Charging 2.0: How the latest EVs are opening up electric motoring to fleets
With the first long-range, mass-market electric cars coming to market and plug-in sales continuing to grow, Alex Grant looks at how new technology could re-shape the UK’s charging network and the challenges ahead for operators.
The affordable long-range EV emerges…
The tipping point for widespread EV adoption is usually said to be an anxiety-free 200 miles between short charging stops. That’s already achievable – the Tesla Model S has offered this since 2014 – but it’s what’s going on behind the slew of high-profile premium-brand electric SUV launches this year that’s perhaps most significant.
Four years ago, the starting point for a car with that sort of range was over £60,000. The Hyundai Kona Electric almost halves that, with a P11d price of £33,940. That’s still pricier than a petrol or diesel car, but, with a WLTP range of 279 miles, this can be the only car in a household for a large cross-section of UK motorists. And, with near hot hatch performance, it doesn’t have to be a wholly rational choice, either.
To illustrate this, Hyundai UK tasked a small group of motoring journalists with finding the car’s limits. Not to hypermile, but to plot a 12-hour route visiting as many checkpoints as possible between Skegness and Swansea, with points awarded for the furthest-flung locations. Its confidence is well-placed – utilising Eco Mode and the variable regenerative braking to keep the Kona rolling at motorway speeds, range settled at 280-300 miles to a full charge even when tasked with the Brecon Beacons and long highway stretches. It’s a new era for EVs, so how is the supporting technology keeping up?
Bigger ‘tanks’, faster ‘pumps’…
Widespread infrastructure already exists. The UK has one of Europe’s most advanced charging networks, comprising 17,000 connectors on 10,300 units, according to Zap-Map. Once predominantly city-based, this now means means drivers can use low-powered domestic, workplace or inner-city chargers while stopped, and extend the range using short top-ups en route – typically restoring 80% of the range in around half an hour.
Zap-Map live data suggests reliability is improving, too – units with one connector inoperable had declined from 14.8% in July 2017, to 8.5% in August 2018, the company said. It’s adequate for most EVs, but the latest models might be about to change that.
The key to the Kona’s long range is a battery with a 64kWh capacity – almost three times the capacity of an early Nissan Leaf (24kWh) or Renault Zoe (22kWh), which the networks had been built for. Hyundai claims 80% of the range can be restored in 54 minutes, but that’s using a 100kW charger. The UK’s rapid charging network typically offers up to 50kW, extending that waiting time to 75 minutes for drivers who are really stretching the range. Given that 100-150kW is becoming the norm for long-range EVs, there’s a growing need to ramp up the speed of the charging network.
Ecotricity, which has at least one rapid charger at every motorway service area, will begin rolling out 350kW chargers in 2019. Chargemaster’s Polar network will also get high-powered chargers within months, its 150kW units adding 100 miles per ten minutes plugged in and set to be installed at new sites – the company said 50kW chargers have a long-standing role to play. It’s a view shared by Pod Point, which will also have 150kW at new sites in the near future.
Fast charging also suits forecourts. Shell has begun hosting 350kW sites in Germany, as part of the manufacturer-backed Ionity ultra-fast network, and selected UK forecourts will be part of the 80-site network from the start of 2019. Likewise, ChargePoint Services is going beyond 50kW ‘pumps’ and prioritising forecourt locations for the next phase of its network.
Power output is only one half the battle for network operators. Consumer demand is growing, with Department for Transport figures showing the number of Plug-in Car Grant-eligible vehicles in the UK has doubled in the last two years, to 143,958 cars at the end of Q2 2018. Not only is there a growing need for faster charging, but for additional points too.
Future-proofing has been considered. For example, InstaVolt’s rapid chargers are built on a platform with ‘power blocks’ which it says can be scaled up to provide up to 500kW either through a single unit (if the charging cables are swapped for water-cooled items) or split across several. The idea is to enable operators to scale up their charging provision at busy sites, but this is just as dependent on the supply from the grid itself.
The National Grid has identified 54 sites, alongside motorway routes, which could be upgraded to have direct connections to the transmission network to enable ultra-fast charging for passing travellers. This, the company says, would put 99% of the English and Welsh population within 50 miles of such sites. However, according to UK public affairs and policy senior manager, Peter Abson, it can be problematic making a case for that direct connection.
“The market-led approach will lead to unequal distribution [of charging points] across the UK, and many rural areas without ultra-fast rapid chargers,” he says. “It means those communities facing inadequate mobile and broadband coverage will also be under-served by electric vehicle infrastructure, resulting in government intervention at a later stage and more cost.”
Ultimately, though, one of the big advances over the last four years has been choice. Ecotricity’s Electric Highway points are still closest to the motorway, and usually busy too (the company says it is addressing bottlenecks as it upgrades the network). But drivers prepared to seek out other networks can typically find another rapid charger not far off the beaten track.
