BBC Attempts Electric Car Trip, Doomed Before Departure

Here’s a question for you: if you were planning a long-distance trip and heard that a piece of infrastructure you planned on using mid-trip was broken, missing, or closed, wouldn’t you start researching alternatives and re-plan things?

Making long-distance trips by electric car does come with some caveats.

Making long-distance trips by electric car does come with some caveats.

Or would you throw caution to the wind and just set off, even if you knew one of the charging points you needed en-route wasn’t working and you didn’t have a backup plan?

We hope you’d pick the former, but BBC Radio 4 — this time with reporter Samantha Fenwick at the wheel — appears to have picked the latter in an expedition from the Sunderland factory where the European Nissan LEAF is made down to Nissan’s technical centre in Cranfield, Bedfordshire. For those taking notes, that’s a distance of 230+ miles, far more than the LEAF can handle on a single charge.

The purpose behind the trip — which will be produced for Radio 4 as a You and Yours special for the Bank Holiday Monday in a few weeks’ time — seems to be an investigative one where Fenwick tries to see how practical life with an electric car is.

For the past few weeks, Fenwick has been researching the topic of electric cars extensively, talking to owners on social media sites and even venturing to the world capital of electric cars, Norway. So far, from looking at her twitter stream, we’d guess the majority of Fenwick’s EV experiences have been positive.

So far, so good.

But this morning, she left Nissan’s Sunderland factory for her first charging stop knowing full well that it wasn’t actually working.

Despite hearing that there was a problem — something to do with the mobile telephone network needed to authenticate the smart RFID card used to operate the charging station — she set off.

And promptly found herself stranded a while later.

As you might expect, Fenwick’s trip has already caused a great deal of discussion on social media sites and forums. Some say her experience is categoric proof that electric cars aren’t ready for the mass market. Others say that it isn’t the cars which are the problem but terribly unreliable charging infrastructure.

If you knew there was a problem with a charging station you intended to use on a trip, would you still make it?

If you knew there was a problem with a charging station you intended to use on a trip, would you still make it?

We’d like to offer an objective view.

Here at Transport Evolved we’ve been planning like crazy ahead of our up-coming excursion to cover the 2014 WAVE Trophy through Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

We’re the first to admit that electric cars, no matter how good, aren’t really made for long-distance travel. They are, with perhaps the exception of either the Tesla Model S or Tesla Roadster, designed as everyday cars for everyday people. If you make a long-distance trip in an electric car, you need to be prepared to find — and deal with — charging away from home.

After many years, the automotive industry has generally settled on an average electric car range of around 80 to 100 miles per charge. That’s not just a figure which has been pulled out of thin air however: it’s a figure which allows electric cars to fulfil around 98 per cent of all of the transportation needs of 98 per cent of the population.

To put it another way, electric cars are engineered to provide on average at least several times the average daily commute of the majority of the world’s population on a single charge.

Driving longer distances simply just isn’t something we do on a daily basis. Our perceived need for a car that does 300 miles per charge is just that: perceived, not actual. At least in most places.

Distances aside however, Fenwick’s trip for Radio 4 does bring up something we’ve known for a very long time: DC rapid charging infrastructure — specifically those made by French charging provider DBT — seem to have a plethora of technical design flaws resulting in unacceptably large amounts of downtime.

They’ve been so unreliable in fact that one charging provider even replaced the units with ones from a rival company, while Slovak company GreenWay had its DBT quick chargers fail on the inaugural day of a new nationwide charging network.

That in turn, leaves drivers stranded, frustrated, and wondering why they picked an electric car in the first place.

Yet taking on board this knowledge before departing we’d hope anyone planning a trip well beyond an electric car’s comfort zone would do some substantial research beforehand.

For our trip to Stuttgart, which is far longer than Fenwick’s, we’ve come up with backup plans, strategies and adaptors. We don’t know if the charging infrastructure we’re planning to use will work or if we’ll be left searching for a low-power charge socket.

But we’re leaving knowing full well that what we’re trying to do isn’t something Nissan — or any automaker — intended for electric cars to do.

