Will a lack of infrastructure slow the migration to EV adoption?

Electric cars have been a huge discussion point in the news over the past few months and with recent headlines stating ALL diesel and petrol vehicles are to be banned by 2040 in a bid to combat air pollution we take a look at the origins of the electric car and how the UK needs to adapt to accommodate a plugged in future.

Believe it or not, it all began in the 19th century. Although the exact originator is unknown it is thought to be an inventor in Hungary who first put together a small electric model car. Forty years later the first phase of ‘practical’ electric vehicles were created with Thomas Parker inventing and building the UK’s first car in 1884. After a slow but steady incline in this new phenomenon around the world, the 20th century brought a vast decline with the car losing its position in the market. Worldwide discoveries of petroleum reserves made affordable & reliable gasoline vehicles more popular – electric vehicles just couldn’t match up to the speed and distance that a gasoline powered car could offer.

Fast forward to 2003 and Californian electric automaker Tesla Motors, in collaboration with Lotus Engineering, began its development of the Tesla Roadster which were available to the public in 2008 thus creating a ripple effect of this new car revolution. Aptly named after the famous inventor, Nikola Tesla, founders Eberhard and Tarpenning state: “Without Nikola Tesla‘s vision and brilliance, our car wouldn’t be possible. We’re confident that if he were alive today, he would look over our electric car and nod his head with both understanding and approval.” Tesla continues to impress the industry with bigger and better developments. Joining the list of Model S and Model X is the much anticipated Tesla Model 3 which is now in production ramp-up and will commence UK customer deliveries towards the end of this year: https://www.tesla.com/en_GB/model3?redirect=no

With the countdown in full swing, car manufacturers are expected to fully convert to electric over the next few years but can the UK adapt to cater for an electric future? In short, Yes, states National Grid; “There are currently more than 4,700 locations with charging points around the UK, according to website Zap-Map.com…New locations are being added daily – with an increase of 480 in the past 30 days alone.”  Conflicting articles such as one published in The Telegraph suggests this may not be the case; “AA warned that the National Grid would be under pressure to cope with a mass switch-on after the evening rush hour”, while Which? Car magazine warned that electric cars are currently more expensive and less practical; “According to a National Grid report, peak demand for electricity could add around 30 gigawatts to the current peak of 61GW – an increase of 50 per cent…extra electricity needed will be the equivalent of almost 10 times the total power output of the new Hinckley Point C nuclear power station being built in Somerset.”

The challenges are exclusively around infrastructure as opposed to product and could be summed up like this; Grid capacity, weak & relatively under-powered public charging networks and no common/universal connector type.

It is a fact that most early adopters of EVs simply plug in at home overnight and wake up to a fully charged vehicle. It is equally true that EV owners have to plan for long journeys that require the use of public charging infrastructure. Car manufacturers are promising EVs that will travel up to 400 miles on a charge and charge up in a matter of minutes within the next three years. The question is where will high mileage EV buyers charge them? The vast majority of public chargers are sub 50kW units. The biggest domestic chargers on a single phase electricity supply are 7kW. It takes several hours to charge a large battery pack using these units. Tesla, to its credit, saw the issue early and has built out an impressive international private charging network of 120kW ‘Superchargers’ which are currently free at the point of use and can charge the battery from sub 10% to the recommended daily limit of 90% in around 40 minutes. These units are currently exclusively for the use of Tesla owners. Perhaps the biggest test of the public charging infrastructure will be Jaguar’s first EV offering; the I-Pace, which commences customer deliveries this year but, unlike Tesla, will rely on public chargers. This will likely limit adoption to those that can meet the vast majority of their charging needs at home unless and until the UK’s public charging infrastructure receives a much needed power-up.

The next variable is connector type. The most common connectors are CCS, CHAdeMO and Type 2; the latter being the connection type used by Tesla. CCS is the favoured connector type of the large OEMs and CHAdeMO is used for the DC supply on Ecotricity’s UK ‘Electric Highway’ chargers. There will need to be some harmonisation here to avoid end users having to carry around various adapters in order to plug in. A Type 2 to CHAdeMO adapter, for example, is a very bulky, heavy and relatively expensive item to carry around and most potential EV buyers will likely think it’s too much hassle.

The popularity of electric cars has shot up as predicted over the last few years with more than 120,000 currently on the road compared with just 3500 in 2013. It’s still a drop in the ocean. However, those that have made the leap to electric are almost universally evangelical about it. The advent of EVs with a range that equals similar diesel and petrol powered vehicles coupled with charging infrastructure that will allow real world fast charging will almost certainly create a tipping point. It is widely understood within the major car manufacturers that it is going to happen. The 350kW question is when? We think that will be dictated by infrastructure, not product.