Failed Electric Car Trip Shows the Two Very Different Sides of EV Charging in Europe

It’s hard when a good plan goes south. It’s harder still when the eyes of the world are watching you — especially if they’re expecting you to fail.

Last week, that’s exactly what happened: a trip we’d meticulously planned across Europe left us battle-scarred and with dented pride. But more importantly, it taught us two valuable lessons.

Charging your electric car is harder than it should be, and if electric cars are to truly become mainstream, everyone needs to work hard to improve network reliability and interoperability.

Yes, it was raining initially, but we were getting power!

Yes, it was raining initially, but we were getting power!

Time to start at the beginning. This time last week, we were preparing Hiro, our 2011 Nissan LEAF, for an epic trip across Europe to take part in the 2014 WAVE trophy. Leaving early Wednesday morning, we planned to travel the 183 miles from our Bristol offices to Folkestone, Kent, where we’d take the Eurotunnel to France. From there, we’d planned an extensive, exhaustive route map through France, Belgium and Germany, arriving in Stuttgart on Friday afternoon in time to take part in the WAVE Trophy.

Along the way, we’d stop a dozen or so times, recharging our LEAF at publicly available CHAdeMO quick charge stations. Capable of recharging our LEAF from empty to 80 per cent full in around 30 minutes, we’d hoped that the DC quick charge capability of Nissan’s first electric car would make up for the LEAF’s limited range. Despite allocating 30 minutes for charging for every hour of travel, we were confident we’d arrive in Germany with time to spare.

Smooth sailing

With the car packed up the night before, we headed out of Bristol at 5am on Wednesday morning, heading east for Kent. Stopping at Ecotricity’s Electric Highway charging points along M4, M25 and M20 motorways, we were able to make great progress without a worry. Even with heavy rain and rush hour traffic — and despite making a detour and sneaking in an extra charging stop to make up for it — we arrived in Folkestone so early that we were offered the earlier train to France.

Like many other charging networks across the world, Ecotricity grants access to its Electric Highway rapid charging points using a smart RFID card and has charging stations sited in locations which are — for the most part — accessible 24/7.

Thanks to reliable quick charging, we arrived in Folkestone ahead of schedule -- and even charged extra!

Thanks to reliable quick charging, we arrived in Folkestone ahead of schedule — and even charged one extra time!

It’s worth noting at this point that Ecotricity’s network, like many other charging networks, recently underwent a massive upgrade program to fix a design flaw with the DBT rapid charging stations which left charging stations unusable and drivers stranded. Since the work has been completed, its charging station downtime has plummeted, and its network has become far more reliable. And that’s exactly what we experienced on Wednesday, with every single charging station we stopped at working correctly, filling our car up with ease.

Beached in Dunkirk

And that’s where the problems started. Our successes in the UK on the now reliable Electric Highway meant that we landed in France with the expectation that we’d have similar luck there. Driving off the Eurotunnel train, we had more than half a charge to get us the 30 miles or so to our first rapid charging stop in Dunkirk. Things, we thought would be easy.

Yet upon arrival at the Nissan dealership where we’d planned our first continental charge things took an unexpected turn for the worse. Despite applying for and receiving a plethora of different RFID smart cards for use on the continent — including one sent to us by Nissan France — none of the cards we had wanted to work on the Dunkirk dealership’s DC quick charger.

The dealership didn’t want to help us either, telling us that the machine was broken and they didn’t have a charge card we could use. Without even offering us a place to charge in the workshop, we were ushered towards another dealership in town where we were told there would be a rapid charger.

After driving through town, we found the dealership we were meant to visit: a Renault dealership being renovated. Despite having two charge points out front fitted with the now obsolete Type 3c charge adaptor found only in France, there was no sign of a rapid charging station. After some persuasion, the dealership let us plug into a 10 amp domestic socket inside the store.

Lost in translation

An hour or so later, after we thought we had enough charge to limp to a nearby shopping mall with a CHAdeMo quick charge station, we asked the assistant at Renault if she knew about the rapid charging station we wanted to visit. It may have been our poor school French, but we’re pretty sure when she nodded she confirmed that yes, she knew about the charging station and yes, it was working.

So, we dutifully headed out, knowing that we’d miss our next charging stop but hoping we could at least manage one more rapid charge of the day. With our battery warning light now showing less than six miles of range left, we pulled in at the massive hypermarket complex. Despite two charging databases saying there was a charging station there and with the confirmation of the Renault greeter, the only thing we found was a gas station.

This was one of several 'phantom' charging stations listed on maps but which didn't actually exist... yet.

This was one of several ‘phantom’ charging stations listed on maps but which didn’t actually exist… yet.

Staff at the hypermarket confirmed there was no rapid charging station there and worse still, no-one would let us plug in to a 10 amp socket. With all our backups used up and no range, we had no choice but to call Nissan assistance.

Lost in France

The staff at Nissan GB’s assistance service were very friendly. After explaining our situation, they agreed the best course of action would be to tow us to the nearest open CHAdeMO quick charge station on our route. With our next point — also a dealership — now closed, they agreed our overnight hotel was the next choice.

