Plugging in

RAC Mobile Charging for Stranded Electric Cars: What You Need To Know

This morning, the RAC — one of the UK’s oldest and most trusted breakdown services — launched a pilot project in the midlands to test a portable emergency charging station solution for electric car drivers.

The RAC says its new service is designed to help EV drivers who have been caught a little short...

The RAC says its new service is designed to help EV drivers who have been caught a little short…

Essentially a charging station on wheels, the RAC says the specially-designed 5 kilowatt unit is capable of providing stranded electric cars with a flat battery pack the necessary power needed to get to get to the next public charging station.

We’re going to drill down and find out just what the trial unit can do — and what it can’t.

Emergency only

Fitted with a type 2 socket for fast charging, the EVRescue unit — designed by UK firm Charging Solutions — isn’t designed to work as a way to replenish an electric car’s battery pack to full in short order like a public DC or AC quick charge station is.

Instead, says the RAC, it’s designed as a ‘gallon of electricity’ to get its customers to the next public charging station without a hitch. While the nomenclature itself is a bit incongruous — a gallon’s worth of electricity is equivalent to about 100 miles of driving or more for most EVs on the market today and thus a full charge — the EVRescue unit is claimed to add about fifteen miles of range in just over half an hour.

Interestingly on its website, Charging Solutions says the standard EVRescue is capable of 4 kilowatts of power output, but the RAC quotes 5 kilowatts in its press release. If used with a car fitted with an on-board charger capable of supporting a 5 kilowatt charge rate — like a high-end Nissan LEAF with 6 kilowatt on-board charger —  we can believe that 15 miles of range could be added in that time.

For owners of older electric cars with 3 kilowatt on-board chargers however, fifteen miles of range could take more than an hour to add, especially if the battery pack is completely empty since the car will automatically restrict current to protect its battery until the battery pack has reached a higher state of charge.

The RAC emergency assistance is designed to get you to a quick charge station, not refuel your car completely.

The RAC emergency assistance is designed to get you to a quick charge station, not refuel your car completely.

In our experience for example, a fully-drained 2011 Nissan LEAF takes about an hour to add just six or so miles of range from its on-board 3 kilowatt charger if the battery pack is fully empty. If the battery pack is between 20 and 80 percent full already, it’s possible to add as much as 15  miles of range per hour.

What this unit is not then, is a portable CHAdeMO quick charge unit like the ones found in certain parts of the Pacific Northwest and California. Larger, more powerful, and fitted on the back of heavy-duty breakdown trucks, these units can refill a stranded CHAdeMO quick charge-capable car like the Nissan LEAF or Mitsubishi i-Miev from empty to 20 miles of range in under ten minutes.

Geographically limited, and there’s only one so far

The other thing to bear in mind about this service is that there’s only one vehicle fitted with the EVrescue technology, and it has to cover the whole of the Birmingham area.

Given the number of public charging stations in the Birmingham area, we’re not sure just how much it’s going to be used by electric car drivers. While it may be useful to help first-time EV owners out of a pickle, more experienced drivers are likely to know their car well enough to make it to a charging station before anything bad happens.

Because there’s only one, it also raises the question of how long the truck will take to get to your location if you do need its services.  Unless you’re stranded on a high-speed motorway — and we really hope no-one is careless enough to start a freeway trip without having enough charge to make it to their destination — begging a charge from a friendly business via a standard household outlet may be a better solution for many EV drivers.

It’s worth noting too that some automakers — like Nissan — offer free recovery to the next charging point for members who have been stranded.

Then again, if the choice is waiting for half an hour for a two truck to take you ten miles down the road to a quick charge station or half an hour for a truck to arrive which then takes another thirty minutes to add just a few miles to your car, we’re guessing the latter is rendered useless if you have a car capable of quick charging.

The RAC says the portable charging unit will add 15 miles of range in just 30 minutes -- but not if you've got an older EV with 3.3 kW of on-board charging capability.

The RAC says the portable charging unit will add 15 miles of range in just 30 minutes — but not if you’ve got an older EV with 3.3 kW of on-board charging capability.

Not all call centre staff will understand

In our own personal experience and listening to anecdotal evidence from EV owners around the world, the largest problem with breakdown services isn’t the people who come to help you when you’re stranded: it’s the staff at the call centre.

For them, receiving a call from an electric car owner is still something of a rarity. Moreover, we’ve heard of instances where people have phoned up to say “I’ve got a flat battery! Bring help!” to only be met by a traditional tow-truck carrying a 12-volt jump starter or worse still, jump start cables.

In that instance, the service is only going to be as useful as the people answering the phones — and the staff who understand the difference between an electric and a non-electric car breakdown.

The right stuff?

While we’re pleased to see recovery services finally pay attention to the needs of electric car drivers, we’re a little skeptical that the right services will be implemented in the right way by recovery companies used to dealing with internal combustion engined cars.

Over the past few years, we’ve heard some pretty big horror stories about breakdown truck drivers who don’t understand or even appreciate what’s required to get an electric car moving, and from the press release accompanying this announcement from the RAC — which manages to confuse the differentiation between level 2 (type 2) fast charging and DC or AC quick charging — we’re not sure the breakdown companies do either.

But nevertheless, it is a start — and one we hope will grow to include more versatile charging equipment.

For now however, we’d advice electric car drivers continue to practice what they hopefully have been for years: carry a charging cable with you, and make sure you know where the nearest charging station is when you’re traveling away from the familiarity of your home region.

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