Living with an EV

9 minute read

I’ve had a battery EV1 as my main vehicle now for just over 9 months. In that time I’ve done >5000 miles and a mix of short, medium and long journeys. After seeing a couple of high-profile “celebrity outbursts” about their EV experiences I thought I’d write about mine which is … somewhat different.

Electric car and charger
Photo by Ernest Ojeh https://unsplash.com/es/@namzo on Unsplash

Can you only live with an EV if you have an ICE car to fall back on?

No.

It’s true that I use my car as my “main” vehicle; as in “not only”. But I’m not living with an EV just because I have another car I can use. The fact that I do certainly made that choice easier initially but my experience to date is that I’d get along just fine without the ICE (which is an old diesel 4x4 that’s not worth selling or scrapping and now serves as a farm vehicle more than a regular car). When the temperatures recently dropped to -10c and the track up to the main road was covered in sheet ice I nearly succumbed to taking the ‘safe’ option of the 4x4 but decided to persist with the EV and found it was perfectly capable. Other than that, I’ve not once considered using the 4x4 out of concern for the EV’s ability to do what I need.

Are EVs only suitable for short journeys?

Not in my experience.

My short journeys are, like most people’s, between 5 and 20 miles; mostly to the local village or market town for shopping or catching the train. I can easily do 10-20 of these without recharging and when I need to charge I just plug the car into the mains at home. It’s slow but an overnight charge will restore ~80 miles of range if the battery is in the 20-80% ‘sweet spot’ for charging and I can go on like that for weeks or months without ever having to go out of my way to find a charger or filling station.

I also do a fair number of mid-length journeys to Newcastle and to visit family. The car will easily manage there and back (~80-120 miles) without needing to charge as long as I start with ~50-60% battery. There are now recharge points at our office in Newcastle and most of the city centre car parks should I want or need to top it up. Again I can do any number of these without having to go out of my way which is so much more convenient than the regular refill required for an ICE car. I also had a great experience when I went Christmas food shopping with the battery at ~30%. Even though that was enough to get us home we wanted the option to go see some family that afternoon so I used the 50kW charger at the store while we bought our groceries and when we came out the car had another 100 miles of range: simple and convenient.

And I’ve done a few much longer journeys of 250+ miles, including a couple of ‘length of the country’ (England) trips of over 350 miles from south of London to North Northumberland. This is quite a different experience and requires planning and patience. Planning because you definitely will have to recharge your battery at least once en route and patience because this can, sometimes, be a less than straightforward experience.

Is the infrastructure ready for long journeys?

It’s not perfect, it may be good enough.

Rapid charge infrastructure, where you can add 150-200 miles of range to your car in 30-60 minutes is available but there’s not enough of it in the more popular spots. On our long journeys we’ve found that charger groups are full when the various apps and the built-in navigation systems think there are free spaces and have had to queue for our turn. Never for that long - 5-20 minutes - but it’s a pain as there is no system in place other than the good manners of the queuers so you have to stay with the car until a space becomes free and hope that your fellow queuers are as well-mannered as yourself.

And the chargers themselves are temperamental. I thought something had gone wrong with the car when two chargers in a bank of 12 reported ‘charging port obstructed’ even though I’d charged twice without problem a few days earlier. But the third in the same bank worked just fine and an iPace driver who saw me having problems said “oh, yeah, those two are always on the blink”.

So charging for 30-60 minutes, perhaps more than once, is just something you start to work into a long journey. There are a couple of fast charger locations we’ve found that, as well as the usual cafes and food outlets, also have proper countryside walks where you can stretch your legs for anywhere between a few hundred yards and a couple of miles. A friend of mine who regularly drives between Devon and Scotland has a whole list of locations where they can stop and charge whilst shopping, eating, reading a book with a coffee, etc.

All of which is to say that long journeys are perfectly possible and, with the appropriate amount of planning and patience, can actually be more pleasurable than the equivalent ICE journeys. But there is still plenty of room for improvement in the infrastructure.

What about range anxiety?

All cars come with some degree of range anxiety! But it’s much more front and centre with an EV.