But after waiting for five hours, numerous cups of coffee and some soul-searching on our part, we still had no pickup. Then finally it came: a phone call from a French breakdown service.

Unlike their UK counterparts, we were told the breakdown service wouldn’t be able to help us until Friday, since it was now after 6pm and the next day — a Thursday — was a religious holiday. Several frantic phone calls followed, and finally — at around 10 pm — a message appeared from someone at Nissan France assuring us that they’d cleared a tow-truck to take us to our overnight hotel in Belgium.

As the truck was being dispatched our way however, the Twitterverse launched into life. The charging station we intended to use at our hotel was out of order, we were told, so we reached out to our contact one more time.

A while later, the message came through: The charging station was now working, and the hotel had checked it. Our tow was good!

Double failure

Arriving at our hotel at 2am on the back of a tow truck isn’t fun, especially when you need to leave the next day at 5am. But as we unloaded our LEAF and drove up to the hotel, the lights from the CHAdeMO quick charge and Type 2 fast charge station reassured us. They appeared to be working.

But after standing there a while, the horrible truth dawned: for the second time today, we were at a quick charging station we couldn’t use. Despite having the correct access card, a hardware fault in both quick and fast charging units meant we were forced to yet again break out the extension cables.

At that point, we knew there was no chance of a quick turn around. While our next CHAdeMo quick charge station was just 37 miles away, we knew it would take more than three hours to give us the charge we needed to make it there.

Sadly, this is only a sight we got to see in the UK -- because we never got a DC quick charger to work in mainland Europe.

Sadly, this is only a sight we got to see in the UK — because we never got a DC quick charger to work in mainland Europe.

We climbed into bed knowing that we’d start Thursday well behind schedule, despite numerous second and third contingency plans and a twenty per cent ‘contingency buffer’ calculated into each stage of our trip.

Limping ahead

With a good breakfast and coffee to go, we packed our car again and left our hotel, aiming for our first quick charging station. Having checked Google Earth, we knew that even if our first choice for charging — a Total filling station — was broken, there was a nearby Nissan dealership with rapid charging accessible 24/7.

Being a public holiday, we’d expected most shops to be closed, but the gas station, which had opening hours listed Monday through Sunday, would we hope be partly open.

It wasn’t. And while self-service kiosks dispensed gasoline to anyone with a credit card, the DC quick charge station required a special pass which could only be purchased inside the closed gas station.

The Nissan dealer wasn’t any more fruitful. Despite the charging station being switched on and ready to charge, no cards we had for our trip worked. Despite thinking that the Nissan France charging card would work on dealer charging stations, it became obvious it wouldn’t.

Misunderstanding, poor luck, and perhaps poor planning meant we were stuck with a slow charge.

One location we visited was listed as being rapid -- but it was a fast, 3 kW charge.

One location we visited was listed as being rapid — but it was a fast, 3 kW charge.

At this point, we found a fast — read 3.3 kilowatt charging station nearby which would give us enough charge to at least try to make some form of progress. But at more than six hours behind schedule and not one but three failures to charge, we knew our options were growing ever slimmer.

 

After much soul searching, we decided to retrace our steps to the UK — and provide coverage remotely instead as we knew we knew the charging network was so unreliable we had little chance of arriving on time for the start of the event.

Warcharging

With alternative accommodation arranged, we started heading back to the UK, stopping at Type 2 charging stations along the way and limping, painfully slowly, westwards. Despite calling in at four different locations with supposed rapid charging points, not a single one worked. Each was either broken or we didn’t have the right card. Our faith in charging databases and DC quick charge technology was at an all-time low.

Upon arriving at our hastily-booked budget hotel in Ghent, we searched for a charging station. The hotel didn’t think it had one, but hidden in the corner of the parking lot was a 16 amp ‘commando’ socket, perfect for an overnight charge.

Refreshed and pleased with our warcharging efforts, we woke early the next morning, this time wiser and we hoped, ready for a better day of travel. Despite covering more than 200 miles in our first eight hours of the trip, we’d averaged 10 miles per hour in the subsequent day and a half, and we wanted better luck.

With a type 2 charging socket located south of Ostende, we got up early and planned breakfast by the sea. Knowing the charging point would work with the cards we had, we picked the location for our Friday-morning first charge over the still-closed Nissan dealer. Having found not one, but four DC quick charge stations which we couldn’t use, we decided slow and guaranteed was better than fast and unsure.

Gambling

It was at this point that we decided, poorly, to try the Dunkirk dealership we’d tried to use on the way out. Reaching out to our contact from Nissan France one more time, we enquired if the Dunkirk quick charger was back online and functioning. It was, came the reply. The dealership, who hadn’t a card to use it on the Wednesday, now apparently had an activated charge card that they’d just tested to verify it worked.

Despite not being full then, we headed south down the coast, eager for just one rapid charge before heading back to the UK. It wasn’t to be.

Assurances the charging station was working appeared false. The dealership pleaded ignorance. And we were left charging our now almost empty LEAF on a slow workshop charging unit.

