'We should worry about the reliability of public chargers, not how many of them there are'
I’ve been running our Kia e-Niro long term car for a few weeks now, and the very first thing I did was a circa 400-mile trip from home in Camberley, up to Birmingham, back down to Poole in Dorset, and then home again. Given that the Kia’s real-world range is some 240 miles or more, I wasn’t terribly worried. The journey up to Birmingham went faultlessly, with a quick top-up on the M40 simply because we wanted coffee.
The journey back was always going to be trickier but, to make a long story short, I encountered three different Ecotricity rapid chargers that weren’t working. In the end I did find a rapid charger (a GeniePoint station that initially wouldn’t let me sign up via the website due to a technical error, adding to the trauma of the situation), but the issue of reliability is a persistent one.
The DrivingElectric and AutoExpress car park in central London has three Type 2 car chargers, which only seem to be working about 30% of the time. The rest of the time they lull you into a false sense of security with all the right twinkly lights, but then don’t actually deliver any electricity.
There are some Chargemaster fast chargers in a multi-storey car park local to me, which now work reliably because the car park maintenance team has chained the reset keys (and some instructions) to the wall boxes, so that you can reset them yourself. Before that, they were nearly always registering as in-use, even when they weren’t. It does mean that anybody can come along and stop your charge, but honestly I’ll take that risk in return for having a functioning charger.
I charged a BMW i3 at another Ecotricity charger on the M4 the other day, only for it to randomly stop charging due to an unidentified error, after only 12 minutes. I plugged it back in, and it charged absolutely fine thereafter, but if I hadn't checked the app, I could have wasted a lot of time.
Yes, of course you can use Zap Map to check if a charger is in use or out of order, but for me the network will only be truly up to scratch when I can get into my electric car and do a trip like this without mapping out the stops. I don’t plan it in a non-electric car, so why should I have to plan it in an electric car? That's what the average motorist will expect, and with the pure electric Peugeot e-208 and Vauxhall aCorsa going on sale by the end of the year, I suspect a lot of drivers who are new to electric cars will be a bit shocked by how unreliable public car chargers are.
Of course, the infrastructure is improving, and things look set to get better very quickly with more rapid chargers being installed all the time. But for all that, we should be putting as much effort into maintaining and improving our existing chargers as we are into rolling out new ones. And blimey, do we need to scrap all the different provider registration processes, and make contactless, tap-and-go payment obligatory on all pay-per-charge stations.
That, in my books, would be more of a triumph than simply installing more, equally unreliable chargers.