Opinion: ‘Range anxiety’ and nine other things I learnt road tripping with an electric vehicle

 

Figuring out a charge point on the M4 in Wiltshire. Photo credit: Kirstie Wielandt.

By Kirstie Wielandt,

Since test driving a hybrid car a couple of years ago myself and my partner had been looking to try out a fully electric vehicle (EV), so when Easycar Club was offering a cute little 2011 Peugout Ion for the exact weekend we were visiting friends out of town, decided to take the EV plunge.

Are you absolutely sure you want to borrow my car?

On the Friday evening of the said weekend, I arranged to meet with the owner of the car to exchange the keys. The poor woman looked exceedingly nervous as I approached her standing outside her flat… ‘Did I understand it was a full EV I was renting?’ she asked me with a concerned look on her face, almost bracing herself for a negative response…

Upon confirming that I was indeed a willing participant in our transaction, she explained that ALL her previous car club bookings had cancelled their rental as soon as they realised the car was a full EV and not a hybrid. Apparently, I was the first one to actually show up, let alone with enthusiasm. Kudos to me I guess.

We proceeded to agree that people were in fact generally useless and exchanged a couple of other niceties before she excitedly produced a Sainsburys bag-for-life full of charging cables for me, handed over the key, wished me good luck on the road and returned to her flat.

My first challenge was to reverse the car out of a narrow London side street and drive it, very carefully, up the Holloway Road, a difficult experience for any driver let alone a first time EV driver as that road is a circus of endless traffic lights, narrow driving lanes, lumbering buses, speeding L-plate Deliveroo drivers, opportunistic cyclists and tired car driving commuters trying to make their way out of central London.

The car was actually remarkably straightforward to drive once I got the hang of the automatic steering and realised I could use a single foot to control the accelerator and brake, an altogether far easier proposition than a manual car. After adjusting the seat a little, fiddling with the ventilation settings and making myself as comfortable as possible, I made my way onto the North Circular Road and onwards to West London to pick up my partner from his workplace.

We gave the car its first fresh charge of electricity at a charge point conveniently located in the car park behind his building, before leaving the London boundary and making our way onto a network of motorways and A-roads; a familiar sight yet somehow a brave new world in the context of this new set up.

The ensuing road trip was a steep but positive learning curve during which a number of realities about EVs came to light;

