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Today has, in many ways, been quite an uneventful day for me. I did a bit of walking, had curry for dinner and a couple of whiskies in the evening. Nothing unusual in any of that for me. However, in one way in particular it has been a very enlightening day because today I realised what makes using an EV for long trips so difficult today.

They already work fantastically well for most day to day trips... you know, the school run, shopping, taking the kids to clubs, even commuting. Charge up at home overnight and it is fully charged, ready to go, when you wake up. Not many , no, no petrol or diesel car will do that. But it is the longer trips, the trips longer than the range of the batteries, that is a problem for EVs right now. It isn't that you cannot do long trip. I have driven my Nissan Leaf all over the UK and there are many EV owners doing just that every day so it can't just be the limited range. If it was then the long trips would just not be possible. So what is it then?

Most would agree that the charging infrastructure in the UK is not well developed yet. In fact, many would say it is not at all good. But in spite of the poor infrastructure and lack of charging locations people are still doing trips from Scotland to Kent, from Bristol to Norwich and from Cornwall to Newcastle. However, in nearly all those trips it took a significant degree of planning to be able to complete them successfully and, in almost all cases, they were completed successfully without running out of charge. These kinds of trips are possible today with careful planning and thought beforehand. Yet there is one thing in nearly all those trips that was the deciding factor in the trip's success and that was that every one of the charging stations that the EV driver planned to use was working and available when they arrived. It is often the case though that there is only one charging station is available at each location (rapid charging anyway and often fast charging too) so should that charge point fail then the EV driver is often stuck without the range remaining to reach an alternative. It is a fact of life at the moment with EVs that we rely on the charging stations working as we expect them to if we want to do longer trips.

This then is the problem with using an EV for longer trips today. Everyone agrees that the charging infrastructure is still in its early days and we can moan all we like (and we do!) about the shortcomings and inadequacies of the various online maps and apps but there is one key factor in all this: we may know that there is a charge station there and we may plan to use it but how can we be sure that it will be working when we arrive?

There are several schools of thought at the moment. Some technical and expensive, some community based and almost free but do any of them work? In fact, can any of them work?

The technical solution is to have the charge station communicate with a back office system which can maintain a watching brief over the charge station's status. The back office system can then know, in real time, whether the station is being used or if there is a fault. This sounds like a great solution and it would be if it worked! Unfortunately it only rarely does. The real problem with this type of system though is its complexity and cost. It requires a significant investment in the communications between the charge station and the back office computer system, the back office must be operational 24/7 and it must then have an online map web site and phone apps to allow the EV driver to easily determine what the current status is. When this is placed against the backdrop of the current EV market with very few drivers, and consequently no revenue, it is a big ask to expect these system to be properly developed in the first place and then to be properly maintained. Add to that the inherent unreliability of the generation 1 equipment and it becomes a nightmare. Where is the money coming from? Right now it is the government but when the grants stop, which they will do eventually, what then? These private companies will have built up the networks with government money and then will have to find significant revenues, and profits, to sustain the service. From where I am standing I fail to see where such revenues are going to come from. Electricity is relatively cheap and people can buy it at home at a price they know and so it will not be easy to convince EV owners to cough up over the odds for electricity just because they are away from home and make no mistake... the networks will have to charge way over the odds if they are to generate enough to sustain their businesses. Examples of this model are Charge Your Car, Pod Point ChargeMaster, POLAR and the Plugged in Places many of which use the ChargeMaster or Pod Point back office systems anyway.

These back office driven systems are not all bad. Ecotricity are doing a fantastic job of installing charging at motorway service areas and other locations in the UK. They are installing a mix of rapid and fast charging mostly at Welcome Break service areas and it is proving hugely popular. It is still early days but it is a back-office driven system and it is proving to be a little unreliable and this is the problem... there is no real time reporting that can be used to determine if a charging station is working. People turn up and find out and usually that is too late for them. They report it to Ecotricity and they post it on Twitter and forums but the first person to discover the problem loses out big time often needed to pay for flatbed recovery or hotel accommodation not to mention the disruption and inconvenience of it all. I know... it has happened to me!

The second solution is destination charging. This is where the EV is charged at its destination, usually overnight, in the same way that it would be charged at home. Destination charging only works if the EV has the range and/or there are adequate and working en route fast/rapid charging stations to get the EV to its destination. Some will say that an extra overnight stop forced to allow the EV to charge is not always a bad thing but what if you just don't have the time or the money? An example of destination charging is ZeroNet run by Zero Carbon World. It works and it works well in some situations if you have a car with sufficient range and fast enough charging. We are a long way from that with affordable cars. However, for me, the biggest problem with destination charging is one of capacity. It is all very well saying you will charge at your destination but that only works if there are sufficient charging capacity there to accommodate all the EVs that want to charge. At the moment most destinations have only one or two points, get a 3rd EV wanting to charge and someone will be left uncharged in the morning. Destination charging requires there to be adequate charging points. At the moment there is little contention but once EVs start to become more popular destination charging won't work in most locations.

