Little Chef Charging Network – Not quite what I thought

Ever since Little Chef announced a national charging network at their restaurants I have been itching to try them out. I was kindly lent a Menekkes to J1772 charge cable to try out by Zero Carbon World so I thought today would be a great opportunity to give them both a try. I checked the Little Chef restaurant web site and saw that Chippenham was live and as that is just 20 miles from where we keep our caravan we set out.

On arriving at the Little Chef in Chippenham, Wilts, the charge post was obvious and it was good to see that the two parking spots next to the post were not occupied although there was no signage nor markings on the groud to suggest that these parking spots were for EV charging. I went into the restaurant and asked if they had the card to access the EV charge post. The manager seemed not to know what I was talking about and said that he thought that the charge post was not yet active. This contradicted the web site so I asked him to double check and he went out back to make some phone calls. On his return he said that we had to phone activate the post with ChargeMaster.

So I looked on the post and there was an 0845 number. This then is the first issue… 0845 telephone numbers are very expensive from mobiles and by definition you will be using a mobile. Please, why couldn’t this be a normal landline number?

I got straight through to Chargemaster and spoke to a customer rep who then started to try to activate the post remotely. Unfortunately it didn’t work. Several attempts, a reboot of the post, then several more attempts and still it wouldn’t activate. Eventually, after about an hour I was so cold that I had to retire into the restaurant while they tried to resolve the issue. Eventually they did resolve the issue and eventually, after about 1:30hr I was charging at 16A using the Menekkes to J1772 cable.

The issues were not to do with the cable but instead it seemed to me that Chargemaster had no tested proceedure to phone activate and they admitted to me that I was the first to use the Menekkes socket in the UK and that they had not done this before.

Now, I can accept that as a pioneer I can expect teething troubles and I am sure that in future it will not take 1 1/2 hours and so this is not of concern. What does concern me hugely though is what I found out as a result of this issue.

On the launch of their network Little Chef said that charging would be free for their customers until the end of 2012. In fact it still says that on their web site. It seems that this may not actually be true. I have seen a letter from ChargeMaster to the Little Chef Restaurant that made it very clear that the restaurants will not be getting an RFID card for their customers to use. Instead, the following procedure must be followed…

1) The first time an EV driver charges at a Little Chef they must phone activate the post. During activation the details of the EV driver will be taken allowing registration on the POLAR network.

2) A POLAR RFID card will then be sent to the EV driver by post. This card will allow them 12 charges on the POLAR network over a period of 12 months. After 12 charges if they wish to continue to use the Little Chef (and POLAR) network then they must join!

This is very much at odds with the Little Chef’s claim that charging is free at their restarants until end Dec 2012.

I have to be honest… I am not too surprised at this revelation. The Little Chef network is operated by POLAR who recently claimed over 80 charge points in the south of England but when you look closer it is 80 sockets in 26 locations. A charge point location with a post will have two sockets. POLAR seem to consider this two charge points. Most EV drivers would consider this single post a single charge point with two sockets. So POLAR claim 80+ charge points but really only have 26 and now the Little Chef network is advertised as free until Dec 2012 when that is really only free for 12 charges and you must rgister with POLAR and get an RFID card to use the Little Chef network at all.

Firstly, I must make it clear that I have not yet spoken to anyone at Little Chef head office. I have though spoken to the manager at Chargemaster in charge of POLAR and they confirmed that their contract with Little Chef allows EV drivers just 12 free charges and only after registration with POLAR and receiving an RFID card. Restuarants are not receiving RFID cards and so forcing all EV drivers to register with POLAR to use the Little Chef network.

If this is confirmed by Little Chef on Monday then surely they should change their web site and PR material to reflect the facts. Saying it is free until the end Dec 2012 is not accurately representing the situation.

I know that there are some EV drivers that intended to use the Little Chef network over the Christmas/New Year period but I would suggest that they be prepared. If that is you then you will be required to phone activate that first time and you will have to register with POLAR to obtain an RFID card by post to use the network subsequently. Perhaps pre-registering with POLAR now and getting your RFID card prior to travel might be prudent. Remember though that you will only have 12 charges for free before you must join the POLAR network and pay the monthly fee.

This whole issue of needing to register is simply rediculous. Surely, Little Chef can absorb the small extra cost of an hour or two of charging at 16A (or 32A for later models) given the extra revenue generated. As it stands, with the arrangements as I have described, what is Little Chef getting out of the deal? EV drivers will be POLAR customers whether they like it or not and will have no reason to buy from Little Chef. Once the EV driver has their their RFID card there will be no incentive to use the restaurants at all.

I was excited by the prospect of there being an EV charge point at 126 Little Chef restaurants. I imagined that I would simply use the restaurant and be given access to the charging there and then… no registration, no committment. It now seems that the whole Little Chef network is nothing nore than a POLAR PR exercise designed to recruit new members. I fail to see how this can benefit EV drivers or the take up of EVs in the UK. Eventually all charging will be free or pay-as-you-go (via cards or SMS) and this kind of closed membership scheme will fail.

I am reserving my final opinion until I have had confirmation from Little Chef regarding these arrangement but if they stand then I am hugely disappointed with Little Chef not only in that they seem to have missed a great opportunity to leverage the EV market but also that they seem to be misleading the EV driver through their web site and publicity material by saying that charging is free until end Dec 2012 with out further explanation.

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