There’s been a lot said and written about the car industry’s current shift away from petrol and diesel cars to electric vehicles (and a lot of it is, frankly, rubbish). But one of the big issues that gets raised all the time is electric vehicle charging – and, particularly, charging when you’re away from home.
Our position at The Car Expert isn’t to lobby you about whether the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars is a good or bad thing. It’s simply to try to help you understand what your options are when buying a new or used car, and what you need to know if you’re planning to buy a car – whether it runs on petrol, diesel, electricity or fairy dust.
We’ve written previously about how living day-to-day with an EV is perfectly feasible for most households, even if you don’t have your own private driveway and charging point. As long as you can charge it up roughly once a week at work, the shops, gym or a local street charging point, you should have plenty of electricity to get you through your normal weekly driving needs.
But what if you’re going on holiday? What’s it really like to take an electric car on a week-long family road trip holiday, relying on public charging to get you all the way there and back – and in the summer holidays when everyone else is out doing the same thing?
Well, we figured the best way to help you understand it was to do just that and report on our findings.
Our choice of vehicle for this trip was the Nissan Ariya, which was awarded ‘Best Medium SUV’ in The Car Expert’s 2022 Car of the Year Awards. Kindly supplied by Nissan UK, our Ariya had the larger 87kWh battery, which gives an official driving range (according to the EU/UK government lab tests) of 310 miles. In the real world, with three people and a load of luggage, and mainly motorway driving, it worked out closer to 250-ish miles.
Over eight days, we travelled 1,030 miles from Surrey in South-East England up to Scotland and back. Our route went from home up to York, then up to Edinburgh, across to Loch Lomond, then back to Glasgow, then down Liverpool, and finally back home to Surrey.
So here’s what it’s really like to take a 1,000-mile family road trip in an electric car.
- The 30-second summary
- 1. Some charging points were marked incorrectly or didn’t exist
- 2. Some charging points existed but were not on major EV charging maps
- 3. Many charging points didn’t have contactless payment
- 4. Most charging points don’t display charging costs
- 5. Too many chargers were out of service or faulty
- 6. Too many different apps are needed for different charging points
- 7. Most charging points are located in paid public car parks
The 30-second summary
After 1,000 miles of driving up and down the length of the country, we never remotely looked like running out of electricity. The number of charging points along our route was easily sufficient to keep us charged up.
But there were hassles, mainly in terms of finding suitable charging points at each destination. None of the hotels we stayed at had charging available, so we had to park in public car parks – paying both to park the car and also to charge it. We also needed about half a dozen different apps to access the different charging points, as they’re all provided by different operators and there’s no nationwide app that works for all charging points.
The problems we found are all solvable, but need a more co-ordinated effort to do so.
1. Some charging points were marked incorrectly or didn’t exist
In both York and Liverpool, I followed mapping directions to charging points that were not where they were indicated. In a couple of cases, I circled in vain around public car parks looking for non-existent charging points before giving up and going onto the next suggested point.
Worse was in Liverpool, where on one occasion the navigation directions led to a private garage rather than the correct public car park (with a large sign saying “THIS IS NOT THE Q-PARK!”, so presumably it happens fairly regularly).
Trying to exit this required reversing against traffic lights across a pedestrian crossing onto a busy major road, which was quite dangerous.
2. Some charging points existed but were not on major EV charging maps
When booking a holiday cottage in Luss, Scotland, we were assured that there were two charging points in the village car park. But when we turned up, the indicated car park had no chargers.
Turns out that there was a second public car park, further away from the high street. This did have the two promised charging points, although there was no signage for passing traffic to direct them there, nor were they indicated on the Zapmap app (or on the car’s own navigation maps).
Surely if you’re a business or council installing paid public charging points, it makes sense to put up some signs and make sure they’re indicated on mapping services so that people can find them (and you can earn money from them).
3. Many charging points didn’t have contactless payment
Most rapid chargers we found had contactless support (although two were broken), and this is now a requirement for newly installed rapid chargers.
But most of the slower (7kW to 22kW) chargers didn’t have any contactless support at all. That meant the only way to use the charger was to download a specific app for that charging company, go through a registration process including providing all your payment details and then finally using the app to operate the charger.
4. Most charging points don’t display charging costs
If you go to a service station to fill up with petrol or diesel, you have a sign outside the station telling you what the price is, as well as prices on every single fuel bowser for every different fuel type.
