The UK Has Somehow Lost The Electric Car Race Before It’s Even Started

I’ve just got back from my first experience charging an electric car on the motorway, and it was an absolute unadulterated sh*tshow.

Let me preface this with an awkward admission, one which will either warm you to my cause or have you eject from this rant right now. I love electric cars and believe they are a bright and prosperous future, both for car fans and those who don’t want the planet to meet an early demise. I pay my $5 a month Patreon donation to the Fully Charged Show so exciting advocates like Robert Llewellyn and Johnny Smith can champion their virtues and bring more people into this movement. I want electric cars to work and I drive a V8 Jeep that gets 15mpg. I get it — it seems however the powers that be in the UK do not.

My dad called me up last weekend with a welcome surprise, he’d gone and traded in his Sports Diesel powered CLS for a BMW i3. Knowing how much this car had excited him from launch, I was delighted for him. The car is brilliant. It’s reinforced my view that electric cars are brilliant. I’m a little in love with it. I hope to do a “Review not a Review” for Men in Sheds once Andrew has gone through the therapy he needs to set foot inside a BMW.

My dad is also a pensioner, who was doing so few miles in said Mercedes it was killing batteries and had to be trickle charged on a fortnightly basis for fear of a multitude of low charge warnings, the potential to find himself stranded, or having both two-tone horns deciding to go off continually in the middle of the night. He figured, if he was going to have to plug a car in all the time, it might as well be an electric car. He made a great choice.

However, we just got back from charging at a motorway services, and I have to scream, WHAT THE F***K IS WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY? WHY CAN’T WE GET ANYTHING RIGHT? HOW ARE WE LOSING THIS RACE ALREADY?

Ten attempts on three different chargers, two service stations, two phones, two connectors, and four coffees. Just to pay the same as you would to fill up with fuel in two minutes.

Let me just get a few points out the way now. If you live in the UK;

  1. You cannot realistically run an all electric car outside of a major city.
  2. You cannot realistically run an all electric car if you can’t charge at home.
  3. You cannot realistically run an all electric car on a long journey.

Some people will be losing their collective sh*t over those statements and be channeling their rage into forming a rebuttal already. Don’t waste your time. Sure, there are plenty of exceptions to these rules. However, the infrastructure just isn’t there. It isn’t convenient and it isn’t reliable. When I say realistic, I mean in real terms of the average person living a sane life.

If you convinced you need a hybrid and not an all electric car, let this rant be all the justification you need.

Eight days ago, I lived in a world of naiveté. I was convinced that range anxiety was paranoia, a reluctance to accept the new, a laggard’s excuse to be conservative. Then I saw a map of local charging stations around Stoke-on-Trent, then I read the user reports, and now I’ve had first hand experience using the motorway’s Ecotricity network.

It is a shambles.

The first realisation was how few places there actually are to charge. The second realisation was how few of those are public. The third realisation was how few of those actually work.

Again, there’s going to be people who talk mostly through their sinuses who will want to tell me how wrong I am, how you just need to plan a little, and how they’re getting around just fine. Remember, I’m on your side here.

The infrastructure is simply not fit for purpose — unless that is, you can afford a Tesla.

I’ll also point at that, if you drive less than 50 miles for 99% of your journeys and have a driveway, you are free to enjoy the sweet, sweet world of electric car ownership. It is a blessing. Stop chugging oil and embrace it.

I know two people who’ve owned all electric cars, both of which were Nissan Leaf’s. Both sold them. Both went back to fossil fuel. That should have prepared me for this experience, but I’m a dreamer, a fantasist who errs to the side of positivity — as cynical as may often appear on the surface.

So let me talk you through my experience using the UK’s electric car infrastructure. Now, keep in mind my dad’s been sensible enough to buy an i3 with the REX (Range extender) and thus it is a Series Hybrid (PHEV). In layman’s terms, it’s got a tiny petrol generator that will keep you going indefinitely — and thank the lord he made that wise choice.

It’s really is a case of power, power everywhere, nor a drop to link.