More miles, fewer cards…
Developed from local schemes designed around short-range electric cars, the user experience for early EV drivers is a reliance on numerous smartphone apps, accounts and access cards. But this is changing – since November 2017, all newly-installed charging points have been required to offer ad hoc access, and operators have had a year to make their networks compliant. In theory, charging ought to be as straightforward as paying for fuel.
However, most networks still see advantages to membership. For example, Chargemaster offers both pay-as-you-go and subscription-based access to its Polar points, and last year launched a corporate solution enabling fleets to put all drivers on a single bill. It’s a little more like a fuel card.
Erik Fairbairn, CEO of Pod Point, agrees: “EV drivers always have their phone on them – it may take more forward planning to arrange to have an RFID card posted to them. We thus see mobile phones as the predominate authentication method, with contactless payment additionally available on our DC rapid network.”
ChargePoint also says its users tend to prefer apps, despite offering payment via contactless credit cards and Apple Pay on its InstaVolt units. Mark Kerstens, the company’s vice president of strategic accounts, says: “The fewer pieces of RFID card people need to carry, the more they can funnel all of that into a single app the better it is for the driver experience.”
For those who prefer an account, Zap Map will soon launch a service enabling access to multiple networks under one membership. Zap Pay will log energy costs, usage and VAT, and offer dynamic route planning based on charging speeds, following the company’s own research showing customer satisfaction was based on easy access and frictionless payment.
Dr Ben Lane, CTO at Zap-Map, explains: “Zap-Pay will effectively make the UK networks interoperable, an issue of key concern to most EV drivers who have to carry multiple RFID cards and use several apps to charge their EVs across the UK. While new standards and payment methods, such as contactless, are simplifying payments to an extent, Zap-Pay is able to communicate with both legacy and new pay-as-you-go charging units which are used across local, national and international charging networks.”
Walking first, running second…
It seems many of the hurdles of long-distance EV driving are disappearing – better batteries are enabling greater range, faster charging stations are on the way, and access is becoming easier. But, despite an emphasis on ever-faster DC rapid charging, the norm for most EVs will be slower AC top-ups at home, work or during longer stopovers. So, what’s happening here?
At present, most EVs only support AC charging at up to 7kW – including the Kona, which then steps up to much faster DC rapid charging. But, as batter ranges increase, Kersten says there will be a need for units at closer to 22kW output for fleets. “We are strongly supporting expanding AC charging at workplaces and retail locations, as that’s where a lot of charging is happening,” he says. “DC charging is critically important, but it’s not going to address the needs of most drivers.”
The UK’s charging infrastructure has changed radically in the last decade. But, from the slowest units to the most cutting-edge rapid charging equipment, the quickest changes might still be on the way.
Driver Diary: Craig Thomas
Since taking delivery of my Volkswagen e-Golf long-term test car in May, I’ve experienced life on the nascent electric highway. It’s certainly been interesting.
Living in London, and working from home, most of my journeys are short and local, so an EV is absolutely perfect. The quietness is also a definite advantage and it has a surprisingly calming effect: you undoubtedly find yourself being more relaxed about getting around.
I don’t have off-street parking, but there are now charge points near my house, which are almost always unused. It’s not the cheapest way to charge – it can be four times the cost of doing it at home – but it’s still cheaper than petrol and diesel, mile for mile.
Of course, range anxiety is the big issue. In addition to the Hyundai Kona drive, for which we covered nearly 500 miles, I’ve also undertaken a 400-mile round trip in the e-Golf. Planning where to charge is key to overcoming any anxiety, but the infrastructure isn’t totally reliable as yet, so you always need a back-up plan – and don’t wait until your battery is almost empty before charging.
The Kona’s 279-mile range is the way forward and will eliminate most issues, but more public chargers that are cheaper and more reliable will also help the uptake of EVs in the coming years.
Driver Diary: Martyn Collins
Although I love the idea of alternative fuelled cars, I’ll admit to having very little experience of travelling long distance in them. In fact, prior to the Kona Rally, the longest distance I’d been in an electric car, was a trip from St Albans to Cardiff last year in the latest Volkswagen e-Golf with my Co-driver for the rally, Alex Grant. With just one stop at Membury Services and an hour on a fast charger, the 150-mile range proved more than enough to get to Wales. Proof to me, that with a little planning, big distance isn’t scary in an electric car – I was impressed.
The Kona moves the electric car game on even more, with our range-topping Premium SE boasting the bigger 64kWh battery and 279-mile range. Considering some of its odd-looking rivals, I’m pleasantly surprised at how normal the Kona SUV looks. Convention carries on in the Hyundai’s interior, the only oddity being the push-button transmission. It is a tidy and easy drive too, plus with over 200bhp, hot hatch quick — although that’s not the point here.
What I learnt over 12 hours and over 400 miles, is that range isn’t the issue to making electric cars the first choice over petrol and diesel for fleet. It is the hit and miss charging structure. It isn’t just the lack of fast chargers, but frustrating compatibility issues with some of the chargers we experienced. Sadly, until then, I’m going to be forced to stick with the pumps.