If you live in a flat or don’t have off-road parking, running an electric vehicle may be more difficult than you think, writes Sean O’Grady
If there is one hard lesson I have learned about living with an electric car, it is that it is not for everyone. At least not for now.
Sure, there are loads of great things you can say about electrification – all true. When you next get a chance to go to a pub with friends and family, you can argue the toss over whether they are in reality, “well- to wheel” greener than an equivalent vehicle with an internal combustion engine. I’ve seen different versions of that, with different assumptions about the electricity required to manufacture them, the energy need to extract scarce minerals for the batteries, and whether scrapping perfectly sound petrol/diesel/hybrid vehicles. (Generally I think the electrics are, like-for-like still always greener within almost any parameters, and will eventually “break even” over their lifetime in their environmental benefits). You can, over anther pint, enjoy a rational discussion about whether the usual price premium attached electric cars makes sense over any given mileage – balancing price/lease costs with far lower fuel costs and maintenance bills (the more miles you do, the more sensible the electric option can be). You can also take a view on whether they take the “fun” out of driving or not (they don’t, on the whole). And so on.
But the most salient fact is not what kind of electric car you want, but what kind of dwelling you inhabit. If you live in a flat, say, or a terraced house without any off-street parking (and therefore an easy way to charge your vehicle up), the electric car seems to be an impractical proposition. If you do have a way of plugging one in to a faster charging external wall socket, then you’re fine, in principle. It’s about a simple as that. That is why many of the complaints about the very real inadequacy and unreliability of the charging network is a bit beside the point. You shouldn’t need to recharge all that often away from home. You take the car, drive around for a bit, come home and plug it in ready for the next day.
But, as I insisted the other week, sometimes you will have to, or sometimes you might like to do so, by, for example combining a comfort/tiredness break with a top up. Maybe you forgot to plug the car in, or had to make an unplanned long journey…It is at that point that things can go a bit awry.
One problem that does crop up, and understandably infuriates electric car owners, is when their charging bays are occupied by non-electric cars. This can include plug-in hybrids, by the way. Yes, they are legitimately there in one sense (they do have on-board batteries to charge, after all), but their need is less than that of the all-electric car owner, who cannot rely on a petrol or diesel unit as a fall-back. As for the petrol/diesel car parked in the charging bays – no excuses (but there’s also no sanctions to deter them).
Which brings me, literally, to the charming Attfield’s Farm Shop in Leicestershire, betwixt Cosby and Countesthorpe. Out on manoeuvres, and as an experiment I tried to use some Chargepoint software to find a (Chargepoint) charging socket, and it directed me to the Attfield’s Farm Shop – equipped with four charging points, no less, one of which, it so happens, doubled up as a disabled parking bay. Great, except that on arrival all four where being used for non-electric car parking, and I had to wait until someone moved out to plug my car in.
It is at this point that I have to confess that I was not driving a pure electric car, for fear of being caught out in precisely this manner. Instead I was using a plug-in hybrid, a Mercedes-Benz E-Class that combines diesel and electric in one highly engineered package (300de). “Ridiculous” I hear you object. Well, this “cheating” was simply so that I didn’t find myself out of options as I continued to try out/mimic some electric car scenarios. Plus it’s cold out, and the Mercedes is an especially comforting environment for nervous times.
Unfortunately, the charging station the Chargepoint software brought me to be a Chargepoint one, but one run by an outfit called newmotion, which I’d not encountered before, even though it is part of the Royal Dutch/Shell oil giant. Anyway it wouldn’t take my card, and the only way I managed to get some electric into my batteries was to ask the proprietor of the Attfield’s Farm Shop to help, and he duly let me charge the car up. That was kind. I then repaired to the Attfield’s Farm Shop “Country Kitchen” canteen for a delicious lunch of salmon quiche, new potatoes and mixed veg, a leisurely read of The Economist and some time on Twitter. I also did some shopping, and took home a slice of heir delicious Sparkenhoe brand Red Leicester cheese. It took about an hour to get the battery up from a minimal charge to about 60 per cent, or 11 miles’ worth of commuting on electric alone (the diesel side of thing was still good for about 400 miles – a plug-in hybrid is barley electric at all). I then glided off silently to my next destination.
As I say, not everyone can charge at home all the time, and there is a demand for electric charging points. That presumably, why they are there, even for the mighty, ultra-long-range Tesla. Arguably, that is also why the Chancellor in his Budget said he was going to plough £500m, over the next five years, to help grow the rapid charging network. His aim is that drivers will never be more than 30 miles away from a rapid charging point (compare to today’s service stations…). A fault with the scheme is that the fund is primarily designed to cover the cost of businesses installing fast charging points on their premises –but they need to be widely, publicly available too. Things would be an awful lot simpler and more inviting if they were all contactless and reliable. And not occupied by inconsiderate petrol/electric drivers.