Opinion: Without Decent Electric Car Rapid Charging, What Range Is Really Enough?

The whole concept of the car bringing freedom is hard to remove from the collective consciousness. Just look at most conventional car adverts; the blurred or soft focus mountains, the car flying down the open road. People like to think that the car can take them away from all of the drudgery of, to borrow a phrase, ‘their drab, wretched lives’ and out to a world of fashion and excitement. At least, that’s the way they’re still advertised, despite the fact that most of them will spend their lives sat on the M25, or I5, sat in what feels much like a mobile parking lot.

The Chevrolet Bolt EV has an impressive 60 kWh battery pack, but will it be enough without decent DCQC?

The Chevrolet Bolt EV has an impressive 60 kWh battery pack, but will it be enough without decent DCQC?

Although one of the first things that most people learn when they start driving an electric car is how few miles they actually do, the other thing that you rapidly learn is how many more miles than you expect are taken up by errands. If you group these little jobs together; a quick run to the post office, another to a supermarket, and perhaps dropping off your friend’s tablet that they left behind; suddenly you’re way further through your battery than you expect. In many parts of the electric car owners life, a quick plug-in to top up your battery is enough that even with realistic ranges of 60 or so miles, an EV can fill most needs. If that ability to top-up can’t come from plugging in while parked, people use rapid charging to make sure that they’ve enough to make the trips that often even the car’s manufacturers would suggest were impractical.

It’s hard to market people on the open road concept when your range doesn’t really make it into triple figures. So when General Motors’ marketing team were given the gift of selling the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV — a car with a predicted 200 mile range — they must have been pleased. No more the need to demonstrate the polar-bear loving, tree hugging, at home in city streets nature of the shorter range electric car. No, they can go flying down the freeway, slipping down the open road.

Except there’s a tiny fly in the ointment.

CCS is GM's preferred standard for the Bolt EV. But there are few CCS charging stations nationwide.

CCS is GM’s preferred standard for the Bolt EV. But there are few CCS charging stations nationwide.

Whilst in Europe a few manufacturers have thrown their hat in the DC Combo (aka CCS) connector ring and have made appropriate infrastructure investments to back that charging standard up; a quick look at the U.S. EV charging points map quickly reveals a completely different picture. Across the whole of the U.S. landmass there are fewer CCS chargers in total than are in just mainland Europe. There are fairly large numbers of CHAdeMO DC quick charge stations — CCS’s biggest competitor — and of course, there are plenty of Tesla Supercharger sites.

GM could, if it had wished, chosen any of those three standards. But in the U.S., an area so much larger than Europe, GM has opted for the least widespread option, either because that was the standard it agreed upon along with the rest of the mainstream U.S. automotive industry, or because it thought it would be the best. And rather than support the growth of the CCS charge standard as other automakers have done with CCS and CHAdeMO infrastructure investment, GM has said it plans to spend not a dime on improving charging for its customers.

As we’ve personally transitioned back from EV owners to potential EV buyers, we’re evaluating our options on the charging front regularly. The presence or absence of DC Rapid charging is, in our opinion, a deal breaker. The word that springs to mind when examining cars without rapid charging is ‘hobbled’. There are currently scads of compliance cars lurking in the market place which will never leave the city to which they were delivered, because they simply can’t, except on the back of a low-loader.

But add that all important rapid charging plug and the world becomes your oyster. Even our pre-first-generation iMiEV, with a real-world range of around 60 miles on a good day, could tackle ridiculous feats because of the prevalence of quick-charging stations on many of England’s major roads.

Charging stations like these made the short-range i-Miev a reasonable long-distance car.

Charging stations like these made the short-range i-Miev a reasonable long-distance car.

Drive it back from Liverpool to Bristol? Done.

Drive it to remote countryside for a holiday? Done.

Drive half way across the country for a family trip? Done.

Rapid charging makes it possible, even when the car’s on-board range prediction ‘guessometer’ disagrees.

If you’ve got DC Combo charger as your DC rapid charging option, things don’t look quite so rosy. While the UK’s CCS deployment is catching up to CHAdeMO, CCS in the U.S. is woefully under-supported. So it isn’t that surprising that some automakers have followed the path set by Nissan, which has invested in CHAdeMO DC quick charging infrastructure — the standard chosen for both its LEAF and e-NV200 electric cars — across Europe, Asia and North America. By throwing the vast mass of the corporation behind providing a charging network, Nissan proved without a doubt that it was serious about EVs, and in addition made the Nissan Leaf hundreds of times more useful than it was without that convenient place to plug in.

It seems, however, that GM isn’t quite there yet. Although 200 miles is enough that many places where the Bolt EV will be sold will ensure you can get quite far and do quite a lot, it’s still going to feel a niche-market vehicle if you can only realistically travel in a 100-mile radius of your home before having to turn around and head back. More than that, it’s going to lead to a resurgence in the ever popular “where do you plug it in” question; a question that has largely disappeared in much of Europe as charging stations have become increasingly ubiquitous.

As Toyota has recently found out with the 2016 Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan, relying on third parties to implement essential refuelling infrastructure ahead of launch is rarely a good idea. Unless the refuelling infrastructure is in place when the car hits the market, the car and its technology will invariably get bad press.

Moreover, as Volkswagen discovered with the e-Golf in Britain, assuming that a car is compatible with a charger because it meets your reading of the standards doesn’t mean that it actually is compatible. The last thing you want to risk is leaving your buyers stranded at the few theoretically compatible chargers that do exist.

You tell us: is 200-miles with limited charging enough?

You tell us: is 200-miles with limited charging enough?

Which raises the question: how much range is enough for an electric car with no or little usable infrastructure for quick charging? Would the Tesla Model S and Model X electric cars have been a success if Tesla had not invested so heavily in its own rapid charging network?

And will the Chevrolet Bolt EV, with its 200-miles of expected range, really be a useful car that sells well if you need to stop every 200 miles for five hours to recharge because there are no CCS charging stations in your area? Probably — but if GM joined in with Nissan, Volkswagen and BMW and committed to funding charging infrastructure deployment that works with its car, it would sell a heck of a lot better.

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