The need for speed: notes from an electric vehicle road trip
28 June 2021
Electric cars are taking off in Britain. Sales have accelerated since the pandemic struck, and the increasing commitment from car makers is palpable. So when I hired an electric car for a family road trip around England—from London to Liverpool, York and Macclesfield—I blithely assumed that charging would be straightforward. I was wrong. The UK’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure is inadequate, consumer unfriendly, and urgently in need of upgrade.
The time it takes to charge an electric car depends on the type of charger. Using a fast 50kW charger, it takes about 40 minutes – about the time my family and I take to get some lunch and stretch our legs.
Given the growth of electric cars, you would think that motorway service stations would be full of these fast 50kW chargers. Anything less than that takes hours to charge, so for journeys across the country they are essential. But almost all the service stations I visited had no more than two 50kW chargers. Many have only one. If the charger is already occupied, too bad: you can sit and wait half an hour, or move on. As a result, long electric journeys in England are difficult to plan, and can involve lengthy detours to find a free charger – after disappointment at the motorway services, I treated the family to 40 minutes in the carpark of a shuttered conference hotel off the M6. Surprisingly often, the chargers simply don’t work.
I’d like to say that trouble finding charging points was the only problem. It wasn’t always straightforward, but with “zap-map” (the electric car driver’s charging bible) installed on my phone, I could manage. But I had not expected it to be difficult to pay.
EV drivers are confronted with a bewildering variety of different charging companies, most of whom require you to register an account. Out of nine times I paid for charging, I installed six payment apps and used two payment websites. Only once was it possible to recharge without getting online, with just a tap of a credit card.
So for every 30 minutes of ‘recharge time’, I spent 10 minutes installing apps, registering details, inventing soon-to-be-forgotten passwords, and generally spraying my personal and financial data at whichever company owned the nearest socket. Those without a smartphone can forget it. Each time I encountered a new charging company, with a new demand to register an account, my heart sank. But in an electric car your choices are few. With 11% charge, a car full of fractious children, and no idea whether the next charging station 20 minutes up the motorway would be occupied by the time you get there, you don’t have much choice.
All of this will improve. The charging companies will consolidate, and payment processes will become standardised. But in the meantime, the experience of charging is needlessly complex. At every fast charger, it should be possible to pay with no more than a contactless tap of a credit card. If government wants to accelerate electric vehicle adoption—and meet its target to phase out petrol cars from 2030—it has to make electric cars convenient for consumers. That means driving investment in the UK’s fast charging network, and requiring charging companies to make payment easier.