20 pledges for 2020: Driving electric is a great idea - until miscalculations lead you down a longer road than you anticipate

You can't prepare for everything, Sean O'Grady finds after a desperate hunt for a charging station on the M1

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 26 February 2020 18:12
Charging an electric car on the road

Since I began my sustainable odyssey to learn about the realities of the electric car, I have been told time and again that running one is fine if you have a charging box at home. Twitterers, car company folk, people with electric cars, anyone; they tell the same tale. More or less, with a 200 mile plus range on most of the new designs, you'll hardly ever need to use a public charger out in the road.

But...sometimes you will. For the last week or so I've been driving a Nissan Leaf on my travels, and I've still found it a bit unnerving. In making some triangular journeys from London to Heathrow and then up to the Midlands and back, it wasn't quite possible to do the full mileage on one charge - even though this Leaf was equipped with the larger battery pack that gives it a real world range of 239 miles.

It was not my intention to end short of energy. I had calculated, aided by the Leaf's uncannily intelligent and accurate computer readout that I could just about do the whole cycle before getting back and recharging the car at home. My plan was dashed when I picked the car up from the courtesy parking service at the airport (I'll leave the argument about flying to another time).

I don't know what happened in the short period I'd been away but the current range indicator was down about 30 miles from where I thought I'd left it. That made the difference between getting home and needing to use a public charging station.

It happens. Miscalculations, wrong turnings, emergencies can all mean that, too far away from home the electric car user will be faced with the need to recharge. Even if you drive in the most steady and economical way possible, the dread message appears on the sat nav screen that the “planned destination is beyond current range”.

It is also a chilling thing, literally, to watch your precious projected range drop by another 7 miles when you put the car's heating on. So I drive with my overcoat on, and with the Leaf running in its most energy saving mode, with the cruise control set well within the legal limit. For some fellow road users that is unacceptable.

It is strange to regard miles of energy-conserving 50mph roadworks as a godsend, but it does mean people don't hoot at you and flash their mights aggressively.

So I took my chances trying to charge on the motorway. The M25 has so few service stops I had to get to the M1, still in range, to find a public charging pole. They are not always reliable; you don't always know if they are occupied and not all are the super fast ones that will sort you out inside say 40 minutes. The slower chargers can take hours to give you enough charge to get back home.

Your misfortunes can multiply. The bad news was the app I needed wouldn't load so I had to re-download it. You cannot pay for your electricity on site if you've say lost your phone. They don't take cash, and there's no attendant available on site 24/6 to beg for help.

The good news was that I found a vacant fast charger that worked and I got back up to a 76 per cent charge (from about 25 per cent) in 50 minutes, ie before it told me my time was up. For some reason I don't even get charged (ie money) for the electricity, though normally it can cost £10 to get about a 100 miles' worth of range (charging at home is vastly cheaper). I got to my destination with 124 miles to spare.

I made it then. However, you can see how relying on an electric car with the current rickety charging infrastructure can induce anxiety. My earlier memory of bouncing down all the M1 service stops trying to find a charger that would “talk” to the software in an electric Jaguar iPace is seared in my mind. Imagine being in such a plight in the middle of the night with no helplines working, plus a two hour parking limit in the motorway services car park before the fines kick in.

If you could just turn up at any charging point, with little or no chance of a delay, plug in, charge up in a quarter of an hour, and pay anywhere by any card there would be fewer excuses for refusing to go green. Otherwise I'm not sure my nerves can stand electric motoring all that well.

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