Electric vehicles have the potential to make a big difference to energy efficiency and emissions across the road network, but ensuring the right infrastructure is available to support them is critical.
Local authorities have ambitious targets for reducing emissions from road transport, and electric vehicle technology shows the greatest promise for enabling these to be met.
The public is on side, as is proved by the rapid growth of electric vehicle adoption across the UK. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), there are now almost 130,000 registered cars that require access to a charge point, compared with fewer than 5,000 in 2012.
However, there is a major limiting factor currently preventing electric vehicles from dominating the market – the availability of usable charge points in towns and cities around the country.
Standardising infrastructure and payment methods
Building the infrastructure to encourage more people to change their vehicle is a key challenge and funding is available from Government to help councils across the UK start to ramp this up.
But funding alone is not enough. Councils also need uniform guidance on procurement and implementation to ensure that there is not only the right quantity of charging infrastructure, but also the right quality, consistency and ease of use for electric vehicle drivers.
Different charging solutions are on offer from numerous companies around the world, creating a somewhat bewildering choice for local authorities. But, unfortunately, there is no standard design for these systems, and no guidelines as to which type of stations should be used.
If this situation continues, any electrical vehicle owner wishing to travel outside of their own local area will find the charging points available elsewhere unfamiliar and therefore less intuitive to use, and they might also need to carry adapters before they can plug in.
Payment methods are also a concern. Paying for electricity should be as simple and uncomplicated as buying petrol, yet currently drivers travelling between localities can be faced with an array of different mobile apps, payment cards and accounts. Again, a unified approach is needed so that a vehicle owner can easily use any charge station across the country without having to waste time signing up for a new payment service every time.
This is not just a problem facing the UK. Our Urban Insights report series, which focuses on the future of sustainable urban environments from a citizens’ perspective, highlighted that a family car journey across Europe starting from the UK involves using a variety of public charging stations. Within single countries, there are various charging operators that have their own, often unique ways of accepting payment for charging or for starting and stopping a charging session. Some of the charging points rely on apps and others on cards and websites, while others will allow the driver to use a combination.
Quality as well as quantity
Of course, it is important that charging stations are implemented rapidly to keep pace with the explosive growth in plug-in vehicle ownership, and giving councils the freedom to achieve this in whichever way is most suitable for their particular circumstances is important.
However, without guidance from central government, we risk a proliferation of different types of infrastructure that are neither user-friendly nor designed for the long term.
The difficulty drivers have in finding charging points is reflected in the type of electric vehicles available on the market today. While hybrid cars that combine a combustion engine with an element of electric power have become common, pure, battery-powered electric vehicles remain limited to very small numbers, and the challenge of charging is a major contributing factor in this.
On a more local level, councils also face the issue of infrastructure cluttering space, particularly in residential areas. From a design perspective, charging points have reduced in size over recent years and a single tower can now typically host two parking spaces, reducing the space required.
But looking further ahead as charging points become more numerous and the power capacity required increases, councils will need to consider new approaches.
Integration with solar energy generation will offer one solution, particularly in larger parking areas where the capacity available will be a major limiting factor to how many charging points can be installed.
This is an issue a number of other European countries are starting to tackle. In the Netherlands, we’re currently working with Q-Park to develop a canopy of solar cells located on the roof of a parking facility, which can enhance the capacity that is available from its designated grid connection, so more charging points can be installed.
We are still in the early days of electric vehicle adoption. But when it comes to design and consistency, now is the time to act if the infrastructure of the future is to be fit-for-purpose when the mass market adopts the technology.