Nissan LEAF e+ charging

The problem with the UK’s EV public charging network – and the solution

Drivers of petrol and diesel vehicles won’t be able to refuel unless they first download apps for different brands of petrol stations. They will then have to enter their personal details into the app along with credit card information, and once the app successfully communicates with the fuel pump, they will be able to put fuel in their vehicles.

If this story was true, then it’s likely that there would be mass public unrest from millions of motorists. Yet this is exactly what the situation is for electric vehicle drivers who want to access many public chargers in the UK at the moment. To drive around the UK with an EV, over recent years many different RFID cards for different charging networks have been required (and are still required in some cases), although today it’s more common to need a range of apps for different charging networks on your smart phone.

We’re now at the point where there are increasing numbers of EVs coming to market, and EVs make much more sense for many people’s driving patterns than petrol or diesel vehicles. However most motorists haven’t made the switch to electric vehicles yet, and they certainly won’t do so if there is any inconvenience involved with charging an EV.

So is there inconvenience involved with charging an EV? Yes, there can be – read our story below to find out about our most recent experience.

However there is now some good news: the government has announced that it wants all new electric vehicle rapid charge points to provide contactless payment by spring 2020.

This would tie in with a roaming solution across the charging network, allowing EV drivers to use any public charge point through a single payment method without needing multiple smartphone apps or membership cards.

The above proposals are something that Green Car Guide has been calling for over many years, and this was also the key message from speakers from the UK and Europe at the recent Oxford EV Summit.

Commenting on the new government proposals, Martin Hale, Country Director, UK and Ireland at ChargePoint, says: “Contactless card and phone payments are fast becoming the default payment method in the UK and ChargePoint welcomes the government’s effort to mandate it for all new DC chargers by 2020. In 2017, 35 percent of all payments in the UK were made using contactless credit cards at the same time that InstaVolt became the first operator of charging stations to offer the technology as a method of payment in addition to the ChargePoint mobile app. For more than a decade, ChargePoint has remained committed to developing solutions that make it easier for businesses and drivers to go electric, which is one reason why the technology is deployed in the ChargePoint network in the UK, and soon throughout Europe.

“While contactless payment is an important element in creating an optimal EV driver experience, expanding access to charging through bilateral roaming agreements between networks is also vital to empower drivers to fully benefit from charging nationwide. ChargePoint welcomes cross-industry collaboration to make charging more accessible for drivers and shares the government’s view that a fully interoperable roaming solution is key to support mass adoption of electric vehicles.”

Martin Hale’s vision of how public EV charging can be made more user-friendly gives hope, and maybe our experience below, showing why public charging is the biggest barrier to widespread EV adoption, will be a thing of the past.

Our most recent ‘customer research’ of the UK’s EV public charging network took place when we had the new Nissan LEAF e+ on test.

Despite the longer range of this new LEAF model (now 239 miles), our journey from Manchester to Melton Mowbray and back via Nottingham required a charge en route. Due to our normal hectic schedule, with no spare time for charging delays, we planned our schedule around using Chargemaster’s Polar rapid charger at Nottingham that we’ve used successfully before.

Upon arrival at the charge point it appeared to be operational and so we used the phone app for the charging network to start the charging (the LEAF’s delivery driver had forgotten to bring the Polar RFID card). However after over 10 minutes of the app saying “Please wait while we try to connect you” a phone call was made to the network’s support number. After around 30 minutes it turned out that the charger wasn’t working – or at the very minimum, the app wasn’t communicating to the charger.

Nissan LEAF e+ chargingNissan LEAF e+ charging

Another rapid charger then had to be found. This was eventually located, hidden away in what looked like a disused car park sandwiched between the back of some local shops and a housing estate in Nottingham. This is a very, very strange location for a rapid charger, which should be sited where it has maximum visibility for public access, and at a location where people can spend time while their car is charging, such as at a coffee shop. This was the opposite of the ideal location for a charge point. It can only be assumed that the return on investment for this charge point through usage must be almost non-existant.

Nissan LEAF e+ chargingNissan LEAF e+ charging

This second rapid charger was on a different charging network, Charge Your Car, although it’s now part of the Chargemaster network. A second app, for Charge Your Car, was opened on the smart phone, which then needed updating, which wasn’t a quick process. When it came to the point of starting the charge, there was another communication error with the app, this time with the app displaying a long string of unintelligible code. Another phone call to the Chargemaster helpline resulted, which ended up with the charger having to be remotely started and stopped by Chargemaster. By this point time was running out – the entire process of trying to charge and driving around finding chargers had taken two hours – and a total additional 6 miles of range had been gained.

With no spare time to find another charging solution, the LEAF had to be driven in a very eco conscious way to an event in Melton Mowbray. A charge point was displayed in the satnav in the venue’s car park, and after a lot of driving around, it was found tucked away in a far corner, with no signage (another issue for charge points, please make them highly visible, both for EV drivers and for non-EV drivers!), and although there were two bays, the one remaining bay necessitated parking the car half in a hedge to access the charge point.

Nissan LEAF e+ chargingNissan LEAF e+ charging

The ‘fast’ charge point was on the same Chargemaster network as the two rapid charge points the previous day that didn’t work, so the app was once again used, with the expectation that there would again be some form of connection failure, and the LEAF would be travelling back to Manchester on the back of an AA truck. However this time the app worked perfectly, resulting in a lot of joy when the blue lights on the LEAF’s dashboard started flashing. Even better, when the event finished, the LEAF was pretty much fully charged, which allowed an enjoyable zero emission drive from the East Midlands back to Manchester.

The UK currently faces a multitude of challenges, with climate change and local air quality being just two of the pressing environmental issues. Electric vehicles can help to provide a solution in these areas, but if the UK government is in any way serious about being a leader in EV adoption, it needs to do a lot more. The push for contactless rapid charge points and a roaming solution across the charging network is a start, but there’s much more to be done to accelerate the move to EVs if the UK is to avoid being left behind other countries, and in the process missing out on economic opportunities.

Paul Clarke

Paul Clarke Green Car Guide

Read reviews of all electric cars on sale in the UK