Living in the rural North East and driving in rural Scotland I couldn’t just take it for granted that I could detour to the nearest filling station when the low fuel warning popped up on the 4x4. Sure it has a big tank and a range beyond that of most journeys I’d want or need to do, but I’d still need to make sure I filled up the night before or somewhere along the way. I wouldn’t necessarily have to plan this in advance to the same degree as with the EV but I also couldn’t ignore it and hope for the best. If you have a 400+ mile range car and/or only drive in the South East - where filling stations are as common a sight as rush-hour traffic jams - this isn’t going to impinge on you too much. But if you drive a shorter-range car or head out into the wilder parts of the UK, you will need to think about range.

The thing about range anxiety is the level of anxiety is directly related to the abundance of available filling/charging stations. If there’s a filler/charger every few miles on your route then there’s nothing to worry about; pick the most convenient one before you become too desperate and if there’s a problem with it, move on to the next. ICE and EV cars are no different in this respect, but the infrastructure is at present.

And, as someone who used to drive a high-performance, high-consumption, petrol car as their daily driver (yes, I know!) I can tell you that low battery anxiety is not the same as low petrol anxiety. On one of the journeys from south to north we were stuck in a couple of lengthy traffic jams of the type where you move a car length forwards every minute or so. These used to bring me out in a cold sweat in my petrol car as it greedily consumed fuel even as I barely moved (and turning the engine off and on again started to lead to overheating). In the EV we just sat in our lightly-air-conditioned, acoustically insulated space listening to music and generally feeling pretty relaxed; EVs use next to no energy to sit still or inch along.

Of course, that comparison is extreme and most modern ICE cars are much better at not consuming fuel when they’re not moving than they were. But it points to the flip-side of range anxiety: that you have trustworthy range visibility that is relatively impervious to what happens along the way (unless you choose to drive like a loon!). I planned a route to stay with a family member in the midlands and we did the 250 mile journey with one 15 minute charge on the way, starting with ~85% charge. We arrived with the estimated 15 miles of range left - more than enough to find an alternative charger if the one I was planning to use was out of order. It was fine so we hooked up to a 22kW council-owned charger overnight and the car was fully charged in the morning, on a volume economy rate lower than I would pay for at home!

Are EVs the present?

It depends.

One of the celebrity outbursts contained the slightly mind-boggling phrase: “I thought this was the future?”. Well yes, EVs almost certainly are the future, the question is whether battery EVs are the present?

I could not imagine using a bEV for day after day of long-range journeys, bar, maybe, going on holiday. The patience and planning required would just be too much for me.

Likewise I could not imagine going back to an ICE car for my primary usage: short and medium journeys. The ease of use of home and destination charging, the simplicity of very long maintenance cycles (bEVs are inherently mechanically simpler than ICE cars), etc. mean that owning and using an EV is just more pleasant than the equivalent ICE.

For the handful of long-range journeys I do a year I’d still rather stick with the EV and approach them with planning and patience … but I’d like this decision to be a no-brainer rather than the choice of a committed EV driver. A huge amount of progress needs to be made in the infrastructure: the number of chargers, the mix of different charger types, the ways of paying for charges, the reporting of availability, and the apps that use this for planning. Unfortunately this is largely being left to a hodge-podge of private companies all embarked on a land-grab rather than working to a government or council-led strategy. Regardless, this needs to be backed up with technology that is far more reliable and better maintained; my anecdotal, observational evidence - which can’t be generalised - is that >25% of chargers I’ve tried to use have some fault or other. Given the lack of availability of chargers, the fact that so many of them are out of order (or, on some cases, have never been properly commissioned) is appalling.

What works for you will depend on your own needs and tolerance for things that aren’t yet perfect but I think it is important to recognise that all bEV owners are beta testing for the future. I’m cool with that, in fact I really want to be part of it because the future environmental, personal and financial benefits are all pretty clear to me. If you want to be part of it too; dive in and you may be as pleasantly surprised as I was. If it’s not right for you, that’s fine, I certainly won’t judge you because it’s quite clearly not right for everyone just yet.

Notes

  1. There are, of course, other forms of EV than battery EV which may be an important part of the future, not to mention the possibilities of synthetic fuels. But these are all largely theoretical at present whereas bEV technology is proven at scale albeit with plenty of room for improvement.