My dad made his way to mine, a fifteen mile journey, in the serine like way one does in an EV. Silently, effortlessly, using the one pedal driving style you become accustomed to, and of course, cheaply, having unplugged his i3 at home where it had been happily sat charging and conditioning its battery off a three-pin plug. I envy this. I’m smitten with this. I want this.

Setting off from Newcastle-under-Lyme, we headed out to the M6 to try out a motorway service point for the first time. He had already signed up to Ecotricity and had the app ready on his phone. Much excited talk was uttered regarding super-fast DC-charging. We cruised our way there and all was good, my only concern being there would be a bevy of electric cars all demanding the same needs when we got there.

When we pulled into Keele Services on the south bound side of the motorway, I felt like I was witnessing the future. We breezed by a fleet of Telsa’s sat lined up at their charging stations and pulled up right outside the entrance where two Ecotricity charging stations, boasting Nissan logos up the side, stood proudly, flanked by six empty spaces. It’s enough to make you feel smug.

This was our first time using any public charging station so naturally we’d made a mistake right off the bat, we’d parked by the wrong one, the one that didn’t have a plug compatible with the i3. No probs. We shifted spaces in silence as gas guzzlers rattled by.

He fired up the app on his iPhone, selected the plug he needed, confirmed his card details, and it gave an error.

No worries. He tried again.

Remote start failed. Said a new error message.

Okay. In a digital world, we all know everything needs restarting occasionally. Let’s try again.

Remote start failed.

At this point, knowing my dad’s iPhone is older than him, I download the app and we ran through the same procedure.

Remote start failed.

An error screen quickly boasted that an Ecotricity engineer has been notified. Well good for them. That doesn’t help us right now.

Looks like we’re not fast DC charging on this baby we concluded. Good job there’s still the AC option. We’ve got power.

We blow past the error this time round and are instructed to plug the car in. Which we obediently do.

Computer says, “no”.

Turns out the Nissan built charging stations do not play well with the BMW i3’s vertical charging plug and, after numerous attempts of going through the same f**king process over and over, we stare at the “Station Waiting For A Charge Request From The Vehicle” screen and the flashing charging point on the i3 much like our ancestors must have once stared at fire.

We silently, and with a little shame, moved the i3 back to the original charging station, now concluding the one we’ve tried must be FUBAR and not worthy of our time.

I joke how glad I am that isn’t raining, since electric charging points have fewer amenities than a bus stop. Neither of us admit how cold we are getting since a victorious sit down inside a coffee shop must be but mere minutes away.

Everything looks good. Turns out this “pump” doesn’t need the app to work like the other and we can just get to plugging the car in.

Nope.

After reading various threads about performing some sort of Cirque du Soleil act with the connector and lead, nope.

Oh dear.

We say a little internal prayer of thanks that the range extender exists.

I’m now more than aware of the number of people who’ve milled past with curious glances at this radical looking car and the two grown men completely unable to do the obvious. We sold a lot of diesels during that performance.

With our core body temperatures now plummeting, we decide to go get coffee anyway. We sit down and form a plan, knowing full well that a solely electric car owner would be considering throwing in a the towel now and calling for rescue. All our dreams about the electric car revolution die a little.

My dad points out we can try the northbound side of the services. We’ve got about 11 miles of battery left. Maybe we don’t have to burn any dinosaur juice today. I like the cut of his jib. Besides, I’m now high on an over-sugared and over-priced latte and willing to run in a hamster wheel if I have to if it means charging this f*cking car today.

We peel out of Keele Southbound, and by “peel out” I mean, silently waft away like a milk float.

With determination in our eyes and heated seats under our arses, we circle the roundabout at the next junction and head north like brave sea-fairing folk of yonder filled with pioneer spirit and unwavering dedication to our cause.

We pull into another expanse of grey carpark and head to another rather sad looking charging area which, like the one before it, is worryingly vacant of any other users, but thankfully adorned with the fast charging DC plug we covet. Emotions are mixed.

We fire up the Ecotricity app.

It freezes.

My dad force crashes the app like a man who may drive a car made from hemp but isn’t one you should f*ck with right now.

