Rowan Atkinson Loved EVs, but Recently Changed His Mind. Let's Check His Facts

Around eight years ago, Rowan Atkinson decided to give up on being a McLaren F1 owner and sold the car. The man who successfully portrayed the well-known Mr. Bean character was starting a new journey, specifically a zero-tailpipe emission one. He ditched the iconic supercar for a quirky BMW i3. But now, he's coming forward with some serious doubts. Let's see if he's right or wrong.
Rowan Atkinson and a BMW i3 19 photos
Photo: Dylon Myles on Piston Heads / BMW / autoevolution edit
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Many consider the McLaren F1 to be the vehicle that kickstarted the whole hypercar thing. It was a "very" exclusive supercar born out of Gordon Murray's ambition to create a vehicle so good that it would make anyone fall in love with it forever. Besides its many impressive attributes, like being the first production vehicle to sport a carbon fiber monocoque chassis, the F1 had a BMW-sourced V12 under the hood. Could it be that Rowan Atkinson wanted to keep something from the Bavarians when he sold it and moved onto a BMW i3? While that may be just a theory or proof that the German carmaker is good at doing both types of powertrains, one thing's certain – Mr. Bean is having serious doubts about the all-electric vehicle and is not keeping silent.

Ten years ago, Tesla delivered 22,400 vehicles. In 2022, it put on the road 1,313,851 units. It also became the world's most valuable automaker. To say that people worldwide are warming up to EVs would be an understatement.

But legacy automakers are catching up, and China's homegrown brands like BYD – that had Warren Buffett as a notable investor – are also another worry for European and American industry players. Things are heating up, and everyone wants a piece of the market. Some governments are involved as well. Subsidies and incentives are hard to ignore, especially if a prospective EV owner already owns or rents a house long-term. Charging overnight in your garage or driveway is cheaper than filling up to the brim and is also more comfortable.

Kia e\-Soul Rear Badge
Photo: Fifth Gear on YouTube
So, what makes Rowan Atkinson – a self-proclaimed early EV adopter like the former Top Gear co-host James May – doubt the future and the global role of the zero-tailpipe emission car?

The worrying bits

For starters, the well-known comedian argues that EVs come with a larger carbon footprint out of the factory and gives as an example Volvo's report from two years ago. That document said the all-electric version of the XC40 – the C40 Recharge – produced 70% more emissions than the gas-powered unit.

The Chinese-owned Swedish automaker mostly blamed li-ion batteries for this unbelievable fact. It offered as a solution the transition to using only renewable energy while replenishing the energy storage unit and said that carmakers should use fossil-free steel.

Atkinson (who just happens to share his family name with James Atkinson, the inventor of the Atkinson-cycle engine) believes this an industry-wide tragedy because manufacturers will keep putting these heavy batteries with a ten-year life expectancy into EVs, and the promising solid-state battery (SSBs) will just be late to the game. SSBs have been heralded as a major solution to overweight EVs, but no carmaker has introduced one on a production vehicle – for now.

The actor also learned about JCB and its hydrogen-powered backhoe that's already being put to work in the UK and knows about Toyota's Mirai, which is now on its second generation. Atkinson also touches on charging times and believes filling up with hydrogen can happen as quickly as with gas. Moreover, he also says that trucks should not be battery-electric solely because of the weight added by batteries.

First\-of\-Its\-Kind Hydrogen\-Powered JCB Backhoe Loader
Photo: JCB
The comedian continues and says certain carmakers also lead us to adopt a fashion-like attitude towards cars. Instead of keeping them for decades, we give up on them after around three years because of leases. It's similar to what's happening in the clothing industry, where fast fashion is associated with huge profits to the detriment of the environment.

Similarly, Atkinson says we should take care of our current cars and prolong their life because they "have paid their environmental dues." He also points out that synthetic fuel might be an answer since the engine is not a problem and points to Formula 1. The motorsport is making carbon-neutral synthetic fuels mandatory in just three years. Porsche is also involved in this industry sector and is hard at work in Chile, proving that CO2-neutral fuel is feasible. We'll see about that.

