Are Electric Vehicles Ready for Long Trips Yet?

If you have been following me on this blog, or following my experience in my Nissan Leaf at all over the past 2 and 1/2 years, you will hopefully know that I am not one to shy away from a challenge. I was one of the first to get a Nissan Leaf in the UK and also one of the first to do long trips in it with what was then, by today’s standard, almost no charging infrastructure at all.

With only the first generation, unreliable, dealer rapid chargers available at that time it was also touch and go as to whether a charger would fail and whether I would need to be recovered on a flatbed truck back home or to the nearest working charging station. Nevertheless I accepted that risk. It was early days of a brand new technology… we should expect some teething troubles and anyway, recovery was free for the first year so it didn’t cost anything other than time and inconvenience.

March on 2 years and the EV landscape is a very different beast altogether. The fledgling rapid charge network has developed into something almost sensible for long distance EV travel and is growing almost daily it seems what with additions to the Ecotricity Highway and announcements recently about EU funding for yet more rapid charging in the UK and Ireland.

Or so I thought…

I think I have been in denial (no, not the river!!!). I think a fair percentage of EV owners are also in denial. Well, certainly Nissan Leaf owners anyway because not all EVs have rapid charging and so those without are by definition restricted to more local use anyway. However, the Nissan Leaf and a few others have rapid charging either CHAdeMO 50kw DC or 43kw AC and it is the owners of these cars that are in danger of denial.

The thing is this: My Nissan Leaf is just perfect for local trips or regular commutes inside the real-world range of say, 60 miles (perhaps 80 for the latest version). However, there is a teaser – it has rapid charging so the temptation is to use it for longer trips too and this is where we start to run into the denial. The rapid charging infrastructure is simply not up to reliable long distance travel yet.

The problem is nothing to do with the car’s range. It is all about charger reliability and redundancy. If a rapid charger fails then regardless of car range it is unlikely that any car will have the range remaining at that moment to get to another charger. There are some circumstances where there is an alternative on the other carriageway but even that often requires many extra miles making even that unviable. So until there are two rapid chargers per location anyone doing long trips in an EV is playing Russian roulette… if it fails then they could easily be stranded resulting in recovery, cost, inconvenience and frustration.

Now if the chargers were solidly reliable then redundancy would not be so important but right now rapid chargers are notoriously unreliable and as there is generally only one per site so to use them for any long trips is risky. I have done many long trips now in my Leaf and only encountered a couple of charger failures which is pretty good but the inconvenience/cost is so significant when it does happen that I am no longer prepared to risk it any more.

So, I have decided that from now on and for the foreseeable future, I will no longer be using my Nissan Leaf for trips that require reliance on rapid chargers. I will be using my Leaf for what it is good at… local trips when I can charge at home.

I see this as a huge change in my attitude. I have been so forthright in my support for using the Nissan Leaf for long trips and you would imagine that as the rapid charger network grew so I would be encouraging it even more. However, the opposite is true. The more the network grows it seems the more people start to rely upon it but with one charger at each location that just means more and more people will be taking more and more risks. With the reliability the way it is right now I can only see this resulting in more EV drivers being stranded and yet more negative publicity for EVs.

For any rapid charging system to be reliable enough to use in any routine way it requires at least 2 rapid chargers at each location… not one… and until there are two chargers at a location I want to charge at I will no longer be playing that Russian roulette in the way I have been over the past 2+ years.

In fact, my views have changed considerably in other ways too recently. I am still a massive supporter of electric vehicles but I no longer see the current breed (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe, etc) as realistic at all for long trips that require multiple charges in a day to get to your destination. Their range is just too short, charge times just too long (even on rapid chargers) and even if you are happy to accept all that then the charger failure risk just too great for anyone other than the pioneers to endure.

