There’s one major problem with our push towards electric cars

The UK government might be banning petrol and diesel engines by 2040, but Nissan thinks EVs will have taken over the UK long before that. According to an interview with the Guardian, Edward Jones, Nissan’s EV manager in the UK claims that electric vehicle charging stations will outnumber petrol and diesel ones as early as 2020.

A report commissioned by Nissan found there were 8,472 traditional petrol stations in the UK at the end of 2016 – around 75% less than the 37,539 recorded four decades before. Nissan believes that number will fall to 7,870 or less by 2020, at which point EV charging locations will have grown from 4,100 to over 7,900.

Nissan is confident this tipping point will happen for a few reasons, and it’s mainly to do with momentum: “As electric vehicle sales take off, the charging infrastructure is keeping pace and paving the way for convenient all-electric driving. Combine that with constant improvements in our battery performance and we believe the tipping point for mass EV uptake is upon us,” said Jones. “As with similar breakthrough technologies, the adoption of electric vehicles should follow an ‘S-curve’ of demand. A gradual uptake from early adopters accelerates to a groundswell…”

Jones and Nissan may be correct, but while the prediction makes sense, there’s still a huge amount of work to go. And while battery improvements and EV sales will certainly increase by 2020, the main bottleneck will still be infrastructure. The National Grid recently pointed to concerns about how cars will be charged by people without off-street parking or home chargers. In a survey, 57% of households had access to off-street parking and it was assumed that 43% did not. Once there are 20 million EVs on the road, this split suggests there will be 8.6 million vehicles without the necessary facilities to charge from home and these drivers will need alternative charging facilities. 

Infrastructure

A few weeks ago, the government confirmed its plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars across the country from 2040 – the same year all vehicles are required to be electric. The ruling forms part of the government’s air quality report, and it will force electric cars into popularity, which is a good thing for our environment, obviously.

Battery technology, and therefore EV range, is improving every year, but that’s only half the equation. Without the infrastructure to charge electric vehicles, longer journeys will still require a great deal of planning – and range anxiety will never truly disappear.

Right now it’s impossible to predict just how many chargers will be on UK roads by 2040, so it’s hard to say if the government has pushed things through prematurely. But we can look at the number of car charging stations in the UK right now. 

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Coverage

Zap Maps is one of the most popular charging maps for hybrid and electric car users, and features statistics on the number of chargers in the UK, to the type of chargers installed. Its 2016 figures show a huge increase in the number of chargers in the UK, and it’s likely that, with the government’s help, that rate will increase rapidly by 2040. However, there’s two crucial factors: distribution and charger type.

Most of the chargers you’ll find in the UK are centered around cities. That’s great for those of us who want to make trips around town, but it means more rural areas, and particularly those in between cities, are often lacking in chargers.

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That’s a huge problem and makes the idea of longer journeys in an EV somewhat unsettling. It’s still logically possible to do them, but if a charger is down, or a stop is missed, it might be a while before another appears.

Secondly, the type of charger is a huge factor. Just like pretty much every new technology nowadays, the EV market is involved in something of a format war. And just like pretty much every new technology with a format war, the customer isn’t really benefitting from it.

If the government is to make electric cars more popular by 2040, it’ll need to provide an up to date, infrastructure with nationwide coverage for the UK’s new EV users. 

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“To achieve a national network of high-powered EV charging stations will require the chicken and egg cycle to be cracked,” said Orlando Elmhirst and Dave Wagstaff from SO Energy Insights in a think piece for the National Grid. “Large battery EVs will not become commonplace unless there are sufficient charging stations to service them. However, there will be little appetite to build such service stations unless there are enough cars to be serviced.

“One potential solution would be to build a few thousand super-fast charging forecourts of over 3 MW capacity rather than carry out a large-scale rebuild of the domestic electricity infrastructure. It may well be that the charging from home option may not be in the long-term interest of the consumers even with smart chargers.”

To find out about the location and type of chargers in your area, click here.

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