  1. Simple to drive: EVs are VERY easy to drive. They’re all automatic cars and even if it’s the first time you’ve driven a fully automatic car (guilty as charged) you pick up the hand of it very quickly, literally within minutes, and ultimately the driving experience is far easier than a manual car. The dashboard is very simple on the smaller cars (Tesla dashboards look like spaceships but who has 50K in the bank) and essentially shows you (1) your battery charge (2) how fast you’re going (3) whether you’re driving in the most efficient ‘eco zone’ for the battery, and (4) the ongoing mileage of the vehicle. Simples.
  2. Range anxiety: I don’t know about you, but due to the ubiquitous nature of petrol stations I rarely consider which ones I’m going to use when I’m doing a journey with a petrol car, I just rock up at the most convenient one when the tank is starting to run low. The infancy of the EV charging network does mean you need to be strategic in advance of any trip outside of any large city. As the range is everything in an EV, you essentially need to plot how far you’re going and at which points you’ll be likely to be able to recharge the battery. In this equation, a long range is great as it gives you more options, and a shorter range is problematic. Essentially you don’t want to be taking a car that doesn’t have a 100 mile or above range out of the city as you could find yourself stranded in really difficult situations (also guilty as charged).The good news is that almost all motorway service stations in the UK now have at least one or two EV charge points, and many smaller towns now have several, you just need to know how to find them. Which brings me to….
  3. Apps, apps and more apps: Turns out that you will need to download all sorts of apps and maps to be able to figure out the whole EV navigation and charging thing. Google Maps does tell you where charge points are but only when you zoom right in, so maps like Zap-Map which just show the whole network are much easier to use.Once you have mastered the apps, you need to set up accounts with the different charge points providers like Ecotricity, PolarPlus, etc. The good news is their functionality and usability is pretty good; we downloaded ours as we went along and most took only a few minutes to set up. Our Ecotricity account, for example, was active within 5 mins of arriving at our first motorway service station charge point and furthermore, we were most excited to realise that we could sit and watch the charge counter go up on my partner’s phone as we enjoyed a hot drink inside service station. It’s the little things!Having said that, it did feel a little disjointed working with so many options and there’s no doubt some standardisation would help the user enormously, presumably this will come over time.
  4. A multitude of charging cables: On the issue of charging, the apps are not the only thing that would benefit from standardisation. I was quite surprised and slightly intimidated to learn that you need different cables for different charge points, which in turn then even plug into different sides of the car. The cables are essentially hefty and glorified extension cables with plugs which you need to match to whichever charge point you need to use at the time. Whilst it was pretty straightforward working this out via a bit of trial and error, it got a little more complicated at more remote and less well-lit charge points at night etc. There’s no question that a single cable and plug would be infinitely more user-friendly.
  5. Interiors: work in progress: On the issue of design, think it’s fair to say that EV interiors still need a little refinement, in our little Peugeot the fixtures and fittings were definitely not as evolved as petrol cars ie. we had no cup holders, the seats were a little uncomfortable, the headrests especially was very hard and fixed at a strange angle which meant you’d effectively need to be lying down in the driver’s seat Formula One style to be comfortable whilst driving. Additionally, there was no door light and no USB charge point, which was quite awkward for phone charging and navigation purposes. Overall the car felt flimsier than a petrol car and more like a golf buggy or an elaborate fairground bumper car, it was missing a certain gravitas.
  6. Silent but deadly: On the issue of gravitas, I definitely noticed that because EVs are essentially silent (only a slight whoosh sound when they drive), pedestrians don’t really notice them and can easily step in front of them without knowing they’re there. This means that as a driver you need to drive very defensively in the vicinity of them. A petrol car is a lot more imposing than an EV with its sounds and smells and we’ve all be trained from an early age to almost instinctively respect them, EVs just don’t command respect in the same way.
  7. Curiosity from other drivers: Whilst EVs don’t command respect from pedestrians, they definitely engender curiosity from other drivers who are VERY intrigued and often stare at you whilst you set up the charging process and have a good old look inside the car if they happen to pass it; I caught quite a few lurkers having a nose at the dashboard through the side windows – which is fair enough, have absolutely done the same thing myself! It felt quite good to be ‘in the know’ for a weekend.
  8. Early adopter camaraderie: Like bus drivers waving at each other, EV drivers definitely share a secret bond and you become almost giddy with excitement when another EV pulls in alongside you at a charge point. You invariably have a little chat about the cars, their journey/your journey, the infrastructure, etc, which is quite a novelty as you’d rarely find yourself greeting a neighbouring driver at a petrol service station or the person next to you in a parking lot. Incidentally, the EV of choice as far as I could tell is the Nissan Leaf, we did see a Tesla or two but they were few and far between.
  9. Chargepoint etiquette: On the issue of other drivers, there were not many, in fact, more often than not we were the only obvious EV at a service station and never had to queue at charge points. A couple of times people were queuing for our spot when we returned to the car, but they were always good humoured about it which gave the impression they were used to it. The general consensus seems to be that whilst we’re collectively awesome and badass for being early adopters, don’t take the piss by staying in the charging bay beyond your slot. And fair enough too.
  10. Affordability: The final point I want to make is how incredibly affordable the cost of our weekend was in terms of battery charging cost – essentially it cost the two of us in the region of UK£20 / 25 Euros total (ie. UK£10 each) to do a return road trip from London to Gloucestershire and back. For anyone who knows the UK rail network, you’d be hard pressed to get a similar return rail fare for less than three or four times that per person, and the equivalent petrol would have cost at least twice that if not more, so you’re looking at a really good saving (truth be told the cost of all the coffees at the various charge points soon make up the shortfall but somehow I’m less resentful about that…).

Overall, our road trip was a great experience – not entirely easy for these various reasons but overwhelmingly positive nonetheless. Our main challenge was running out of ‘juice’ in a particularly remote location due to an issue with a charge point; this was totally out of our hands but underlined how vulnerable you can feel as an EV driver if you don’t have the infrastructure to back you up. And there were several other instances in which we struggled to find active charge points available to the public, particularly in smaller towns, however, with a bit of tenacity and opportunism we figured those situations out.

I’m happy to report we DID make it to Gloucestershire and then made it safely BACK to London to hand the car over on time.

Petrol cars now feel old school

My main takeaway from the experience is that, for all their idiosyncrasies and the infancy of the infrastructure, EVs are something quite tremendous and personally I can’t wait for the technology to reach a critical mass sometime in the coming decade. For better or for worse, petrol cars feel instantly old school once you’ve driven an EV, even just for two days, and had the unexpected pleasure of drinking coffee whilst watching your EV battery charge on a mobile phone app which even pings you when the car battery is full. What’s not to love.

To anyone thinking of test driving, renting or even buying an EV, my advice would be to first arm yourself with all the information you can lay your hands on about the particular vehicle you want, where you’ll be using it and how that could work (hopefully really well) in the context of your lifestyle. If it looks like a viable choice, GO FOR IT…you won’t look back.

Kirstie Wielandt is a writer for and strategic adviser to A greener life, a greener world and works full time for Greenpeace International.

 

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