But with electric charging, most charge points displayed no information at all. The charging point companies will tell you that the pricing information is displayed in their apps, but that’s no help if you want to pay with contactless.
So you are effectively forced to pay whatever the charging company decides, without knowing how much it costs until you check your bank statement to find out how much you’ve been charged…
5. Too many chargers were out of service or faulty
Over the space of a week, we attempted to charge at 11 different charging points across England and Scotland. In that time, we came across eight chargers that were broken or didn’t work properly.
These were afflicted by a range of problems:
- Charger out of service
- Charger said it was working, but didn’t actually deliver any charge
- Broken screen so we couldn’t see what was happening (but could at least use the app to manage charging)
- App wouldn’t recognise a specific charging point in a bank of charging units, meaning we had to move to a different unit (luckily, another unit was available)
- App registration process didn’t work so couldn’t charge
- Delivered charge but wouldn’t unlock afterwards
The UK government recently said that it would introduce a 99% availability mandate for rapid chargers. Based on our experience, there’s quite a way to go to reach that point. And, like the contactless situation, that doesn’t apply to slower chargers, which seems ridiculous as those are the ones that people will want to be using for overnight charging.
6. Too many different apps are needed for different charging points
For a one-week trip, I had to download seven different smartphone apps just to be able to charge at the various charging points we came across (plus the Zapmap app to find the charging points). Then you need to register your account and provide all your payment information – usually while in a car park with poor wi-fi reception.
And that was for only one week of driving, using about a dozen different charging points. If we’d had the car for a month or longer, who knows how many apps we would have needed.
Car manufacturers, and other companies like Zapmap, are starting to introduce their own payment apps that cover many different charging operators, but there’s no single app that covers all of them. Maybe a big tech firm like Apple or Google needs to step in and pull all of the charging companies together, giving us in one app to charge anywhere.
7. Most charging points are located in paid public car parks
We stayed in four different hotels in four large cities (York, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool), and none of them had charging points for their guests – even though they all had either their own car parks.
As a result, we had to find our own charging points, which were usually located in large, multi-storey car parks (NCP, Q-Park, etc.). So in order to charge our car, we had to pay to use their car park and not use the hotel car park we had effectively already paid for. This added £17.50 to our York overnight stay and £24 to our Liverpool stay.
For the car parks, this is presumably great business. For customers, not so much.
As you can see, most of the problems above had little or nothing to do with the number of chargers provided along our route. They are mostly related to providing better information and a better service to customers.
After a week-long trip, we arrived home with the overwhelming conclusion that an electric vehicle is a beautifully smooth, comfortable and quiet way to travel up and down the UK – but that the country’s public charging infrastructure is simply not fit for purpose.
Motorway charging ranged from adequate to very good, which is about what you’d expect given that it was the start of summer holidays, but destination charging was poor to non-existent.
We stayed at four different hotels and a holiday cottage, all of which had parking but none of which had any charging facilities. Given that the hotels were all decent-quality hotels in large cities (York, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool), this was very disappointing.
It meant we had to pay to park in another car park so that we could charge the car, which on two occasions turned a £40-odd charge into a £60-70 charge.
And that, of course, was only after we managed to find charging points that were: a) correctly located on mapping services; b) actually working, rather than out of service or removed altogether; and c) not already in use.
I’m a fairly tech-savvy and patient person, and understand the challenges of EV infrastructure better than most people (who are obviously not working in or around the car industry) so I tended to grumble under my breath and move on. But the average punter is not going to be so accommodating.
As an example, my dearly beloved partner is far less patient when it comes to technology (it’s OK, she’s probably not reading this). Especially when the tech doesn’t work properly or is unnecessarily complicated. She was annoyed at the various charging dramas we had on the trip, and she didn’t have to actually do anything.
Or there’s my mother, who is a complete technophobe. Her car radio is still tuned to the same station as when she bought the car about eight years ago, and who has never used her satnav or cruise control because she doesn’t know how. The chances of her successfully navigating the same road trip in an EV are slim to none.
For electric vehicles to finally make that jump to being the default choice for new car buyers (and then used car buyers), the supporting infrastructure needs to be seamless, painless and foolproof. On the evidence of our week, some progress has been made but much more is needed.
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