So where does all this leave the EV drivers? All they want is to find out the location of charging stations and to know if they are working or not. It doesn't seem all that a complicated request. However, it is proving to be a massive challenge. The complex, back office driven systems, can report status in real-time but most don't but there are alternatives to the complexities. Have the community report station status as and when they use a station. Open Charge map works on that basis as does the Twitter #ukcharge tag, so would Open Street map should that ever get off the ground for EV charging. When you find a faulty station just feed it back to the community. Job done! Well, no, it just won't work. Firstly it relies on everyone reporting their experiences and most people just want to get on with their lives. It also only works retrospectively in that the first person to discover the fault loses out. It might be free but using such data you will never know if it is accurate until you try to use it and by then it may be too late. I will never rely on community-based data if it is important that the data is complete and accurate. It doesn't mean the data is useless but it does mean it can never be relied upon whilst the community is responsible for it.

Zap-Map and Open Charge Map are two of the better ones available at the moment and between them you can probably find most places to charge today. They might help drivers find where the charge stations are but as you can see that is only half the story. If the station is out of order or in use then knowing it is there becomes useless information because if you turn up and it is broken then you could be stranded. Location information alone is pointless for en route charging. We need to know if the station is operational and ideally, if it is occupied and how long it will remain occupied before the EV currently using it is fully charged. That is the minimum information needed to allow risk-free long distance travel in EVs of today and so any database or map that does not have working and effective real-time status reporting is not of much use to an EV driver to determine whether to go to a charging station or to go somewhere else. Right now, long trips are being successful more by luck than judgement. Most are luck but for quite a few their luck runs out when they arrive and the station is not working.

I am not saying that maps and databases with no real-time status capability are a total waste of time. At the moment they are, for the most part, all we have and many people, me included, are using them and successfully making longer trips. However, because there is no real-time reporting, there are a disproportionate number of drivers arriving at charging stations only to find they are not working. Some have a "plan B" and the range to go somewhere else or to switch to slower charging methods and to stay for long periods getting home in the middle of the night. Some don't have that option though and have to be recovered or stay in a hotel. It doesn't happen every day but given the low number of EVs it happens way too often. Real-time reporting would allow the driver to determine if the station was operational before setting out and if car navigation systems were integrated too then they could be warned of a station failing whilst en-route. I am sure that all this is technically possible now but it would need the right motivation and sufficient funds. Community based databases and projects such as Open Charge map and Open Street Map are helpful to a point but they are not, and never will be, the solution.

So what is the solution? Certainly there are no systems or networks out there today that provide that level of information. A few do provide location data and an rudimentary indication of whether the station is currently in use (Pod-Point) but even that is not much help if when you turn up the EV using it still requires 4 hours to complete its charge! Most maps though don't show current status even if they are on networks with communications. I put this down to a lack of understanding or appreciation of what EV drivers need for long trips. A side effect of real-time reporting would be that it would also make the current networks more accountable as everyone could then see the stations that were out of action and how long it took for them to be repaired. As it stands, if a station gets a fault then no one knows about it unless someone tries to use the station and as not many people are driving EVs at the moment they just get away with leaving faulty stations un-repaired.

I keep coming back to the information needed by the driver and I cannot get away from the fact that we need systems that communication between the car, the charge station and a back office system and ones that have descent online maps and apps to allow drivers to find out station status so they can make informed choices where to charge. Many believe that it is the degree of complexity that makes these back-office based systems unreliable and so they strive for simpler systems. I completely disagree. I cannot see a world working for EVs in the long term if those complex, back office based systems are not developed and maintained and that is the dichotomy... we need simple systems for reliability and ease of use yet we need the real-time reporting to give drivers the information to determine if they should visit the charge station at all. There is no solution right now.

In any case, there are no systems available right now as far as I know that communicate with the car to update the back office system with details of how long it will take the charging EV to complete its charge and that is going to be a more difficult nut to crack and not one that will be resolved in this generation of EVs and charging stations. I am sure it is technically possible now but I don't think anyone involved in building charging infrastructure believe it necessary. Personally I believe it is essential... but what do I know? I am just a driver.
 
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