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The UK’s charging infrastructure isn’t improving fast enough

Charging failures are holding back EV adoption

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Though electric car drivers may be feeling smug these days, as petrol prices and availability cause dramas at the pumps, rarely does a week-long electric vehicle test go by without friction, at least in my experience.

Having tested EVs since 2013, I’m still sceptical about the amount of real-world progress being made. Prompted by more frustration-inducing inconveniences recently, it simply doesn’t correlate with the amount of progress being promoted. 

The first charging experience I ever had back in 2013 was unsurprisingly rubbish. Living in south-east London at the time, in a block of flats, filming with an electric Smart Fortwo, the only charge point “available” was not available at all. 

It was stuck on the forecourt of a Nissan dealership, behind chains on a Sunday afternoon. That experience with such nascent technology (combined with the low battery range of a Smart Fortwo in 2013) had me literally running the 2.5 miles between my home and the nearest street charge point for a week. 

The original Smart Fortwo EV didn’t go that far between charging breaks

Mere weeks later, with another model on test, the smartphone navigation app of the day—the car’s factory-fitted was still unreliable at the time—indicated five available charging points in a nearby east London street. Things were looking up.

Upon my arrival, these points weren’t so available after all, as they were protected within a gated community of a new development. Though a kind security guard let me have access, it would transpire that these underground points didn’t have enough mobile connection to be used anyway. Though the developer earned brownie points for attempting to be progressive, the reality was unimpressive and effectively unworkable. 

Fast forward to 2021. The choice of new electric cars on offer has developed enormously, and most households can now comfortably live with an EV for their regular driving needs. But the away-from-home (AFH) charging experience is still inexplicably disconcerting. 

My old south-east London street has now been equipped with two on-street chargers—considerably short of the needs of the 1,000 or so apartment-dwellers, but that’s another story for another time. 

Living in the north-east of England (yes, home to the pioneering Nissan Leaf), all the big-name charging point providers – BP Pulse, Fastned and Pod Point, among others – seem well established. Even so, I continue to battle (and other electric vehicle users do as well) with some basic and incredibly frustrating challenges.

1. State of disrepair

This still happens too often

One of the biggest bugbears for all EV owners is the number of charging points that seem to be out of order when you need them.

Despite a focus from some charging providers on getting broken charging points up and running, out-of-service points that aren’t flagged on apps, or even noted on the devices themselves, are a regular problem.

It’s particularly annoying when you’ve parked up, pulled the cable out and then can’t get the charging point to work. 

2. Reliance on RFID cards

Despite the fact 2014 called and asked for its technology back, some charging providers still demand users register with their service, wait for a special card in the post and use their network with that physical card.

That’s fine if you’re local to that network, since it’s tickety-boo once you’re an established member (well, usually – see above). But it’s not so great for visitors who are not signed-up members of that network and just want to charge their car while they’re in the neighbourhood. 

3. Reliance on mobile phone networks

One soon comes to learn quickly why RFID reliance hasn’t gone away. While the mobile networks have been working hard to maximise coverage across the UK, the depressing reality is that coverage is desperate in some more rural areas.

Being told to “download the app” in areas of unreliable connectivity is the quickest way to annoy customers wanting to give you their hard-earned cash so they can charge their cars. 

4. Lack of contactless payment provision

In 2019, the government advised all charging providers to integrate universal contactless payments, in order to improve accessibility to the charging network. Yet here we are, two years later, and it’s still surprising to come across lots of machines without the option to pay with a contactless card.

Allegedly, much of the hold-up is in sourcing the hardware from European suppliers. While third-party solutions can be bolted on, these integrated payment pads have their own connectivity issues and frequently payment can’t be made – which is exacerbated if the provider can’t remotely reboot the machine to try and fix the issue.

5. Inconsistency in service levels

In the event of a hardware or software malfunction, or connectivity issue, some charging providers will offer to open the charge point to ‘Free Vend’ so you can charge your car for free. It’s a welcome courtesy to make up for system failures, not least because so few things come for free in this day and age.

But not all providers are willing to this. In any other circumstance, you’d probably vote with your feet and just go elsewhere. But until there are enough charging points to go around, EV drivers understandably need the security of a standardised approach. 

6. Too many under-resourced charging providers

I’m all for healthy competition, but the number of independent operators, which haven’t had the same budgets to throw at maintenance and contactless integration, are creating friction points where there needn’t be.

Granted, I acknowledge the time when these networks were even more disparate. The acquisition of many of minor charging point owners into wider schemes, such as the POLAR network – which has now become BP Pulse – has helped in standardising some of the provisions. However, it’s still not great, is it? 

7. Car makers ignoring best practice providers

Zap-Map is arguably the most reliable resource for the EV owner, having developed its service for many years now. It started off just identifying the location of charge points, then it integrated availability status information. It helps that users can create accounts and feedback information on specific points, so the community is helping one another out.

Earlier this year, the Zap-Map team launched Zap-Pay, which enables users to pay for their charging via the app. With several charging networks signing up to the Zap-Pay platform, the whole package is the best attempt at brand-agnostic standardisation we’re likely to see anytime soon.

Car makers should be falling over themselves to integrate a universal payment app into their infotainment suites, but they seem too concerned with getting in-cabin lighting right to bother with something so practical.

8. We need charging points at more suitable locations

More of these, please (charging points, that is, not Starbucks)

Any venue where there is car parking and a significant amount of dwell-time (such as a restaurant, shopping centre, country pub, etc.) warrants one or more charging points. Let’s be clear, a garage forecourt is arguably the worst location for a charging point (sorry, Shell and BP…), especially if there is an expectation that passengers will either sit in the vehicle or wander away to entertain themselves while it’s on charge.

A garage forecourt may be a place of higher CCTV coverage, but it’s also a very transient location and it’s worrying to walk away from a vehicle in such a high-risk area. Top marks to Starbucks Markham Moor, which has nailed the perfect balance. 

Charging failures are holding back EV adoption

Of course, the argument for switching to an electric vehicle is still strong for most consumers. Coupled with the immeasurable benefits to health, air quality and noise, uswitch.com recently released figures showing EVs can travel more than five times further for £50 than a conventional petrol or diesel car.

I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer on the investment going into the progress that has been made expanding the EV charging network, but before we all get carried away; reality check, please.  

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Cat Dow
Cat Dow
Cat is a former contributor to The Car Expert and The Van Expert. She now writes for Top Gear.