Obviously, we don’t know what the final outcome of Fenwick’s trip will be yet — or if the resulting radio documentary will ultimately be positive or negative for electric cars.

But we hope that whatever happens, the positive messages about electric car ownership are not lost amidst yet another poorly-planned trip.

At the end of the day, while public charging network reliability does need to improve before electric cars become mainstream, car buyers and drivers need to understand the limitations and caveats that come with any car ownership, be it high ownership costs in the case of gas-guzzling SUVs, or the need for a little forward planning for long-distance EV trips.


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  • Matt Beard

    If Ecotricity were still installing Type-2 posts for redundancy this would not have happened!

  • u010eakujem

    She left on a long distance trip knowing the charger was out of order. It’s like driving long distance during a fuel shortage. It defies logic. I tell you, when I come to power there will be a tax on stupidity.

  • Nigel Jones

    Oh sigh. I agree with the last paragraph. I absolutely would have done more research/had a backup plan, BUT for mainstream adoption this is clearly not acceptable. So right now education on the pros and cons is crucial – set the right expectations. I also agree slower 32A chargers would add redundancy, and of course we also note the current dbt units are being refitted soon and augmented with triple head variants, so reliability should improve radically, soon (I hope) and over the next few years I hope so will range (give fixed u00a3)nnI can’t so much blame the driver on this trip in that when I got my EV it took a number of months before I had a good feeling for how to approach long trips, what strategies to use in terms of driving style/range balance, how to plan backups etc… (and even then I’m not a regular long distance driver)nnI expect the summary will be along the lines of excellent car for short journeys – crap for longer journeys but it will be interesting to see.

  • vdiv

    It is true that things break. The question is what measures are taken so that the service remains operational or is rather rapidly restored. Why doesn’t the station fall back in an off-line mode, provide for local authentication, and upload the transaction when the link is available? Why isn’t there a second station on the location akin to the Tesla Superchargers? Why didn’t the station provider come promptly to restore operation? nnThere are other solutions as well. The one that many people have chosen is getting an extended range EV like the Volt, Ampera, and now the i3 REx that can operate as an EV for your daily commute, and yet still provide transportation for unexpected or long distance driving. Yes, the EV purists frown upon it, but let’s be practical! You can drive it as an all electric car and only use the generator when necessary until the infrastructure catches up.

  • According to tweets and forum posts today both Nissan and Ecotricity were involved in the planning for today’s trip. While it’s easy to bash the BBC we really need to know why a newbie was sent on a ~230 mile drive in a Leaf knowing the RC network is so unreliable (~30% RC offline).nnThe Speak EV forum has some good analysis;nn

    • WOW! Didn’t know the back story to Samantha Fenwick’s trip u2026 having reached out in days prior and not getting support from those that should know better.

  • Charging network issues aside; not sure if Samantha Fenwick is naive or ignorant. nnIf going an a trip and hear there is a parade in a town on your planned route u2026 would you alter your route, or complain when stopped an stuck in traffic for a few hours?nnThe issue with most DCFC networks (as currently implemented) is their susceptibility to single point failures (only one weak link breaks a chain). nIt would be like building bridges with only a single lane for traffic. If a vehicle breaks down, or accident happens, all traffic is blocked. Charging networks need to be engineered with both resiliency and redundancy.

    • After reading the thread at SpeakEV, it appears Samantha Fenwick was given a “sailboat and sent off on a voyage in less than idea sea conditions” without proper training and guidance.nnQuestionable actions for all parties involved in planning this trip.

  • Parax

    IF I were trying to shame our government efforts I’d go to a country that has done it right, then show how poor our system is here using a 3rd party network since the official Plugged in Places charge network is a joke.nnNow who was complaining about what?

  • Chelsea Sexton had some interesting things to say about road trips on this weeks Transport Evolved. I recommend everyone take a look (start at 58:30) and think about her comments regarding road trips in short range EVs, the responsibilities of Nissan and Ecotricity, and trying the “prove EVs are just as viable as gas cars”. nnn