Charger Status Text Notification

As I sit here, in my office at home, it is 2200hrs and I have just read a thread on the Leaf Talk forum.

http://www.leaftalk.co.uk/showthread.php/13784-Proposal-A-Txt-based-service-to-keep-us-updated-on-rapid-chargers 

The thread is saying how annoying and unhelpful it is that we, EV drivers, have no reliable way to determine if a public charger is working or not and so people are turning up at charging stations, thinking/hoping they are working, only to find them broken… and sometimes broken for some time previous. No one had updated the status on the network operators web site to mark it as broken.

I have to agree… this is not only annoying but could easily lead to drivers being stuck with nowhere to charge.

The question I am asking myself now though is this: Should I respond to this in the way I know I should knowing that my response will possibly result in me being attacked as unsupportive, arrogant, negative, unhelpful and a whole raft of other insults. It has happened before. The problem is that I have taken it upon myself, rightly or wrongly, to report things as I see them. You don’t have to agree with me and in many ways I hope you don’t because I see disagreement as a positive. It encourages closer scrutiny and ultimately results in a better outcome for us all. So not to respond just because I know I might be criticised for what I say would be a cop out. 

I have to say it as I see it or else I would feel a fraud and a hypocrite.

So here goes 🙂

For some time now there has been a way to let anyone that uses Twitter know that a charger is working or broken and people, including me, have been tweeting to the #ukcharge tag whenever they charged. Until now I have thought that this tweeting was useful because if you were just about to make a trip and you spotted that a charger you planned to use was reported broken then it gave you a heads up and you could find another charger before you set out.

In reality though, if you think about it carefully and look a bit deeper, this system works only if a) the fault is reported on #ukcharge, b) you see the report, c) it is close enough to the day of your trip to make the info recent enough to still be accurate, d) when the charger is fixed it is also tweeted immediately to cancel the failure report. That is a lot of “IFs” and so although I wouldn’t say this system was pointless I would say that in reality it’s usefulness is quite limited.

Let’s look at those IFs…

(a)… to be reported it needs an EV owner to discover the fault by trying to charge at that charger in the first place. They must then also be someone that uses Twitter… not many people do. They must also know about the #ukcharge tag and they must then be interested in helping others enough to be bothered to post a tweet and in a timely fashion. Probably most will but I know a lot of EV drivers that are on Twitter, that do know about #ukcharge and still they don’t tweet whenever they charge. Even I forget sometimes!

So for this reason alone not many charger failures are going to be picked up and reported in a timely fashion and faulty chargers could go days or even weeks unreported.

(b) To make it at all useful the fault report must be seen by someone intending to use the faulty charger and that again requires a Twitter account and then you must permanently monitor #ukcharge or do searches on the #ukcharge stream to see if you missed a report. Again, not many people use Twitter and searches on Twitter are not reliable enough because people report charging locations by different names so we wouldn’t know what to search on.

You would need to search for all the chargers you might use on your route… that could easily be 5 or 6 rapid chargers and then potentially other fast chargers as a back up should a rapid actually fail when you go to use it. That is a lot of detail you would need to get before setting out and I for one find this timeconsuming and tedious. I really just want to pick my route and go.

This issue could perhaps be improved by using a database of charging locations such as Open Charge Map but that has its own problems and has unreliable charging location data so isn’t really much help.

(c)  & (d) These are linked… If the report of a faulty charger was not made the day of travel or the previous one then there is a chance that the fault may have been fixed and your info is out of date resulting in you not using a charger you could have used. How then would a charger be reported as fixed? In fact, how would anyone know it was fixed unless someone visited it regularly to check? If (a), (b) & (c) worked and you found out that a charger was broken through #ukcharge then no one would then use that charger until it was reported fixed but no one would ever know when it was fixed because no one is using it!!!

So they are the IFs as I see them. All those IFs must happen the right way for the system to work and that is all pretty unlikely in my opinion.

