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The reality of having an electric car

Peter Kelly
Jan 20, 2020


Have you ever wondered what it is like to drive an electric car on a seriously long-haul journey, say...London to Edinburgh and back again?

Well, one man has done it for you, and the reality of the situation will no doubt come as a shock.

Read this, and let us know whether or not you would consider getting an electric car now.

Robert Perry writes in The Times:

At the dawn of the age of motoring in 1900, 83 owners of the newfangled horseless carriages signed up for what would become known as the Thousand Mile Trial, an 11-day road trip from London to Edinburgh and back. Only 65 cars made it to the starting line at Hyde Park Corner for what was envisaged as the ultimate test of the nascent internal combustion engine.

On the road that day were some who became the forefathers of the British automotive industry, including Charles Rolls, who would four years later meet Henry Royce and create the most famous marque in the world.

Only 51 were still running by Edinburgh and only 35 made it back to London, including the sole lady driver, Louise Bazalgette, a member of the family of Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian engineer of London’s sewer system.

Nearly 120 years later we are at the dawn of another motoring age, that of the electric car. How would an electric vehicle (EV) with a range of not much more than 200 miles fare in a 21st-century version of the Thousand Mile Trial? What are the issues for the long-distance electric car driver? How do you find public charging points? How long does it take to recharge? Do they exist in any great number outside London?

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With all these questions to answer I set out in the tyre marks of those intrepid pioneers of 1900 with little experience of driving an EV and none in charging one up. My aim was to complete the 1000-mile trial in three days.

For anyone who gets stressed when the charge on their mobile falls below 10 per cent, look away now for these are the confessions of an EV virgin.

Range anxiety
Following the original route heading west along the old Bath Road, now the A4, I’m in a Nissan Leaf, the best-selling electric car, built in Sunderland and generously lent to The Times by the Japanese carmaker.

I’m armed with a smartcard for the Polar recharging network, which promises access to 7,000 chargers. The Zap Map app is uploaded onto a phone and promises to locate the nearest charging point at any given time. What could possibly go wrong?

Our Leaf e+ pledges to provide 239 miles of range on one charge but with the caveat that “actual real world driving results may vary depending on factors such as the starting charge of the battery, weather conditions, driving styles”.

For the first two hours the Leaf would barely have kept pace with the 1900 cohort, clocking up fewer than 40 miles, restrained by the three Rs of modern day motoring: roundabouts, red lights and roadworks.

Skirting Bath and turning north the first stop is reached, the Gloucester Holiday Inn. The distance travelled is 144 miles and according to data on the Leaf dashboard 173 miles of range has been lost, suggesting that something may be up with the operative’s “driving style”.

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Nearly an hour later enough electrons have been forced in to be back up to a 91 per cent charge, the equivalent, says the car, of 222 miles of range, enough to get to the first stopover at Bamber Bridge just south of Preston in Lancashire.

The M5 and M6 are both in a filthy, congested mood. On the clearer stretches I test the national speed limit to make up time. Past Cheshire there is a decision to make. The car shows just 20 per cent of charge and 47 miles of range left. Bamber Bridge is 38 miles away.

With no Polar charging points in motorway service stations I bail out and go in search of a recharge in Altrincham. Heading for a charge point at a Novotel, I find it is out of commission. With few options and an increasing sense of unease I end up in an empty, windswept Asda car park and hook up to one of its two standard, ie slow, charging points. The equipment dribbles one extra mile of range into the battery every three minutes.

After a chilly half hour it’s back on the road having added just nine miles of range, with everything crossed in the hope of making the destination. Three quarters of an hour later the Leaf limps — metaphorically — into the lodgings’ car park with a buttock-clenching 7 per cent.

On the charge
The stopover, a Premier Inn, has no charging points. But the Holiday Inn a mile up the road does. With first light breaking over the Pennines, Zap Map indicates that its single charging point is free so the Leaf scoots over, hooks up while its driver has breakfast and an hour later has 73 per cent of charge, enough to get to our next scheduled stop in Carlisle 91 miles away.

Fed up with the motorway I take the scenic A6 through rolling north Lancashire countryside into the beauty of the Lake District and the stunning ascent to Shap Fell, the subject in 1900 of a time trial won, naturally, by Charles Rolls. Carlisle’s only rapid charger, at a Toby Inn on the outskirts, happily is in commission and not being used.

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A 40-minute top-up has the battery 70 per cent full: 142 miles range to do the 100 miles to Edinburgh.

The “historic tourist route” of the A7 is a stunning drive through a rugby sevens tournament of towns — Hawick, Selkirk, Melrose, Gala — and a real chance to put the Leaf through its paces. It handles brilliantly on the long and winding road and, with the same torque and pace of Nissan’s Nismo sports cars, has plenty of zip on the rare bits of straight to pass the agricultural vehicles exercising their right to drive slowly on a trunk road and the 40mph campervan pootlers.

