Ten things we need to improve EV charging networks

A few may remember the good old days when you pulled into the service station and a uniformed attendant would come out to fill your car, and ask if you’d also like the tyres or oil checked or perhaps a free windscreen wash while you wait.

I was performing those duties in my father’s service station back in the day. Across the front of our premises was a large sign saying: “Service is our business”.

How things have changed.

And EV fast-charge stations are taking us one step further. Now, there’s no one on site to help at all! It is perhaps a sad reflection on society. But wait, it can’t really be that tough can it? It’s just a matter of having somewhere to plug in the car!

In reality there are a few small hairs in the soup though. We’ve certainly seen a few.

In 2018, my wife and I toured the British Isles in an electric car and learned first hand the issues for EV tourists there. Britain and the EU, even back then, had a higher proportion of EVs on the road than we have in Australia even now.

They had a whole pile more charging stations too, but I can’t say it was always easy using them. At the time I made a list of all the things we felt might make charging stations work just a little better and shared it with the networks, both there and here in Australia.

I also wrote a story of our adventure (which you can find here). I was reminded of it when RenewEconomy and The Driven founder and editor Giles Parkinson wrote of his EV charging issues a few weeks ago.  See: Not enough plugs: Australia is driving headlong into an EV fast charging crisis.

We have since the UK adventure toured in our EV here in NSW, up into Queensland, down to Tassie, and many places in between. In 2019, not long after that election, we were “spoiling our weekend” towing our sailing kayak up to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef with our new Kona electric.

Australia is starting to catch up with the Europe we remember from four years ago, but alas it seems falling into some of the very same holes when it comes to charging places. More thought and commitment needs to go into how these vital stations are set up.

What is needed for EV travellers?

As I see it, there are three basic needs for public chargers: fast charging facilities on the country highways; ‘destination chargers’ at the places you want to visit or stay; and charging points for locals with no home charging options.

Our experiences here focus on the first two, ie. what replaces the service station forecourts for long distance EV travellers and tourists.

A big point I’d like to make to fast-charge providers is, it’s not just about the price of electricity (after all, it is far cheaper than we are used to for fuel) – it’s about reliable, prompt and efficient service, while providing a little security and comfort. Maybe we’d be happy to pay a little extra for life to be a little easier when we’re venturing away from home.

Here is a list of 10 ideas and findings that I hope may help Chargefox, Tesla, Evie, Chargepoint, Ampol now (well done), etc (and of course all the other service station companies when they get their act together) in setting up this infrastructure, that is so important for the future of motor car touring.

1) Please help us find them

Fortunately, the Plugshare app does a pretty good job of helping us get to charging stations in Australia, while individual providers are doing good stuff too for their own stations, but it can sometimes still take a little time and patience to actually find those chargers.

I’ve often spent ten minutes or more circumnavigating motorway service complexes, hotels, shopping centres and other carparks in order to locate the chargers hidden within. Operators seem to like putting them in the far corner of the carpark, or way up on the roof, away from everything else.

It’s great that users have kindly left notes on Plugshare to help on this front, thank you all. But unless one has an independent navigator who can read it up in a moving vehicle prior to arrival, it can still be messy.

It isn’t until you are driving into a hopeful but busy multi-story carpark that you really understand this. Even GPS exact locations are not enough. What street do you enter from? What level is it on? Does the GPS even work inside the building?

Charging stations are for travelers, not for locals, for people unfamiliar with each new location. Directional signage, all the way from the street with a standard and easily recognizable EV logo would be a great help.

2) These are not parking spots

Look it’s ok to put charging stations in car parks instead of in service stations, but the spaces at a charging machine must be only for electric vehicles that are charging.

Image provided.

This might seem like a no brainer, but many authorities do not specify or signpost this, let alone police it. On many occasions we’ve had to find/wait/ask for the people parked in one if they would move. Imagine if you were to park next to the petrol pumps at a service station without the intent of using one.

