/ Motoring

How can public electric vehicle charging be improved?

We need electric car charging infrastructure to change before it’s too late. Following our recent investigation, Citizens Advice gives us its view.

This is a guest post by Citizens Advice. All views expressed are its own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Which?’s recent investigation highlights many of the challenges people face with electric vehicle (EV) public charging. As the official consumer watchdog for energy across Great Britain, Citizens Advice is familiar with many of these issues.  We also represent consumers on the Electric Vehicle Energy Taskforce.

Last year, we looked at a year’s worth of tweets about public chargers using a programme called Method52 which analyses what people are saying online. We identified four key challenges that the government needs to address to make public charging smoother and drive up confidence in EVs. 

As the government consults on improving the consumer experience at public chargepoints, their proposals will need to fix these four problems:

🔋 1. Unreliable chargers are frustrating

In more than half (58%) of the tweets we looked at, people had experienced a problem while using a public chargepoint. Establishing a minimum availability of working EV chargers across an operator’s fleet would help address this, and we’re pleased that the government is proposing to do this. 

The cost of this shouldn’t be shifted onto consumers. It’s critical that maintenance costs and plans are agreed before chargepoints are built, and that effective monitoring is put in place.

We know that even with the right standards in place, things can still go wrong. That’s why we support the government’s decision to make it mandatory for chargepoint operators (CPOs) to provide a 24/7 helpline for consumers. 

🔋 2. It’s too hard to find a public charger

In nearly one in five (19%) of the tweets we looked at, people complained about the quality of data on chargepoint apps. This included chargepoints missing from apps, broken chargepoints displayed as working, or chargepoints displaying incorrect information on speed or cost. 

Government is now proposing a ‘standard’ for openly available data, with mandatory data such as location, power-rating and pricing that has to be made available. 

This is a crucial step – but we know that the varying quality of smartphone apps makes the task of finding a chargepoint difficult. The government should also monitor whether the system is working for people, and take action to improve it if not. 

🔋 3. Paying to use public chargepoints can be difficult

Consumers regularly complain about having to download and use multiple apps and company-specific cards to pay. The government’s plans to mandate alternative payment methods that don’t require a mobile or fixed internet connection is very welcome. 

Government is also looking at implementing a roaming solution which would allow people to access different chargepoints using one method (such as a membership card or app). This already exists in other countries and should be available in Great Britain.

There are numerous ways to do this – it’s essential that consumer experience and cost should be prioritised whatever route the government takes. 

🔋 4. Prices are confusing 

Pricing at public chargepoints can be difficult to understand. Some charge for units of energy (p/kwh) while others charge based on the time spent charging. We previously called for the government to introduce a standardised p/kwh metric.

It’s good news for consumers they have decided to do this, as it will help people to understand and compare costs.

We think there should be some flexibility for companies to make different offers – it helps to drive competition and innovation. It can also help to avoid chargepoints being blocked by parked cars. But it’s vital that the government tracks how it works in practice, to make sure people understand what they’re paying for and when. 

Accessibility and safety

In the past we have raised concerns about accessibility and safety when it comes to public chargepoints, and we’re really pleased to see that the government wants to know more about this.

If the government is serious about phasing out petrol and diesel cars, it is essential that public chargers are designed to be used by everybody. We’ll continue to draw on our evidence to highlight these problems.  

Our work on public charging is just one way that we are advocating for an improved experience for EV users. Citizens Advice is the voice for consumers on the Electric Vehicle Energy Taskforce. Our recent research paper looked at EV and smart-enabled tariffs and their implications for people.

You can find more of our work here or check us out on Twitter here.

This was a guest post by Citizens Advice. All views expressed were its own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

How do you feel the rollout of electric car charging points has gone so far? What do you think should be done to bring about improvements?

Comments

I am chary about charging my car anywhere but at home. Firstly I don’t have any of the apps to connect to the charging points but, more importantly, I don’t want to occupy a charge point when it might be useful to an electric vehicle who needs it to continue a journey. I have yet to find a charge point in any of the private places I park when away from home, so have not yet even tried to charge anywhere. I can use the petrol engine to charge the battery, and it would seem that with the exorbitant rates being charged at some charge points, this is less costly than plugging in somewhere despite the extra fuel used in doing so.
Regarding use of the car and restriction of use, you are asking the public to change life style, from doing what I do for my boat, to visiting elderly relatives and family and touring on a UK holiday among the many scenarios that people have for a long distance journey. I have noted before that, as I type this, millions of motorists are on the road in the UK going somewhere. They might accept some form of mileage charge, albeit reluctantly and with bad grace, but they might not be willing to have a mileage quota imposed upon them. Who is to judge whether a journey is really necessary? This is a debate that has to be talked through logically and sensibly if the public is to do its bit for the climate by travelling less.