We witness the miraculous sight of the screen telling us to plug in the car.

It feels like finding the meaning of life.

We plug that beast of a connector in. It seems to be almost fizzing with charged particles. For a moment we feel like we have the power of Zues at our finger tips.

The port on the car flashes various colours. The screen on the charging station flashes various messages. The screen in the car flashes various images. It feels like watching an old dial-up modem connect to the internet. I wonder if perhaps I should be soaking a sponge and placing it upon my head as if taking part in the systematic ritual of an electric chair execution. If that’s what the initiation ceremony takes — I’m all in. Hit the switch, bro.

For some inexplicable reason, my dad now decides now is the time to touch the door handle and the lock the car.

This is of course enough to seemingly break the fabric of time itself. Everything crashes. The pump. The Car. The app. Our blood sugar levels. Perhaps even the stock market. We don’t care anymore. We are almost defeated.

We decided to try one last time.

With our breathes held, pulses paused, and eyes wide — we go through the motions, silently and now as if indoctrinated in a cult. Open app — scan QR code — choose plug — confirm card — plug in car — and —

It works faultlessly. It almost slaps us round the face with it’s slick sophistication and effortless convenience.

We wonder if we’ve somehow skipped timelines.

It feels like we’re being mocked in a way. Like a man from Ecotricity was going to pop out of a hatch and yell, “Psych! You just had to plug it in, mate!”.

We don’t even know what to do now other than wait 40mins for a full charge.

Coffee pours into slightly smaller cups and we sit down in our second Starbucks of the day.

I rant. I rant incessantly about how clumsy this all is. I rant both in person and virtually as I thumb a brief tirade straight to Andrew’s email. My dad forms the kind of excuse only a kind parent could ever could come up with — if we ignored everything up to the final attempt, this was fine, everything was fine.

And for those 40 mins, all was fine. The Ecotricity app kept us updated. The BMW app confirmed those updates were true. We watched the power surge in and the mileage ramp up. It was all pretty remarkable. Time passed by effortlessly.

But there was a taste left in our mouths more bitter than that percolating behind the counter — for all that effort, all that ball-ache, it would have cost as much to fill up with petrol. And yeah, there’s still an ethical argument that contends that issue such as, air pollution, renewable sources, etc, but that’s not how the average consumer makes decisions. Here we were doing the hard thing, the good thing, for little tangible reward.

This is what drives me a little crazy. We’re a tiny island with one of the most developed societies in the World. We have a strong economy. We are technology leaders. We have a power network. We’ve seen this coming for decades.

Yet there we were trying to charge a German car via a Japanese appliance while sitting in an American coffee shop.

If it had been raining, we we’d have been soaked.

If we’d been in a hurry, we’d have been late.

If we’d been all electric, we’d have been in dire straits.

This isn’t right. This isn’t how a country stays innovative. We had people walking up and asking about the futuristic car we travelled in. We had to be honest about our experience, like I’m being honest with you now.

This little island cannot sustain a society that wants to do the right thing, the interesting thing, the logical thing. That’s a travesty.

A car manufacturer should not be making our f*cking charging stations. That’s a huge conflict of interest.

Our government should not be allowing Ecotricity to monopolise or should at least be making sure they hold a high standard.

Our electric car owners should not be faced with substandard utilities and expensive coffee.

This was our opportunity to change. We could be manufacturing our own electric cars right now. Telsa has proved that was a possibility. We could be rewarding early adopters with at least a roof over their head when they charge, or hey, even a comfy place to sit and wait. We could be cleaning up our streets by giving people something better, cheaper, and more convenient.

And don’t tell me the money isn’t there to make it happen. Not after bailing out the banks. Not after going soft on tax evasion. Not after bribing the DUP.

I’m sold on electric cars but it seems our politicians have sold us out when comes to the infrastructure — and sadly, when we’re talking about much needed societal change, there’s no opportunity here to try switching it all off and on again in the hope it can work.

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Chris Walley

Chris Walley

Want to know about me, do ya? Nosy bastard, are we? What do ya wanna know? What cars do I like? I like ones with V8s in, ta very much.

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