Five Reasons Why London’s Electric Car Charging Points Aren’t Being Used

If public charging stations aren’t being used, does it mean that electric cars are failing? Or does it just show that electric car charging station installations have traditionally been poorly maintained, cited and operated?

Are public charging stations a failure for electric cars? It depends who you ask

Are public charging stations a failure for electric cars? It depends who you ask

Yesterday, we had a rather pleasant conversation with Tenterden Town Councillor Sue Ferguson on Twitter, who expressed concern at an article from The Sunday Times stating that sixty-nine percent of all electric car charging points in London hadn’t been used in six months. A member of her local council in Kent, @SueFerguson hoped that charging stations due to be installed in her local town would be more readily used than the ones in London.

Like many concerned citizens, we suspect the article made Sue wonder why charging stations are so infrequently used in city centres. We suspect some who read it may even feel information like this confirms their belief that electric cars are a failed experiment for the wealthy middle class. We know many of our readers have probably even had a conversation about this article over the water cooler this morning, finding themselves trying to set the record straight about what is essentially a lack of facts. So here at Transport Evolved, we thought it was about time to explain WHY electric car charging stations in London — and in other cities around the world — aren’t being used as much as they might be. Moreover, we’ll explain why this doesn’t mean electric cars are doomed.

Not everyone needs a charge

It’s a well-known fact that while there are exceptions, the majority of people in the western world commute less than 40 miles a day.  The average new electric car — not including plug-in hybrids or range-extended electric cars — can easily travel 70 miles on a single charge. Many can travel further. In fact, many studies around the world have concluded that even with the current restrictions of range imposed by battery pack technology, electric cars are suitable for around ninety-five percent of all daily trips made today. That means on a single, overnight charge, most people can drive to work, drive home again, and run errands. Many people don’t charge at public charging points because they don’t need to. Moreover, while charging points in London are currently free to use (at least for the short term) parking at locations with public charging tends to be more expensive than parking elsewhere. That’s because public charging points tend to be installed in more expensive car parks with high daily parking fees. In short then, those who live near enough to work to make it there and back without charging do just that, because it’s both cheaper and less hassle to do so.

Electric car spaces are poorly policed

Visit any major city like London, Cardiff, or Birmingham, and you’ll find a parking garage somewhere within five miles of your location which offers electric car charging. But while some will offer electric-car only spaces, a huge majority place electric car charging infrastructure in non-designated bays, or fail to police any ‘EV-Only’ spaces. This results in regular ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars parking in spaces next to or in front of electric car charging stations, a term often referred to by the electric car community as ‘being ICEd’.

Only one of these four cars can plug in -- yet they're all parked in EV spaces.

Only one of these four cars can plug in — yet they’re all parked in EV spaces.

If bays are blocked by another car, electric car owners are forced to look elsewhere to charge. In large city centre car parks where parking bays are not policed, it’s common to see electric car charging spaces blocked by 7am by early-morning commuters who park there all day. In our experience, we’d suggest this problem is rife: on average, we encounter three ICEd electric car bays in central London for every empty electric car bay we see.

Charging stations are often broken

Just as it’s difficult to find empty charging stations that are not in use or being blocked by ICE cars, it’s sometimes a challenge finding working charging stations. Interconnected using GPRS modems, it’s common to see public charging stations with broken communications, meaning it’s impossible to initiate a charging session.  In other instances, broken RFID card readers mean that it’s impossible to get a charge even if the charging station can communicate to its relevant network operations centre.

Broken charging stations for electric cars are common

Broken charging stations for electric cars are common

Worse still, we’ve heard of many horror stories where charging stations have broken during a charging session, locking a customer’s charging cable to the unit and forcing them to choose to leave their cable — worth several hundred pounds — abandoned at the charging station or stay to wait for an engineer visit. With neither being particularly palatable yet fairly common, many electric car owners simply refuse to use charging stations for fear of there being a fault which prevents them from charging or in fact, leaving.

Charging databases are confusing

So far, we’ve focused on the lack of need for public charging by many electric car drivers, along with charging stations failing or being blocked by ICE cars. But another major challenge for public charging infrastructure being used by electric car drivers revolves around drivers being aware of their presence. At the moment, there are a plethora of different charging station databases around the world, often focused on one particular network, area, or type of charging. With a few exceptions, these databases are usually out of date, inaccurate, and far from complete, meaning that many public charging stations aren’t listed or are incorrectly listed. Even charging databases used by in-car sat nav systems can be out of date. We’ve heard of horror stories of people being led miles out of their way to a charging station only to find it decommissioned, broken, or subject to restricted access limitations. In some cases, this has been despite there being an unlisted charging station a few blocks from their original location. (A case in point: here at Transport Evolved, we’ve been researching a cross-Europe trip by electric car. So far, we’ve had to use fifteen different charging databases to find all the necessary data we need to plan a trip. Q.E.D.) 

Charging stations are the wrong sort, in the wrong place

Finally, we think it’s worth examining the types of charging stations being installed and their locations. In London for example, the majority of public charging stations are basic units offering at best 13 amps of power via a standard UK domestic outlet. Even with a portable charging cable, that normally equates to a maximum charge rate of 10 amps or 2.3 kilowatts. In a car like the Nissan LEAF, that means up to twelve hours to fully recharge the battery pack from empty.  Add to this the fact that street-side electric car charging bays — which unlike their car park brethren are often free to use — have a two or three hour time limit, and they make little sense to most EV owners.

Rapid DC quick charging wins over slow charging any time

Rapid DC quick charging wins over slow charging any time

Further more, with the advent of public rapid charge stations on the motorways in and out of London and at various shops like IKEA, electric car drivers with cars capable of DC or AC rapid charging will tend towards rapid charge points rather than slow public charge points in expensive car parks. Often cheaper to use, these rapid charge stations can refill a battery pack on a Renault Zoe, Nissan LEAF, or Mitsubishi i-Miev to eighty percent full from empty in around 30 minutes in warm weather, or 45 minutes in winter. Those who need to charge — the ones who travel beyond the range of their car’s battery pack — will pick the ease of quick charging over slow, unreliable public charging points any day.

How would you solve it?

We’ve given you five reasons why we think public charging stations aren’t being used in major cities around the world — but we’d like to know what you think would solve the problem? Would you like to see more investment in rapid charging stations outside the city limits? Would you like to see better policing of public charging stations? Or perhaps you’d like to see more powerful city-centre charging. Leave your suggestions and htoughts in the Comments below. —————————- Want to keep up with the latest EV news? Don’t forget to follow Transport Evolved  on Twitter, like us on Facebook and G+, and subscribe to our YouTube channel.


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