The writer is founder of Sifted, a media site for European start-ups
Unless the charging challenge is quickly fixed, the electric vehicle revolution may blow a fuse. Drivers are warming to the idea, it’s true, but hesitate to switch because of range anxiety and the lack of fast-charging infrastructure. Based on my experience of driving one over the past few months, they are right to be wary.
Traditional car manufacturers may have been slow off the starting line but now produce some great electric vehicles — kinder to the environment and fun to drive. At the wheel of our zippy, battery-powered Volkswagen ID.3, I derive indecent pleasure from burning off other cars at the lights. It is ideal for short journeys and easy and cheap to charge overnight at kerbside charging points. But a holiday trip from London to France last year exposed the pitfalls of trying to charge an electric vehicle away from home.
The need for more charging infrastructure highlights the importance of “complements”, as economists call them, in expanding any new market. Computer hardware is useless without software, tennis rackets are not much good without tennis balls, and movies are less enjoyable without popcorn.
Volkswagen may know how to build hardware but its mapping and voice-recognition software is dire. On one occasion, our car flagged nearby Indian restaurants rather than the fast-charger stations we had requested. Electric vehicle drivers also have to contend with fragmented charging services, requiring a baffling array of different apps; inconveniently located and poorly signposted charging stations; faulty points; opaque pricing; and lengthy stops. Cross-country journeys have to be planned with near-military precision to ensure you do not run out of energy. Even with that, our trip took nearly one-and-a-half times as long to reach our destination as previously in a diesel car.
The industry is well aware of the difficulties and is intent on improving battery technology and upgrading charging infrastructure. “Charging must be pleasant, reliable and fast,” Herbert Diess, Volkswagen’s chair, wrote in a recent LinkedIn post promoting Audi’s new charging hub in Nuremberg. This was in sharp contrast to an earlier comment in which he berated the charging company Ionity (in which VW is an investor) for its poor service in Italy. “No bathroom, no coffee, an out-of-service/broken charging point, a sad state of affairs. It was anything but a premium charging experience, IONITY!”
The big question is whether charging infrastructure can be built fast enough to stay ahead of the demand for electric vehicles that is being stimulated by government subsidies. This is especially true in Europe, now the world’s fastest-growing market for them. In December, 176,000 battery electric vehicles were sold in Europe, overtaking monthly diesel car sales for the first time. According to the International Energy Agency, the world may need more than 200m private and public electric vehicle charging points by 2030 if governments are to hit emissions targets. There were about 9.5m charging points in 2020, with China accounting for half the world’s stock in certain categories.
Led by Tesla, which has built out its own premium charging network, car manufacturers are increasingly investing in charging providers. The big energy companies — including Shell, Total and BP — have been piling into the charging market to offset projected losses of petrol sales, while a small army of start-ups has also joined the fray.
Tom Callow, head of insight at the charging company BP Pulse, is optimistic that this “vibrant and nascent” industry can rise to the challenge, incentivised by the predictability of rising demand. The UK government has mandated that sales of petrol and diesel cars must end in 2030, for example. That has provided the confidence for charging companies to invest on a big scale.
But to achieve the right balance between private, on-street and fast public provision (such as at service stations and supermarkets), some in the car industry argue that governments must give clear direction to steer the industry and upgrade electricity grids. Higher expectations, regulations and targets should be imposed on the charging industry to ensure a truly national integrated infrastructure, says Mike Hawes, chief executive of Britain’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. “If you just leave it to the market, operators will focus on commercial opportunity, not consumer interest,” he says.
It may be more glamorous to design flashy cars than to install basic charging stations. But the electric vehicle revolution will not happen as fast as it must unless the charging infrastructure becomes convenient and comprehensive.
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