capable of driving things forward?

A. My knowledge of the intricacies of grid operating is pedestrian but clearly the more cooperation and transparency there is in developing new integrated systems to cope with the spikes in demand the mass adoption of electric vehicles could produce, the better. Every time I hear of a bottleneck, lack of capacity, etc, there seems to be viable and cheaper than expected solutions appearing.


Q. What is the most exciting possibility for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology?

A. One of the most exciting and surprising reports I’ve read about this is that the trickle charging and discharging of car batteries when connected to V2G systems improved the battery chemistry, it was a positive benefit which is a bit counter intuitive. Clearly the possibility of one million electric cars connected to the wider grid through V2G systems could have a very beneficial effect to grid balancing. If you took 1 kilowatt hour out of each car, that’s 1 gigawatt hour, which by my amateur reckoning is quite a lot.


Q. What is the biggest barrier for V2G in the UK?

A. Cost. A V2G system I saw that could, theoretically be installed in my house cost over £6,000. I assume, like batteries, solar panels, wind energy, those costs will come down, but for domestic users it’s clearly not a viable economic model just yet. Worth remembering though that for 90 per cent of the time, your car is idle. So V2G systems in company car parks are likely to be installed much sooner.


Q. How should the industry prepare for the unknown future of EVs and V2G?

A. I think the transition will be gradual, trials for much of this technology are taking place, ‘My Electric Avenue’ and more recently ‘Electric Nation’ have been rolled out to see the impact clusters of electric cars in one area have on the local network. It’s important that from the point of view of vehicle users, the system is simple to use, but clearly we want to be charging the majority of cars at night when electricity is clean and cheap.


Q. What do you make of recently announced plans (Pivot Power) to develop a 2GW network of grid-scale batteries and rapid EV charging hubs across the UK?

A. Vitally important, and only economically viable now that battery costs have reduced. I think we’ll see more and more grid and domestic storage being introduced.


Q. How important is tackling consumer behaviour change? Will the industry be able to bring about the necessary changes?

A. I would hope, and experience bears this out, that as new economic opportunities arise as a result of the electrification of transport we’ll not only see the general population embrace this new technology, we’ll see new industries and systems developed to support it. We can see this already, one person on a street has an electric car, neighbours and friends are sceptical and suspicious, but after a while, when they see that person using their car as normal, they start to wonder. The same goes for hotels, restaurants, shopping centres, airports, sports centres, doctors’ surgeries, in fact anyone who has a public car park, who install charge points and see an increase in customer visits, the news spreads fast. Destination chargers at hotels and restaurants are a good example. I have asked numerous establishments I’ve visited how often the chargers are used and the usual answer is ‘all the time.’


Q. With a ban on the sale of diesel and petrol vehicles coming in from 2040 and a continued increase in the sale of EVs, what are the implications for the whole energy system and its supporting infrastructure?

A. I think they will be less disastrous than many assume. An important side note, we have three major oil refineries in the UK, their combined consumption of electricity is huge, similar to a major city like Manchester. This is never put into the overall equation of the energy impact of oil consumption, CO2 output from transport, etc. So if we refine less oil, we’d need less electricity for refining. The other really major factor is the ownership model, individuals owning cars that are not used 90 per cent of the time. I think that will slowly change, the numbers of young people taking driving tests is in steep decline. The desire to own a car is dropping. Car sales are dropping, the system as we know it today doesn’t work, particularly in cities so I think there will be less cars, used more often, and they will all be electric and intrinsically linked to the grid and used to help balance supply/demand.


Q. If there was one thing that could be done to support or progress EVs, what should it be?

A. Keep the current incentives for another five years, allow EVs to use bus lanes, encourage urban car sharing systems, install 7kw charge sockets on all spaces in new parking development, encourage car makers to stop advertising boring old combustion cars and advertise electric.


Q. What’s your view on other forms of decarbonised transport such as hydrogen powered trains?

A. I love hydrogen powered trains, buses, trucks, earth movers, ships and anything other than small passenger cars. I think hydrogen will be a key sector in decarbonising everything, fuel cell technology is advancing and if the production of hydrogen is only from excess renewables, then it’s a win win.


Q. What are your thoughts on the energy sector in general?

A. I think if you worked in the energy sector 25 years ago it would have been quite boring, essentially maintaining the system and keeping it running. Now, it must be incredible, very exciting, the changes we’ll see in the next 10 to 20 years are mind boggling. There are ample opportunities for innovation, new businesses and systems.


Q. Your first outing as a presenter was on Scrapheap Challenge. Did this ignite your passion for engineering or did it come before this?

A. Strictly speaking my first work as a presenter was for the Open University, a series of programs about science. It was through that experience that I got pulled into presenting Scrapheap Challenge. I was always interested in engineering and science, just sadly without the requisite skills, ability and intelligence to actually be an engineer. So it was the perfect job for me.


Q. What motivated you to start making Fully Charged?

A. Working in California from 2001 to 2006 when we made ‘Junkyard Wars’ which was the US version of Scrapheap. I met so many engineers working on the nascent electric car revolution, I could sense something was happening. The more I read about it, the more I heard, and this is back in 2009-10, the more obvious it seemed that transport and energy was going to see huge change and disruption.


Q. Fully Charged has more than 300,000 subscribers. What do you make of the success of the show?  

A. It has been a long time coming but now it’s happening it’s very fulfilling. I’ve always been a slightly reluctant TV presenter, contradictory as it may seem, I’ve never been desperate to ‘be on camera.’ In fact quite the opposite, but if I am going to be then it has to be in connection with something I really care about. I also think the growth in the stats of Fully Charged is hugely down to the growth in interest in the topics we cover, and also the quality of the output, which is very much down to the small production team behind the show.


Q. Since starting the channel, what’s surprised you the most?

A. The shift in public opinion, or, more specifically the shift in opinion among men who are interested in cars. I’ve seen a real shift towards accepting electric cars as a viable alternative. The other really big surprise was the turnout at the Fully Charged Live event we held at Silverstone, we prayed for 1,000 visitors, we got over 6,000, mostly people who didn’t drive an electric car.


Q. What do your Red Dwarf colleagues think about your passion for EVs?

A. Danny John Jules is very interested and supportive. When he’s finished dancing, he and his wife Petula are doing some more electric motorbike reviews for us. Craig Charles has very little interest in cars, electric or otherwise, his main interest is how comfortable the back seats are and can he sleep easily. Chris Barrie thinks electric cars are the spawn of the devil, not real cars, not a real man’s car and a hideous techno nightmare of world ending scale, other than that he’s not too keen.


Q. One of the fun things Sci-fi writers get to do is predict the future. What do you think the EV situation might look like in 2025?

A. On the surface I think the world will be much the same in 2025, however, barring global thermonuclear war and a zombie apocalypse we’ll witness a massive shift to renewables, once the Swansea tidal lagoon is finished we’ll see a huge uptake of tidal power from countries with coastal borders. Offshore wind will be producing 3/4 of our electricity, oil and gas imports will have dramatically reduced which will have a positive effect on our economy. In city centres 90 per cent of transport will be electric, I also think we’ll be witnessing a massive swing towards electric vehicles, car sharing systems and domestic electricity storage.


Q. What car do you drive?

A. We currently have a Tesla Model S coming to the end of its lease, a Hyundai Kona which we’ve just started to lease and an original Nissan Leaf which we’ve been driving since 2011.


Q. Does your family have a similar passion for EVs?

A. I’m not sure you could describe it as a passion, but they’re very happy to drive them. My wife, (Australian) thinks combustion engine cars, particularly with manual gears are ‘a bit s**t.’ 


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