The proposal to use SMS instead of twitter and #ukcharge is no doubt an improvement over using Twitter. Most people use SMS and have a phone able to receive SMS messages whereas few use Twitter. However, in every other sense the same problems exist with an SMS system as does with the Twitter and #ukcharge tag.

So as I see it, the main problems that remain are:

1) Few EV drivers will know about the SMS system and of those that do many will not bother to report and so failures will just not be reported. this could perhaps be fixed with a sticker on each charger asking people to send a txt to report the charger as faulty but who would pay for thousands of stickers and who would deploy them? Would it even be legal without the charger owners permission?

2) You would need to search all the status reports for your entire trip to see if any of the locations you might use is reported as down… not so easy.

3) By far the biggest issue for me though is that there is no automatic or guaranteed way to notify that a charger is fixed other than someone reporting it and the people most likely to report it… that is, the people that know about the system and therefore know that the charger was faulty in the first place, would never visit it because of that very fact! It was faulty! Why would they? It is a catch-22 type situation.

May be these issues, and any I have missed, could be resolved. May be they have been! There are a lot of people much more clever than I out there. If so then I’d love to hear about it.

I think that it is great that people are trying to solve these kinds of problems in imaginative ways but unless things like this are properly thought through and systems designed that are robust and stand a proper chance of actually working then in a real sense we are deluding ourselves at best and providing incorrect or out of date information to drivers at worst. Sometimes no info is better than wrong info. With no info we would just do as we do now and treat all chargers as potentially broken.

All we would be doing is working hard to make ourselves feel better because we feel that doing nothing is not an option.

I can understand that but there is a real danger here in that by developing a system that might make us all feel better, but ultimately doesn’t actually solve the issues, we are taking pressure off the charger network operators and the government to develop a proper system that does… one that maps all the public chargers in the UK, one that forces the network operators through legislation if necessary, to report charger location and status in real-time, one that actually benefits all EV drivers long term instead of just a few in the short term, or none at all.

To Craigix and the others… you have my respect for trying to create a better world for UK EV drivers. A system such as this does have some benefit if all those IFs do fall the right way and all the while it was just reporting on #ukcharge then what harm could it do? No point in not doing it. But developing a software solution is different. I think that it could lull many EV drivers into a false sense of security with them believing that the system is reliable when it is most certainly only reliable if those IFs fall the right way and I believe that it would in all likelihood not be often enough to make it something we can rely upon. If we mostly can’t rely upon it then it is no better than the current batch of unreliable network operator web sites… is it?

It will also send out a signal to OLEV and the charger network operators that we are developing our own solutions and that could be a disincentive for them to do what they should be doing – developing robust and reliable systems based on their own charger status feeds. Crickey! They aren’t even keeping their own web sites up to date yet! There is still no national public charging database and with OLEV spending all our cash on charging infrastructure you would think that at least they would have a decent online map and search facility of where OUR chargers are wouldn’t you…? I would! You would think that this database would also be available through in-car systems so we have real-time status info while we travel wouldn’t you…? I would! In my opinion, we are no closer to this than we were when I first got my Nissan Leaf 2.5 years ago.

I would prefer to see that, instead of us developing adhoc solutions ourselves trying to address these problems, we drivers put our efforts into creating a strong and effective drivers association (EVDA-UK) that can work together with the network operators, government and drivers to put pressure on them all to develop proper, robust, reliable systems that will truly benefit all EV drivers in the years to come and stand the test of time. It isn’t rocket science! It just requires them to recognise that it is essential if EVs are to become mainstream.

PS: Of course, all these issues disappear if there is sufficient redundancy but we are a long way from that IMO.

So, I post this with a huge amount of apprehension. My post could easily be taken as being negative and unsupportive and that just isn’t the message I intend to send out. I hope it is taken the way it is intended… just one persons opinion and a discussion document to help get us towards a better way for us all 🙂

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