The price of EVs used to be the main practical concern about the shift towards electrified mobility. But now that EV costs are going down, “range anxiety” is coming to the fore instead. The cars are still a bit expensive, but the average range is over 200 miles, and there’s a lot more choice. Instead, more people are concerned about where they can charge them. This is clearly the next issue to address, but it’s not just a matter of installing more chargers.
The first problem is that while EV sales have been going through the roof, charger installations have not been growing so fast. In the UK, more EVs will be sold in 2021 than the previous decade (2010-2019) put together, for an 86% increase year-on-year by October. In contrast, according to Zap-Map, there were 46,945 public charging connections in the UK on 25th November 2021, installed in 27,686 devices at 17,469 locations – with 1,186 of these installed in the last 30 days. Considering that there were scarcely 6,000 of them by the end of 2016, this seems like a very positive improvement. However, the number of devices has only increased by 32% in 2021 compared to 2020, meaning that the growth in charger installation is not matching that of EV car purchases.
The UK government recently announced a very bullish plan to invest in installing “up to 145,000 extra charge points each year” in the run up to 2030, when the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles will end in the UK. But these are home and workplace chargers, so won’t benefit those who can’t install home charging facilities and will have to rely on the public charging infrastructure entirely. This government plan didn’t say anything about public street chargers, which will be an absolute necessity for people living in terraced houses and apartment blocks. There have been other UK government announcements about public charging, however.
That’s not the only issue and might not be so worrying as charging speeds get faster and each car needs to spend less time using each location, so fewer chargers can service more vehicles. The other problem, as any EV owner will tell you, is that installing a charger is just the start. It also needs to be maintained and kept functional. You can have many thousands of charging points, but there’s little point to them if you show up needing a charge and they aren’t working. This is the new version of range anxiety – not “will my car make it to the charger” but “will my car make it to a working charger”.
MORE FOR YOU
It’s not like this is a new experience for EVs. Most seasoned drivers of internal combustion vehicles will have had the joy of reaching a service station only to find it was out of fuel or not open at all, despite being featured on your satnav. In the UK, the number of fuel stations has fallen considerably, with just 8,380 at the end of September 2021, when there were 18,000 in 1992, so there are quite a few fuel stations that are still on maps but no longer exist. Fossil fuel car owners also had a serious case of range anxiety in September in the UK when there was a crisis that left vehicles queuing for hours or not finding any fuel at all at any location.
Perhaps the biggest problem for charging in the UK is that some of the most widely installed networks are also some of the worst for reliability. For example, according to a Zap-Map survey, 40% of EV owners used the bp pulse network for public charging in 2020, and 34% used the Ecotricity Electric Highway (the most common brand at highway service stations). But the latter comes bottom for satisfaction, with Charge Your Car and bp pulse (both owned by bp) only just above them. On British EV online groups, customers are currently stating that they are deserting bp pulse due to unreliability, just as the company has put its prices up.
My own experience of this network tallies with theirs. There are 14 bp pulse charging devices at the local leisure center near where I live with 28 charge points, and they haven’t been working for weeks, with considerable intermittency before that as well. They were put in less than two years ago. However, in fairness to bp pulse, this network was installed by them but is maintained by the local London council (Barnet), so they are the ones who don’t appear to be fixing things when broken. Either way, it’s not an arrangement that works for the customer.
On the plus side, it is good to see that the UK motor industry is recognizing this as a serious risk for the huge investments now being made in selling EVs. At a Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders dinner I attended last week, Chief Executive Mike Hawes argued that this was a major threat, and the UK government minister who was also attending at least paid lip service to the problem, albeit mostly with buzz phrases and platitudes.
But this is an area where governments need to step up more. It’s great that there is funding for infrastructure, but it’s also clear that providers take this money, install the hardware, and then the maintenance costs are neglected. This seems to be the issue with municipal charging in the UK, which is so often dysfunctional. Customers do vote on this matter with their charger choices. Tesla already wins many car sales because its Supercharger network is so dependable, while InstaVolt and Osprey also have great reputations, according to Zap-Map’s survey (and my own personal experience). But there needs to be punitive repercussions for those companies that fail to maintain their networks. A lot of people are now buying electric cars, and the struggle to charge them will only get worse if the chargers aren’t kept in working order.