Rowan Atkinson says he's a car person and makes one very interesting statement just as Tesla and BYD champion EV sales – he believes our "honeymoon phase" with all-electric cars is about to end. And that's despite governments getting involved and trying to force the auto industry to accelerate the transition to zero-tailpipe emission vehicles.

The actor even goes as far as to say that people who do not often commute through city centers should hold on to their internal combustion engine cars (even if they're diesels!) because that can be more helpful in the grand scheme of things.

But let's see if Atkinson's opinion on the auto industry and the EV holds any value.

Looking at the publicly available facts

Yes, it would be a dream to instantly replace every road-going vehicle with a zero-tailpipe emission one. Videos coming out of some Chinese cities where EVs (mostly mopeds) are now the majority reveal a calm urban environment where silence reigns. But that's absurd, and we must deal with a slow process if we are to kill the gas- or diesel-powered engine forever. Not only because the industry can't adapt that fast or because of the major disruption something like this would bring to the job market, but because we simply can't make so many batteries and build the necessary charging infrastructure without ravaging Mother Earth. There are 1.44 billion cars on planet Earth. That number does not include semi-trucks, construction vehicles, and other machines powered by small, controlled explosions.

Dodge Charger Hellcat
Photo: Petrolhead on YouTube
But Atkinson is right – an electric vehicle leaves the factory with a larger carbon footprint than an internal combustion engine car. However, once the EV is put to good use and accrues 21,000 mi (33,700 km) on the odo, the pollution curves intersect and change trajectory. The EV's carbon footprint decreases (and can go down spectacularly fast if the owner uses renewable energy) while the corresponding gas-powered model continues to pump out exhaust fumes.

Next, the actor thinks Li-ion batteries have a short lifespan, and he's right. Most EV makers nowadays offer seven or eight years of warranty. After that, the customers are on their own. But he misses out on the fact that nearly 95% of these energy storage units can be recycled. Plus, this is a major business opportunity that can help companies grow into another domain, and employees retrain and continue working.

Yes, SSBs are promising. But they're not going to be here until 2030. Li-ion is where it's at for the time being, especially since the largest automakers are using this solution.

There are also sodium-ion batteries that may become convenient for some companies, but these are reserved for Chinese automakers right now. They're testing these energy storage units on cheaper, smaller cars. If they succeed, we may see the "molten salt" battery spreading everywhere.

Following Atkinson's logic for the car industry's greener future, hydrogen is… Well, disregarded by major players. Although compressed natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas got some of us used to not putting liquid in a vehicle's tank, hydrogen stations are expensive and hard to find. It's not enough to have just one hydrogen-powered passenger vehicle on the road and some backhoes to convince companies like British Petroleum (BP) to give up on drilling for oil. Plus, there's a real worry that hydrogen is just another dirty play by some natural gas and oil industry giants.

Hydrogen Station
Photo: Cummins
We agree, however, with the actor's take on prolonging our current vehicle's lifespan by making sure it's maintained properly. Nobody needs a new car every two or three years unless they live in a tight urban area where giving up on an F-150 Raptor in exchange for a Tesla Model 3 might be rewarding.

Synthetic fuel is a brave way to go forward, even though a couple of countries are thinking about or have already decided on the demise of the internal combustion engine. It holds a promise, but we have yet to be serious about it. Let's see if Formula 1 can make it work and if Porsche manages to come up with a budget-friendly solution. Nobody is willing to pay more for renewable fuel, and expensive gas will only increase the cost of living. As has been proven in the last two years, that's not something anyone wants.

Lastly, EV adoption remains on the rise not because most people out there who need a new car passionately care about their carbon footprint. Most buyers out there need a reliable commuting appliance. And if that happens to be an incentivized Tesla, then so be it.

Thus, Rowan Atkinson is not entirely wrong in his assessment, but he's not right either. Maybe he read only negative reports about EVs. He should be invited to drive a Lucid Air Sapphire. Maybe that'll change his mind.
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About the author: Florin Amariei
Florin Amariei profile photo

Car shows on TV and his father's Fiat Tempra may have been Florin's early influences, but nowadays he favors different things, like the power of an F-150 Raptor. He'll never be able to ignore the shape of a Ferrari though, especially a yellow one.
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