Electric car motorway charging network opens in the UK

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Media captionWATCH: Rory Cellan-Jones tries out one of the battery recharge stations

Electric car drivers in the UK are being offered the chance to break free of the city and hit the open road.

Green energy firm Ecotricity has launched the world's first national motorway charging network for electric vehicles.

It has installed free power points at 12 Welcome Break service stations, with 17 more promised later in the year.

Until now, a lack of charging points between towns and cities has made longer journeys impractical.

"There's a bit of the chicken and egg situation going on," said Ecotricity founder Dale Vince.

"People are not buying electric cars because they're not sure about charging, and people aren't putting charging points up because [not many are] buying electric cars."

Faster charging

The national network also addresses another common complaint about electric vehicles - charging time.

Welcome Break's power outlets offer two types of sockets - a three-pin one for 13A current supply and a seven-pin one for a higher 32A supply.

Using the 13A supply can mean waiting around 12 hours and probably spending the night in one of the service area hotels.

Opting for the higher current option will top-up a car in just 20 minutes - and fully charge it in one hour, said Mr Vince.

"So in the time it takes you to get a cup of coffee and a sandwich, you can charge your car," he added.

However, not all electric vehicles are compatible with the newer 32A system.

Costly option

Image caption Although first electric cars appeared back in the 19th century, there are still only a few of them on the road

Despite the promise of charging points dotting Britain's landscape, there are still relatively few people chosing electricity over petrol or diesel.

One of the reasons is price - electric vehicles are still a lot more expensive than gas-powered models.

But Mr Vince thinks that, just like mobile phones and computers, electric cars prices are bound to come down over time.

Transport minister Mike Penning, who was present at the scheme's launch cited the role of subsidies in boosting electric car sales.

Drivers can receive up to £5,000 to put towards the cost of an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle.

"At the moment we have 2,000 electric cars on the road and five car manufacturers [making them], but there's a huge waiting list already, and the government is going to be there to support the buyers," said Mr Penning.

Some environmentalists question the green credientials of electric cars, once the overall lifespan of the vehicle has been taken into account.

The manufacture and disposal of battery units, in particular, raises issues about the use of toxic chemicals and metals such as lithium.

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