However, all is not doom and gloom. Car range will go up significantly and I have no doubt that rapid chargers will eventually get doubled up and when that happens then using rapid charging for long trips in an EV may well be viable. Until then though I am changing my tune completely in that I now see destination charging as being the long-term answer to EV charging. With very few exceptions cars always stop overnight and so if cars have sufficient range to last all day then there is no need for en-route rapid charging. With sufficient range all cars will simply charge up overnight. This in itself has its own challenges as there needs to be that charging capacity at all overnight stop locations (homes, work, hotels, etc) but if your car will easily do 300-400 miles why even think about charging en-route? You wouldn’t.

So role on the future EV, one that can go a full day without charging, one that can charge fast enough overnight to fully charge ready for the next day and a world where the charging capability exists at overnight locations to satisfy that need.

We are a very long way from that right now but it could happen… just not yet!

In the meantime a new breed of EVs are starting to emerge such as the BMW i3. It is a full EV with a sensible EV range but it has the option of a range-extender (REX) petrol generator for when that charger fails! This could be the interim solution we need to encourage more EV take up as it removes the reliance on the rapid chargers working. The Vauxhall Ampera is similar but that has the bias towards petrol as it has no rapid charge capability and a shorter EV range. With the BMW i3 the bias is very firmly towards electricity with the petrol only used if needed. I could easily see myself switching my Nissan Leaf to a BMW i3 with a REX. I have a test drive of the BMW i3 in 2 weeks already booked and assuming I like it only the cost of changeover would stop me right now.

For EVs without a range-extender the interim reliable solution in my opinion is not to have any locations with rapid chargers unless you can install two that are co-located. Just having one requires the playing of that Russian roulette and I don’t believe that the average man in the street will accept that. I certainly won’t!

3 thoughts on “Are Electric Vehicles Ready for Long Trips Yet?”

  1. Since posting my last blog post I have been feeling rather sad. I stand by everything I said in that post but I feel that I have let people down. Over the past couple of years I have been one of the vocal advocates of using EVs for long trips and also for CHAdeMO and so to do a complete U-turn such as this leaves me with a slightly sour taste because I know that many people that had similar views to me on this probably haven't changed their mind and I don't want people to feel that I have jumped ship.

    My only justification is that I try to be as honest as possible. If the situation requires me to change my opinions then I have to be true to myself if I stand any hope of being true to everyone else.

    So, I apologise if you feel I have sold out but I have to say it as I see it or what I say has little integrity. I hope you understand.

    Please don't imagine for a second that my opinion of the Nissan Leaf or EVs in general has changed… it hasn't. I just feel that they are great at what they do best. Should people get one? YES! Providing you don't expect them to be viable for long trips without the risks I have spoken about. If you are happy with those risks then great! Go for it!

  2. Paul,

    I read with interest your comments above here is my score:

    – Mar 13 Waitrose Car park, York -6C stayed 6 hrs due fictitious charger at Nottingham;
    – Apr 13 3 x Rapids all off line – arrive home 4 am, 8 hrs late
    – Oct 13 B-Western York had to night stop due inadequate charge after 5 hrs connected.
    – Nov 13 Renault Salisbury – 5.5 hrs waiting for 3 kw/hr charger after Fast Charge didn't work.
    – Close call (<4 miles range) with u/s chargers – too many to mention.

    However, I'm more pragmatic and have lobbied everyone who will listen to get an architecture and some performance standards for the UK charging network.

    Now is the time to get motivated and make sure your views get into the OLEV Call for Evidence!

    We will get no where if road warriors become apathetic – we need champions, such as you, to bang the table and lobby for change!

    Drive ON!

  3. Hi, Thanks for your comment.

    WOW! You have been caught out quite a bit which probably means you use your EV quite a bit too. Cool!

    I am putting together my thoughts regarding the OLEV call for evidence. I would love to be "banging on the table" for the benefit of all EV drivers. Let's wait and see… it might be possible 🙂

    In the meantime, it looks like you are doing a pretty good job yourself! Keep up the good fight!

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