Roger wrote: “Private motoring will have to become more expensive to ensure overall fewer cars join the roads going forward. I prophesy that, in a few will soon be illegal to charge electric with a “granny lead” much as it is illegal to put red diesel in your on-road landrover, and that home charging stations will rack up duty at an alarming rate.”

I suspect you are right about the increasing cost of motoring though it’s difficult to guess how this will be achieved. I am not aware of changes in vehicle tax and I still pay only £30 per year to tax my ‘dirty diesel’. That might be a selling point when I replace it with an EV.

I would be surprised if ‘granny leads’ (i.e. charging from an ordinary 13 amp socket) would become illegal, if only because it would be difficult to police. If a BEV owner decides to charge their vehicle from solar panels installed at their own expense, perhaps this could be tolerated or even encouraged.

Phil says:
13 July 2021

“Private motoring will have to become more expensive to ensure overall fewer cars join the roads going forward. ”

Why? Is rationing by price really the best and fairest way to achieve this? If we are going to abandon the car or use it less frequently viable alternatives need to be in place. Certainly the government will need to do something to fill the ‘black hole’ left by VED and fuel duty whether that be road pricing or charge pricing. I’m just not sure pricing less affluent drivers off the road to make room for the wealthy is the right approach. Some of these people need their cars as much as anybody else.

“I’m just not sure pricing less affluent drivers off the road to make room for the wealthy is the right approach. Some of these people need their cars as much as anybody else.”

I agree it’s unfair. If there are better alternatives I’m all ears. Demand Related (Local Authority-run) Transport will with luck alleviate some of the car necessity. Also slapping it on per mile (or even better if it can be assessed, per therm) rather than car ownership VED would help the poor and mean that simply owning a selection of cars (to avoid having to take the seven seater or pickup truck when a mini would do eg)

Phil says:
13 July 2021

If it’s congestion you’re worried about flexi-time or staggered start/finish times would help enormously.

It’s a whole raft of things, Phil. Congestion (on roads), road parking pressures (cars are too big for garages in most properties these days), double parking making emergency service access a nightmare…. Noise, trip wires (electric charging), vehicle crime…

Staggered start/finish times is double-edged with both halves of a couple at work. There is no one solution, but the drive has to be to reduce the ownership of private cars – but by the carrot as well as (and in preference to) the stick.

With climate change and government tax gathering at the head of this particular tree, its branches produce a number of negative options and problems and very few positive ones to encourage this change, other than by forcing it upon the nation and, while increasing the quality of the environment also reducing the quality of our every day lives.
Thus, in no particular order:
Rare materials and finite resources for new batteries. Future research might improve things here, but it seems as though the battery is here to stay as the only means of propulsion. This of course means that electricity is a vital component and any disruption would cause chaos since there would be no alternative on offer.
Every long journey will now require one or more charge stops and make touring of any kind a less attractive pastime especially if there are queues at attractive charging points.
Every car, truck and bus on the road will require power from the grid. So there has to be enough available at all times to keep the country mobile.
Every car, truck and bus on the road will need a place to plug into the grid. There has to be infrastructure to make this possible.
Every car owner will have to pay some form of road tax and most solutions will mean that those with the fattest wallets will travel more often.
Any form of mileage allowance to produce less traveling will curtail everyday life for us all. This will have economic consequences beyond the loss of the ability to move about at will.
The entire population will have to bear the expense of changing to an electric vehicle. Some will find this easier than others.
The entire population will also have to convert to other forms of home heating. Any disruption of power would be uncomfortable to us all.
Psychologically the country has to come to terms with this major shift in what it does. This will be quite hard and bring its own set of problems for the government and the medical and social services. There might be other spin offs as well, if it becomes less possible to live in remote areas. Petrol generators would no longer be available and charging points inconvenient on small back roads.
Social discontent has to be countered.
Diesel engines would no longer be available to pull broken down trains and billions need to be spent electrifying all lines in the UK.

I’m sure that there are many other problems to solve and we need a grand plan that doesn’t just focus on battery power and charging points. Is there one at present? Not that I know of.

Here is current information about sales of electric vehicles in 2020 and 2021: https://www.smmt.co.uk/vehicle-data/evs-and-afvs-registrations/

There is a variety of hybrid options as well as BEV to suit different users and whether they have access to convenient charging. There is no doubt that electric vehicles have already made a significant impact.

