Automotive Blog

Plugged in but not switched on


I have been driving an Opel/Vauxhall Ampera for the last few months and it has changed how I drive. I am still competitive, but in a different way! I now look at the battery gain from using the regenerative breaking when cruising down hills. I enjoy creeping away from the traffic lights whilst making no discernable sound except the turn of tyres on gravel. I keep an eye on the combined MPG and get upset if it drops below 80. It is also a pleasure to drive.

However, there remain many barriers to the evolution of EVs (and plug-in EV range-extender hybrids such as the Ampera), and some are entirely related to the standardisation and inter-operability of infrastructure. Firstly, finding a compatible charge point can be a challenge. Yes, that’s right, not just a charge point but a compatible one. There are different modes: slow charging from a standard socket, fast charging via multi-pin plugs, and rapid charging. There are examples of AC and DC charging, in part related to whether the car has an on board vehicle charger. And there remain four plug types. However, once you get the hang of the terminology it becomes easier to locate the right charge points, using smartphone mapping tools such as Zapmap.

However, that is when you encounter another problem, and that is the lack of charging scheme interoperability. When I arrive at some locations, I either just plug in or ask for charge point access which usually means being given an RFID key-fob or card. But at most public charge points, a specific card is required for access and there exists a myriad of schemes, largely regional. So I carry two different cards, Ecotricity and Plugged in Midlands. These cover most motorway locations and local public charge points. However, should I want to visit Milton Keynes I need another card as the scheme is entirely different. With contactless bank cards already in circulation, and under consideration as a replacement or alternative to the Transport for London Oyster card, creating a national network cannot be a technical challenge. Inter-scheme collaboration could be viewed a commercial opportunity.

Finally, what is really frustrating is that when there’s a problem, such as a non-charging post, there is usually no one around to offer advice and the only information available is frequently a postage stamp sized phone number. Phoning these helplines is only for the hardened expert, which slightly defeats the point. The call centre ability to provide solutions is limited, due to a complete lack of digital technology integration which means you cannot do anything without a postal delay. Furthermore, the phone calls usually go badly, due to a combination of their not knowing which posts are out of service and lack of detailed knowledge around differences in car technologies, which is complimented by indifference and a patronising lack of customer service skills.

The infrastructure providers have done very well selling spades during a gold rush, and largely from public funds. However, to date they failed to deliver a customer focused infrastructure, and they must try harder, if nothing else, to ensure their own long term viability. What is required is a customer friendly, easy to use national network, with smartphone enabled interoperability. Electric vehicles are still at the early adopter phase, and they have the opportunity to work together to shape the networks for the future.

Written by Ben Waller

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