After engagements in Edinburgh it’s time for a small top-up at the Norton House Hotel, the Scottish capital’s only public Polar charger, enough to ensure reaching the next scheduled stop on the way to Newcastle upon Tyne.

And there a fun day ends. With the light going there are 12 miles of tailback on Edinburgh’s southern bypass.

The Borders village of Carfraemill is not particularly near anywhere but it has a pub and more importantly a pub that has a charger. However, it’s dark, cold and with rain on the wind it’s the first charger failure. Several attempts to engage the machine reader with the smartcard fail. The screen then exhibits a big red cross and reverts to nothing, a grey screen of doom.

There are no other Polar chargers between here and Newcastle. The Leaf has 87 miles of charge and Newcastle is 86 miles away. What are the alternatives? Schlepping back to Edinburgh? A quiet weep?

One last attempt with the charging point and it fires into life. I give it a quiet embrace. A 44-minute charge-up and some disappointing neeps and tatties later, the Leaf is back on the road on an increasingly ugly night of rain. Arrive in Newcastle late.

Trial and tribulations
Next day starts with an early top-up at another Holiday Inn off the A1(M) a few miles south and a course via Nottingham to be home in time for supper.

At the Holiday Inn — like all others in its chain neither an inn nor somewhere you’d go on holiday, but a favoured location of the Polar recharging network — the Zap Map shows that of Nottingham’s three charging points near the M1, one is out of order, one has “reported issues” and one is busy (probably because the other two are offline).

A Polar point in Rotherham might be a better alternative. It is, once again, located at a Holiday Inn. Tucked away in the corner of an otherwise empty set of car parks, its location is only obvious because it has a Renault Zoe EV parked next to it and hooked up. We have our first instance of charging clash. The Zoe has been on for 30 minutes according to the machine, so I reason that the owner will be back soon. After 15 minutes’ no-show I decide to explore alternative arrangements, except the Zap Map connection is weak and not picking up. Time is spent wandering round the car park trying to get a signal. It begins to rain. Sheltering in the hotel, an available charger is shown on the Zap Map in Chesterfield. With the Zoe still recharging an hour in and no sign of its owner, it’s time to go.

By the time the charging point is found incongruously at the back of a pub in the middle of a Chesterfield housing estate there is 14 per cent of charge left. But given the levels of range anxiety experienced in the past couple of days I’m calm.

Until, that is, with the Leaf plugged in, the machine says it is 69 per cent charged when it is clear that it’s nearly out. Still, the blue lights in the car suggest that it’s charging so I go for a belated pub lunch. Returning an hour later the machine says it is 0 per cent charged.

Whaaat? It transpires that the machine is having a dodgy day and the car is suitably charged — I hope — with 174 miles of range and 150 miles to go.

Heading down the M1, the stated range is worryingly diminishing faster than actual miles completed. But with heavy Friday evening traffic the national speed limit is rarely reached, which the battery appears to appreciate. I’m home a little later than expected but laughing, a little too manically, with 6 per cent of charge left. The four on-street overnight charging points in my street are busy or blocked . . . but that is a story for another day.

Lessons to be learnt

The long run
The Nissan Leaf proves that electric car driving can be properly good fun, but today’s pure electric vehicles are not cut out for long journeys. The industry does not claim them to be, but thGat does mean great swathes of motorists are locked out of the market. Long journeys require pinpoint planning and there is no guaranteed charging point availability.

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Charging networks
Relying on one charging network — as I did — is foolish. It is the equivalent of our grandparents’ generation driving without a jerrycan of fuel in the boot. But the poor national network means you have to join multiple operator schemes with different logins and payment arrangements, all of which is a faff and doesn’t make electric driving accessible. It is as if you need to be a member of Esso to access their petrol. All charging points must be contactless.

Availability
Obviously, there need to be many tens of thousands more public charging points. For the charging-point operators to install only one charging station in a location seems inefficient. If the electricity feed is plumbed in, why not install multiple points? Why do so many hotels — where people stop overnight — have no chargers?

Wasted time
Waiting three quarters of an hour to get a meaningful recharge is a long time and doesn’t represent what the industry insists is a “rapid charge”. Only when the industry gets to its aim of a 100 per cent charge in the time it takes to go to the toilet and get a coffee (and in the case of the over-50s going to the loo again) will charging seem like an efficient use of time.

Locating charge points
The industry’s best charging point locator, Zap Map, is a clunky app and doesn’t always relay accurate information. Satnav systems need to be at the top of their game and, although it might be a bit analogue, is there any harm in road signs advertising the location of charging points?

Shelter from the storm
No one filling their car at a petrol station has to do it in a sou’wester. A nice charging point canopy offering respite from the rain when you are fumbling with your charge card and plugging the cord into your car would be a pleasant addition.

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