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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  • Richard Glover

    This is great article Nikki and deserves to read by all who have a say in how our tax money is spent on ev charging. nnThe next big force in the advancement of electric vehicles.nnI am optimistic that in the long run no charging point will be seen as a total waste of money but in the meantime stop putting low level points in willy-nilly.nnThe Chademo rapid charging network (Nissan dealerships and motorway services) works well if not perfectly and needs to carry on growing for those needing longer trips.nnBut I do feel we need other players in the rapid charging infrastructure who would address the sociability side of owning a vehicle. I want supermarkets that are open 24/7 to come on board and be the next big force in the advancement of electric vehicles. Easy access to rapid charging at my local Tesco would be great for me and great for EVs.

  • just someone old

    the viability of slow charging is very little in my opinion! Unless you couple it to a service! I think it would be cheaper for a city to just offer free charging via a dumb station (no rfid, no gprs) and just pay for parking!nnEven the viability of fastcharging is not assured! I think even this could be offered free if it is coupled to a service! (buy a menu in a restaurantchain, and get …. (casino)chips with which you can activate a FC)nnPeople tend to make or think it is necessary to make things complex! They forget that the more complex you make it, the more expensive you make it! The more complex things get, the more prone to bugs & defects they get too! (just watch how many updates a computersystem gets)nnIf you can charge at home for cheap & easy, you wil not pay or will avoid paying for something you know is cheap!nnIt’s like making patatochips yourself, buy it at a roadside-stall or in a restaurant!nIt’s all the same thing, but the service accompagnating it is differen! Price is different too! I think if you go to the roadside-stall you will have difficulty paying with american-express or visa! The owner probably thinks the fees he has to pay to use such card are just not worth it!

  • Paul

    You can amend this after April 1st to include “extortionate charges”, as that’s when I (and I assume several others) will stop charging in and around Milton Keynes. 😉

  • Kieron

    Here here, superstores with rapid chargers would be great, especially if they were positioned close to motorway junctions, which they often are.nAlso I spend hours on the internet researching EVs and I am still confused about which card/company/database to use.

  • Adam

    Good article and I like the idea in the comments about Tesco supplying infrastructure. Is the problem so far not simply that there are not enough EVs on the roads? They still remain quite expensive and the public perception is that range is a problem – of course it isn’t, but we need to change this perception. Oh, and try for cross-European charging.

  • tokenpom

    Sainsburys and Tesco both offer Discounts on Carbon Fuels to their Clubcard members, how about offering ‘free’ recharges to their EV owning members too ?

  • tokenpom

    I just posted this on Tescos and Sainsbury’s Facebook Pages,nnHi,n n please can Tesco start installing ‘Fast-Chargers’ for Electric Cars, in your Car-Parks ?n nn You already heavily promote your provision of expensive, polluting nPetrol & Diesel to your Clubcard Members, so how about helping your nother Clubcard members who are trying to reduce their impact on the nenvironment by choosing clean, efficient Electricity to power their carsn ?n n On a fast-charger, most modernn Electric Cars can re-charge in about half an hour, so helping your nbig-buying customers, as well as encouraging your lighter shoppers to n’linger longer’ !n n I hope you can help,n n Thanks,n n Nick.

    • Martin Winlow

      I assume you mean ‘rapid’ chargers…? i.e. 50kW CHAdeMO/CCS DC ones?

  • Richard Glover

    There is slow charging, fast charging and rapid charging.nRapid Charging is King. nIn the future there will probably be SuperRapidCharging

  • Nikki,nYou might be interested in my recent (poor) experiences trying to use charging in London:n

  • Rosie

    Everybody in the EV charging industry is repeating the same failing business model, private money and federal money is gone by not paying attention that the investment or grant was given to companies repeating the same business model. So, I have the solution for that and we would have a big presentation in San Francisco, we will correct the problem and B-Innovationss will drive the growth of the EV industry by establishing the best EV Charging Network in the World.

  • Martin Winlow

    Hi Nikki,

    I run 3 private EVs. A Peugeot iOn (AKA Mitsubishi i-MiEV and my daily commuter), a Vectrix scooter (when I do a day shift and the traffic is pants) and… a Tesla MS (for nice days out and log trips!). The one major reason I would be extremely unlikely to ever use a ‘fast’ (16/32A AC) street-side/car park EVSE is indirectly covered in your article but should be made very clear to planners and sponsors of these things. It is this: There is no way in Hell that I am going to risk leaving home without enough range to get back again unless I can be pretty much 100% certain that I will be able to get a ‘destination’ charge whilst I am out (for non-EVers, that means being able to charge whilst you are at your destination and, therefore, whilst you are doing whatever it is you went there for).

    Given the hopeless state of the EV charging network – as pointed out in your article – that’s pretty much going to be never. The only ray of hope is a proliferation of rapid chargers (DC CHAdeMO/CCS) which will instantly remove this reservation as well as provide even seasoned EVers with a practical form of range insurance AND allow people who cannot charge overnight at home or, during the day at work, somewhere to charge their shiny-new EV. With 50%+ of UK housing being terraced with zip hope of charging at home, local authorities are going to have to start thinking about how all the EVs of the future are going to get charged! The sooner HMG wakes up to this and stops wasting money on street-side charge points (and, IMO, even home ones under the OLEV grant system) the better.

    The up-coming TX5 hybrid Taxi may, indirectly, cause a big change on this subject as, where the Dickens are they all going to charge? Your typical taxi driver isn’t going to sit around for hours charging. So either there will have to be a huge increase in the number of rapids in London or they will all commute in to London on their batteries and then it’ll be business as usual, driving around in cabs powered by stinky diesel engines!

    Keep up the good work.

    Martin Winlow