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The powerless feelings of electric cars

Blog | By Alan Judd | Feb 04, 2020

The Government is banning all petrol and diesel cars by 2035. Electric cars better shape up if they're going to take over, says Alan Judd

Feel you should save the planet? Thinking of an all-electric vehicle (EV) for long journeys as well as short? Think very carefully.

I recently accompanied a friend on a 331-mile trip from Sussex to the Lake District in her BMWi3 (claimed range 153 miles). We completed stage one, to Cherwell services on the M40, with 35 miles of charge left. As with other service-station charging points, it’s not easy to find; you have to circle the car park until you spot the chargers in a scruffy corner. The ‘pump’ was vacant, my friend mated her phone app with the screen (you can’t charge without your mobile) and the ‘fast’ charge took the prescribed 50 minutes to reach 97 per cent. It wouldn’t go higher on any pump.

Stage two was to Stafford services on the M6. My friend again deployed her app, muffing it a couple of times because the sun made the pump screen hard to read. Eventually the app said payment was complete and charging could begin. But it couldn’t. She went through the whole process again but the app remained stuck on the last page displayed. After further failures we rang the control centre in Gloucestershire, who talked us through it a few times before announcing a faulty pump – it was registering a ‘ghost’ payment. Left alone for 50 minutes, it might cure itself, they said; or it might not. We were advised to try the next pump, at Keele services.

We had enough charge to reach that but, by the time we found where the pumps were hidden, the rain had started. Unlike fuel pumps, electric ones have no roof – not even the separate bank of unused Tesla pumps, which take only Teslas. Each of our two pump units had two charger leads, each with a different plug for different kinds of car. The one that takes BMWs was again unused, though one of the others was in use. But the app was still stuck – so back to Gloucestershire. They said they could override the app but warned that we still wouldn’t be able to charge because the other lead was in use and the installation couldn’t cope with more than one at a time. ‘Continue north to Sandbach,’ they advised.

Charge level was now worryingly low, not helped by our having to use wipers, lights and aircon, but we made it, soaked and anxious – only to find the pump occupied. A coffee or two later, it became free but the app still wouldn’t oblige. Back to Gloucestershire – on my mobile this time, because my friend couldn’t speak on hers while trying to mate it with the pump screen. Gloucestershire suggested deleting and reinstalling the app, but the password was at home. Gloucestershire bypassed the app but then found that the pump wouldn’t work. We stood in steady rain while they rebooted it.

It worked and we made it with 44 miles to spare. The whole journey cost only a few pounds but it aged us ten years (which was quite enough as my friend is already 85). Why the absurdity of no standard plug fitting? Why this complicated procedure – why can’t you just swipe and pay with your credit card? Why are pumps unreliable, too few and hard to find? Why does even ‘fast’ charging condemn you to hours on the tarmac in motorway service stations? How are those not apt with apps supposed to cope?

The infrastructure for stress-free electric travel simply isn’t there yet. Until it is, and unless your journeys are local enough for you to recharge at home or at work, better stick with fossil fuels.