As I wrote on 14th May, driving an electric car is like driving the best and smoothest luxury petrol or diesel vehicle. Re-fuelling is another matter. The technology, processes and considerations are utterly different from fossil-fuelled cars. Understanding these is, perhaps, the most important thing a new EV owner must learn. The move from razors with a blade to electric razors, from landlines to smartphones, or from cash and cheques to cards and online banking, was a similar learning process.
Some people found those changes hard: some have never got through them. Be prepared for possible anxiety and frustration in the early days of charging your EV. And, just like computers, things change fast. What I write today will be out of date a year from now.
When you buy an EV, it will most likely come with two cables. One has a domestic three-pin plug attached to a chunky transformer. All you need is access to a standard domestic power socket, and this becomes the everyday way of charging your car. Plug it in, switch it on and leave it to charge. That’s all. Most cars will fully charge overnight.
The second cable is thicker and has a male and a female socket with seven pins at each end. This is called a Menekes, or Type 2, cable. You can use it with almost any public charger. Most cars can recharge in a few hours. It is also ideal to top up your battery for a couple of hours if you are shopping, dining out, going to the cinema or an evening with friends. It is also the best way of regularly charging your car if you do not have access to a domestic socket.
If you are making a long trip by motorway or fast main road, you would prefer not to have to stop for three or four hours to re-charge your car. It would be ideal if you could plug in, have a coffee or a meal, visit the lavatory and come back to find your car battery charged in the 30 minutes or so that you took for your break. Most motorway charging stations will do this. You use the cable attached to their machine because you need a high plug and cable capacity to fast charge.
So why not have a fast charger at home?
Well firstly, you do not need one. Your domestic supply is fine for normal use. Secondly, the power needed for, even one fast charger, is enough for about 25 homes! They are hugely expensive to make and put significant strain on most electricity supply networks. Thirdly, most cars today cannot accept ultra-fast charging anyway and ‘throttle down’ the charging rate to protect the batteries.
But all of this will change quite quickly as batteries, charging, and other technologies develop. After all, it took over 100 years for the internal combustion engine to reach the sophistication it has today. Things will happen much faster with electric vehicles.
Where are the public charging stations?
Sad to say, in most countries, they are hard to find. Things are better than they used to be but far from adequate, nonetheless. As of this month (May), in the UK for instance, there are 23,718 devices available in public locations. 592 devices were installed in just the last 30 days. It sounds good. However, there are now 245,000 pure electric vehicles in the UK. The number increases dramatically each quarter.
In nine years, 2030, most European countries will cease to sell fossil fuelled cars. There are nearly 33 million cars today in the UK alone. At the recommended 1:10 ratio of chargers to vehicles, the UK alone will need at least three million new public charging stations as fossil fuelled cars die out.
The number of public stations available also depends on network reliability. This is not optimal at present. Depending on where you stop and which network is involved, at least 10-15% of charging stations will be out of order.
All this said, with reasonable planning, you will usually find a charging point close to where you need it. There are excellent interactive maps of all the charging points around most countries. A great resource for the UK is ZapMap. It covers all the networks and is always up to date.
There are many networks of public charging stations. You will quickly discover that you must have a well-connected smartphone. Each network has its own app. Communication with the charging point is sometimes by a touchscreen on the unit but more often, and more reliably, on a phone. I have no less than eight network apps on my phone. Each has a slightly different configuration and thus connection methodology. You need to register your details and credit card in each app. Having done so, the process of getting a charge is relatively straightforward.
Most networks allow you to see on your phone if one of their stations is not working or occupied. A very few allow you to book charging 15 minutes ahead. This saves the frustration of wating for the sole unit in the service station while another car charges. Charging centres with rows of chargers like fuel pumps are beginning to appear. But the high cost and huge draw on power mean it will take some time before more become available.
Technology and terminology
This is not the place to go into detail about AC versus DC charging, charging kilowatts, or about the technology of lithium batteries. Many drivers never understand, or bother with, what goes on in their cars today. Electric cars are no different.
The language is different of course. Miles per gallon or litres per kilometre become distance per kilowatt (KW). The capacity of the fuel tank becomes the KW of the batteries. The fuel gauge is a battery capacity indicator as seen on any laptop, I-Pad, or smartphone.
Yes, there is a fair bit to learn about how to optimise charging an EV. But learn it you must and will! Using public charging stations is puzzling and frustrating at first. I have so far found the call centres to which you connect if you are having trouble are first rate. Software tells them exactly what is going on at your station; they are invariably expert, kind, and helpful.
You’ll be fine…!