An hour later, the dealership started to get ready for the lunch break. Following French tradition, this meant it would close for two hours, and we’d be stuck inside unless we left. With the staff clearly uneasy about letting us stay and the planned departure for the UK looming ever closer, we had no choice but to limp to the train.

The fateful message saying the dealer will let us charge... but sadly they were wrong.

The fateful message saying the dealer will let us charge… but sadly they were wrong.

Arriving in Calais with just miles left, we were told by staff at Eurotunnel that they had no charging stations. Despite seeing Eurotunnel-branded electric cars driving around, our best option, we were told, was to get back on the train and charge in England.

Which is what we did.

Promises aside, we landed in the UK with less miles than we needed to make it to the nearest slow or quick charge station. With no-where to plug in, we waited again for a tow truck.

Six hours later, it arrived, escorted by a UK Eurotunnel vehicle: a Renault Kangoo Z.E.

“We have a place to charge!” the driver told us. “We could have charged you! You should have asked…”

At that point, it wasn’t productive to point out that we had. So we boarded the tow truck one more time, and headed for our first rapid charge point, thirteen hours after hitting the road that morning.

Da Capo

From the moment we plugged into the rapid charge unit on the M20, our trip home was trouble-free. Every point we charged at worked. Every time we pulled in, we had charge to spare. And we arrived home, tired, cranky, and disappointed, at 2:30 am.

The blame game

So, who is to blame? It’s easy to blame other people, but we’re partly at fault. Despite spending the best part of four weeks — and many long hours — planning our route, researching alternatives and obtaining the necessary charging cards, our charging beyond the UK was an unmitigated disaster.

Naturally, a limited-range Nissan LEAF isn’t the best car to take across Europe. We’re the first to admit that. But in an event where all the cars have to be all-electric, it was our only choice besides our Chevrolet Volt. And with the promise that the even more limited-range Volt would have to cover the whole event without a drop of gasoline, surrendering any gasoline in its tank at the start, we decided the LEAF made more sense.

We were partly to blame...

We were partly to blame…

In hindsight, we could and perhaps should have left for our trip far earlier, expecting slow charging at every stop but being surprised when rapid charging worked. But at five hours or more per recharge, the same trip would have taken us more than a week relying on just slow charging. Either that, or we’d have been forced to drive through the night to make our destination on time.

Towards a tangible, equitable reality

Before we go any further however, we want to make one thing absolutely clear: our car — the 2011 Nissan LEAF we’ve owned for three years — wasn’t to blame. Our inability to charge on the continent wasn’t the fault of the car itself. We can’t fault the LEAF, and with nearly 56,000 miles now on the clock, the car is still reliable and has never let us down.

Nor is it right to criticise CHAdeMO DC quick charging technology. When the charging station works, it’s convenient, quick and useful.

The charging networks however, are a different matter.

As advocates and journalists covering the sphere, charging hiccups are an all-too common niggle of electric car charging. In the past three years, we’ve seen charging station reliability massively increase, making longer-distance trips far more possible. And while quick charging networks are currently ruled unarguably by Tesla’s DC Supercharger network, we think other DC and AC rapid charging systems have a chance too: as long as they come with more reliable hardware and redundancy at each and every location.

But the real kicker in this all isn’t the reliability of the charging stations or the fact that there is generally one solitary charging station in each location. It’s the realisation that there are so many different competing networks and charging companies offering electric car charging that negotiating them all is a gargantuan task akin to planning military operations. Despite the best intentions of many charging service providers, most public charging networks we encountered didn’t work with cards from rival companies in rival countries.

It’s almost like having to buy a new mobile telephone every time you visit a different country.

In an ideal world, this shouldn't be an image you see.

In an ideal world, this shouldn’t be an image you see.

Worse still, even dealerships are part of this confusion. In hindsight and from what we’ve been told, our failed experiences in Dunkirk were the product of a dealership having a charging station installed but not having the necessary access cards needed to make it work. Chocolate teapots come to mind.

Add to this limited opening hours, and we’re left with a rapid charging network which works some of the time, but not all the time. A charging network which only works if you have the right card, which won’t take your credit card in lieu of membership, where confusion over its actual operational status is rife, and where miscommunication is currency. A network where even the charging databases charged with documenting the existence of charging stations are broken, confused, contradictory.

A second-class system where gasoline is available 24/7, but the most easily-accessible fuel of all is locked away behind computer screens, flawed payment systems and hardware faults.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Our experiences in the UK — where we took just 12 hours to cover 400+ miles over two days — show that rapid charging networks can and do work. Networks where there’s 24 hour support, multiple different cards work from different providers in an open and free roaming agreement. And most importantly, a network where there’s a degree of redundancy and charging stations are located far closer together than you actually need to enable range anxiety to be a thing of the past.

We love electric cars. We love how easy they are to drive. And we agree that they really are suitable for most people to drive as daily cars.

But until charging networks become as easy to use and ubiquitous as gasoline, we’re doubtful we’ll want to make a trip like that again any time soon.

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