Thanks for that Wavechange. interesting, but still not quite a revolution.

No, but it’s a progressive change, Vynor. This year so far, 62% of registrations are petrol and diesel cars but the rest are some sort of EV. I guess that many people are waiting for further developments or to hear of the experiences of friends and family who are already owners.

The development costs of the new vehicles are being recouped and maybe we will eventually see the fall in price that was predicted.

You have now owned your new car for a few months and it would be interesting to know whether you might make a different choice based on the experience you have gained.

That is a difficult question to answer. The new car is very fussy and more complex than the one it replaced, but it has not been as thirsty on fuel as I had feared and getting over 40mpg from a petrol engine isn’t too bad. The electric bit is useful round town and being diesel free is one less thing to worry about in future. I could debate with myself the logic of such a big car, but I have always (for 30 plus years) driven a big Volvo estate and enjoyed the experience enough to buy another. The garage, again, known for at least 25 years, has always given me good, friendly service and a good deal on the next car. There was 20 percent off the list price of this one and a good trade in deal for my old car. I still don’t like automatic transmission but I am getting used to it. On balance, yes I’d buy it again. This may be my last car and I’m glad I’ve got something comfortable to run around in. Now and then, it also gets filled up with things, and I don’t have to think twice about where to put them. Last week I had three passengers with me for a while. I watch the electric scene with interest, but it has some way to progress before I would be tempted to invest.
I’m reminded of an experience I had with the garage back in the 1990s. I had the car in for a service and, casually, mentioned to the salesman the kind of car I would like to own next. The exact model and colour appeared on the forecourt when I next visited. No one said anything, but after spotting it and a test drive I bought it.
I also tell a small lie. in the early 2000’s I bought a Jaguar estate. This leached money from my wallet for three years and eventually my usual garage took it from me with a potential £2000 bill to repair it once more.

Thanks Vynor. In moving from a diesel to a hybrid you have experienced a major change and it’s hardly surprising that it takes time to get used to. I share your dislike for cars with automatic transmission. It’s more economical and reliable than it used to be but it’s never felt right to me. Electric motors have entirely different characteristics to engines and do not need a gearbox.

Although my cars have cost me little in repairs it concerns me that nowadays we need computer diagnostics rather than looking under the bonnet. I guess that EVs are even more complicated.

I have always owned manual cars and shied away from automatics, although the continual gear changing, clutchwork, in heavy stop-start traffic is a pain. But I still enjoy driving my two old ones. However, as automatic is the default for some cars my last purchase was such; I have absolutely no regrets and, having now owned one, would be quite happy with another. I think you need to have experience of the advantages to appreciate them.

“I think you need to have experience of the advantages to appreciate them.” I have experience of driving automatic hire cars and I drove my mother’s automatic more than she did. The main benefit seems to be driving in cities and elsewhere with slow moving traffic, which I have always done my best to avoid. One of the appeals of a BEV is that it does not need a gearbox.

Until our first trip to the US I’d not driven an automatic. We hired a medium-sized car and immediately took to it. When we got home I read the usual, biased tripe from some motoring ‘experts’ who described driving an auto as ‘little more exiting than driving a milk float’. But then, motoring ‘journalists’ in the UK excel in ignorance, IME.

Phil says:
13 July 2021

In terms of emissions the reduction brought about by electric and hybrids has more than been cancelled out by the increasing popularity of SUVs.

Undoubtedly, but the undeniable benefit of BEVs and hybrids (when run on battery power in cities) is that they can help us tackle the problem of serious air pollution. Drivers of conventional cars can achieve this by avoiding driving in cities.

It does seem odd that, when we want to save the planet, we have not limited the size (motor and weight) of all cars, whether battery, hybrid or fossil fuelled. Rather half hearted but perhaps we just rely upon enough owners being responsible?

Emission in town is one thing but even in the countryside they still pollute the atmosphere.

The main problem with exhaust emissions is in cities and large towns, so that must be the priority to address. Those who live alongside busy roads are also affected and you may recall the evidence that people accumulated lead in the days before the lead content of petrol was reduced and then banned. I was surprised to read that lead remains in the air in London after so many years: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-57564953

Even though highly polluting coal-fired power stations have largely gone in the UK, production of electricity for homes and cars by burning gas and other fossil fuels produces a considerable amount of nitrogen dioxide. Thankfully this is not in city centres, where the pollution problem is greatest.

Reliant produced lightweight cars, one reason being that they could be driven with a motorcycle licence if below 550 kg.