ecarTestDrives calls on the UK government to standardise EV charging

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Here at ecarTestDrives we see a major problem that we believe puts people off getting an electric vehicle (EV): EV owners cannot charge their cars or vans at any charging point without having to apply through a cumbersome membership scheme or unless they own a specific model. Charging points need to be standardised so everyone can use every charging point in the UK.

Smart cards

EV charging infrastructure companies have been setting up public charging points across the UK at a huge rate. It is now estimated that there will be more EV charging points than there will be petrol or diesel fuelling stations in the UK by 2020. Councils have been doing the same, for example London installing a huge rapid charging network across the city that is designed to enable Black Cab taxis to recharge in quick time every day. This is no bad thing in theory – if all of them used the same membership scheme or allowed ‘pay as you go’ then it would be very good indeed.

Most EV charging infrastructure companies insist that EV users use their own membership schemes. Unless you have cards from every charging company in the UK, you are severely limited as to which ones you can use. Imagine you used a company that had a great charging network but only available in Essex, you could therefore only charge your car in Essex but nowhere else in the UK. In most cases, you cannot use your credit or debit card on charging points as you might do when refuelling your dirty diesel tank at a fuel station. There are just a few (mainly in London) that do allow debit card access but the majority of people have to be members of some scheme and have a special swipe card.

Some of us like to use smartphone apps to pay for parking at certain parking meters. If you are short on change, you register with the company running the scheme (taking a fiddly five minutes), but then you can use all the parking meters that company supports right across the UK. This does not happen with EV charging points. Why?

EV charging infrastructure companies insist on users registering online and having a swipe card posted to the customer. This means that you can’t just register on your smartphone and get on with it, but rather the EV charging point effectively doesn’t exist as far as you are concerned in that moment. You simply cannot charge your car.

The situation is like this because the government wants data for all EV charging points across the UK. The government pays a subsidy toward every charging point (which is why there are so many companies doing it – everyone likes to get their nose in the trough) but will not pay unless there is a data collection method. There is no set data collection protocol and therefore every charging infrastructure company collects different data in different ways. This leads to the different membership cards being handed out.

To drive across the UK you might need five or more different cards for all the different schemes, which might cost you £10/year per company. If you only drive the odd long journey this could be a costly waste of time and money as you might end up never using certain charging companies yet have paid the subscription.

To add to the complexity there are some membership schemes such as Charge Your Car that claim to cover 85% of the UK’s charging points. You could still be running out of juice miles from home, and find that you have the wrong card.

Charging point differences

To add to the confusion, not all cars use the same physical charging protocols. Tesla owners can only currently use Tesla Superchargers for example. While it is less of a problem than the membership schemes above, EV owners frequently run into the problem of having the wrong plug for the charger. The UK and EU are slowly moving to a unified ‘Combined Charging System’ (CCS) for direct current (DC) rapid chargers that can provide up to 50kW, recharging the average car battery in around an hour. The Tesla Supercharger systems can put in 120kW and give you another 300 miles in around half an hour but only if you’re driving a Tesla. Tesla has, to their credit, seen this issue and there are rumours that it is preparing to allow their owners to use CCS for their cars.

EV owners need to be able to use any charging station on their route, choosing between the charging points on cost per kWh as they may choose a petrol station on price per litre. The government needs to intervene in the melee of different charging companies putting in different networks so the national charging network can be used more efficiently. This would ensure that people can use them whenever and wherever they like. Isn’t this the reason for the government subsidy being offered in the first place?

Mapping

There are a couple of very good apps that are available to EV users in the UK. see previous post here. The problem with this that they largely rely on users reporting their existence and are not based on a coherent and well maintained national database.  You might know a ‘secret charger’ that no-one else uses as they don’t find it on a map app, or find one that isn’t from the network that the EV mapping app said it was.

Politics and government

Since 1979, all governments in the UK have had the ‘free market economy’ at core to their politics. The idea is that private businesses can do a better job than government bureaucrats. Generally, this is true – look at British Leyland in the 70’s against the super-efficient BMW car plants of today.

However, the free market economy ethos has also led to some fiascos such as the unique way in which UK mobile phone providers only allow their own subscribers to use their masts. This means there are several masts per square mile at a far greater density than across the EU or US, where every phone company uses the same masts. It costs far more to operate the UK system (and those costs are passed on to the mobile phone users). This is a particular issue in rural areas, as not all mobile companies will have masts in a certain area, and of two people with two different companies, only one may have any signal at all. For many people, certain rural areas are ‘mobile deserts’, but not all rural areas will be poor for the same companies.

If the government gently regulated the EV charging network then it would achieve the aim of the government subsidy in the first place – a good charging network available to everyone.

Fixing the issue

The problem at hand won’t be sorted very quickly, and as with the mobile phone masts you will likely find very a good network in the more densely populated parts of the UK (the odds are you live in one). For many, the issue is a great annoyance but shouldn’t stop them driving to their destinations, e.g., I used to drive an LPG car and knew the LPG stations on my main routes. I visit Luton, Kent and North Devon on a regular basis – 300 mile round trip – where I knew virtually all the pumps. EV drivers will know the best charging points on their regular routes too. I used to get nervous when heading to an area I didn’t know, as I wasn’t sure that I would find a fuelling station, in fact, on a trip to France I found the French adaptor for LPG was completely different to the UK adaptor so I had to use petrol on my BMWi3. BEV car users aren’t able to switch to petrol in those instances so would have been screwed!

This article is brought to you by e-car test drives. Test drive an EV near you today.

Written By Richard Shrubb

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