It’s no longer remarkable to see an electric car on the road. The Tonka toy/ Milk Float image has long gone and the whisper quiet ride, smooth acceleration and low running costs are common knowledge. However, three major barriers still remain to the universal acceptance of these zero emission vehicles: their initial price; their limited range; and the charging infrastructure.
The price will soon come down; and the range will go up substantially in the next few years. But the charging network –the equivalent of the network of filling stations across the country – looks like learning nothing from history. Just like the railways, where private enterprise came up with incompatible train gauges and complicated ticketing arrangements, the emerging electric vehicle market has become a chaotic fairground.
The government launched the Plugged-in Places scheme to get the market going. It offered local authorities 60% grants on the costs of installing public charging points. It said it ‘expected’ an infrastructure to be developed. An infrastructure of sorts did indeed develop, but as it was voluntary, it didn’t develop everywhere, and as it was grant –aided, the costs of installation ballooned. We are, when all is said and done, talking about an electric cable and a socket, not the Hadron Collider, but it cost thousands to install a charging point every time.
But the biggest issue was how users paid for their electricity. The obvious solution might have been to use the technology already in use on toll roads and petrol pumps, where the user presented a credit card and Bob’s your uncle. But such technology is apparently very expensive, so most providers developed systems based upon Radio-Frequency Identification , or RFID – the Oyster card being the most well-known of these.
RFID cards are user specific and supplier specific. At one point, there were 24 different regimes, each with its own card and its own subscription arrangements. An electric car driver travelling around the country would need a wallet full of cards and, whilst there was some element of geographic identity within the Plugged in Places scheme, other players, with their own structures, entered the market and it was –and still is – something of a lottery for the long distance traveller.
Add to that the unreliability of the early charging points and the lack of a reliable comprehensive national registry of their location, and it is hardly surprising that only pioneers or those with more money than sense adopted the notion of emission-free travel.
And yet…the little known Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) expects 10% of all cars to be electric by 2020 and almost all cars and vans to be electric by 2050. So things will look up sometime. I expect. But right now, we have only the chaos of the marketplace. What does that mean? It means there are dozens of players offering much the same sort of product with all the variations of the world of electricity supply tariffs. So, get yourself a degree; and then – let the buyer beware!
There is one oasis of calm in all this. The Church Stretton charging point remains free to use and free to access for the next couple of years; and we’ve done our level best to make sure anyone with an electric car that turns up will be able to plug in and charge up. We may have achieved the impossible, but as they say, miracles take a little longer, and you still have to pay the parking fee. This is Shropshire, after all..