3) Access and parking space

    • Front in? Some installations we’ve visited clearly do not expect you to reverse in. In Europe we drove a BMW i3 with charging port at the rear. Even with a small car like that it can be difficult to reverse into a 45 degree angle parking area from a narrow lane. Often the cables barely reach from one side of the car to the other, let alone to the other end of the car. Sadly there is no standard. EVs come in all shapes and sizes and have charging sockets all over!
    • How about when an EV is towing something? What are you meant to do with the trailer while you are charging the vehicle? We towed our sailing kayak from river to river, up the coast to Cairns. At charging stations we frequently blocked the road briefly while we detached the trailer and manhandled it to a separate vacant carpark. What will happen when people towing caravans want to charge? Thankfully some fast chargers are located on the side of a road where a car and trailer can parallel park (particularly in country towns) but even these can be a problem as the drive-in and trailer parking space may well be blocked by other vehicles parked. And then the trailer is also likely to block access to adjacent charging spaces.
It was tempting to parallel park in Maryborough Qld (Aug 2019). Luckily no one else was parked here at the time. Even so, you can imagine how awkward it was to pull in with the trailer on, detach and park it, then maneuver here for a charge. It’s here we scratched our rear bumper as sadly, in our haste to avoid blocking the busy road on leaving, we failed to attach the trailer securely, oops.
  • If another EV comes along looking for a charge, and there’s no free charger, where do they park to show they are waiting for the next available charger? Luckily some stations allow for two cars at each charger. This helps.
  • Please, network providers. It might seem like a big impost to provide the normal service station forecourt for an EV charging area, but consider that these travelers are looking for a rest stop, probably wanting refreshments, meals, a coffee or two, souvenirs, even groceries and tourist information. See them as business opportunities, not wasters of your parking space. Consider also that charging times for new EVs are getting shorter, newer cars take only 2-3 times the length of stay of an ICE vehicle, but they can be a captive customer. It will be worthwhile, and I suggest profitable, to provide the service station forecourts we have been used to, for EV charging too.
  • Wherever we’ve been, they seem to want to separate EV charging from petrol bowsers. Sadly I guess they are concerned that the slightest spark could ignite the explosive atmosphere around a refueling ICE. Tis a shame. Instead of a shelter under the awning at the front – EV chargers seem to end up out in the elements, often hidden around the back without even a sign to tell you where it is.
  • Until we can get a critical mass of charging places, and proper service station forecourts for EV charging, I imagine we will have to contend with occasional waits for a charger to become available. There is an app called NeedToCharge, where you can register how long you’ve left your car at the charger for, and it enables those who might later be waiting, to contact you should you not be at your car. This is a great idea, but is an honour system very likely to be overlooked. Could we not include this function into the great charging apps like Chargefox’s, to ask whoever is charging for their estimated completion time or desired charge level, so the app can let those waiting know how long their wait will be. The app could enable people who have arrived at the station to register in the queue for the next available (working) machine, and alert the drivers of both the expired car and the next car when the time has come for a switch.

4) Reliable charging machines, good instructions, signage, support

Personally, I would prefer that charging stations, like regular service stations, were manned by someone who can help, but as a realist I know this just won’t happen except perhaps for large and very busy stations.

But unmanned service stations, for use by people who will rarely visit the same place twice, with new technology and a variety of different systems, means so much more needs to be considered:

a. Is the help phone number visible on the machine? Is it manned 24/7? Does it work for all phones, and/or list an alternative number. (An 0800… number listed in Belgium would not work with my Aussie phone hooked up with EU sim. Could this same issue happen for foreign tourists in Australia?)

b. Make sure the machine identities are clearly marked (we wasted over an hour at one remote location because the number was not printed on the machine and the operator on the phone could not find it in his computer).

c. For remote areas, don’t rely on mobile network services to be working 24/7, especially where signal strengths can be poor. A charger should be capable of delivering a charge at any time, not just when the mobile phone service is working. Most companies in the UK seemed to have a policy that your charge would be free if it was a technical fault that prevented the charger from working with your account details, but in practice, if the network is down you just cannot get a charge. This is especially important in remote areas where there are no other public chargers for many miles.

d. Standardisation of car and charger software. We haven’t seen this yet in Oz, but I imagine with some cars we could suffer here as we did in the UK where our BMW i3 ‘range extender, rapid charge option’ car proved to be incompatible with some type 2 fast chargers. Sometimes we got an ‘incompatibility’ message, sometimes it just didn’t work first time. Usually, with persistence, it could be overcome but with strange results. For instance, on some occasions the charging would stop if you locked and unlocked the car. Frustrating when you come back after a nice lunch to find the car wasn’t charging while you were away.

Remotely rebooting of the charging station computer was a common approach the on-line operators in the UK would use to attempt to fix any problem with the charger. This was a time-consuming operation, and frequently solved nothing.

This can be done yourself of course, pressing the emergency stop button, then twisting and pulling it to reset, but is not recommended by the operators J Best to call them.

e. Use good screens. The information display screens used on many charge stations can be very hard to read when they are in full sun or the screen surface has aged a little. We’ve seen a few in Australia that are very feint or just dead (though fortunately the machine may still operate via the app). Remember these are generally outdoors 24/7 and need to be clearly visible to the uninitiated.

f. Good holsters. Make sure the plugs on the end of the charging cables have good secure and protected holsters for when they are not in use. We haven’t yet seen any gross vandalism of charging stations, but on many occasions the plugs had clearly dropped to the ground once or twice and cracked or chipped. The holsters sometimes have little grip on the plug and just the act of knocking the cable when using an adjacent one could dislodge them and send them crashing to the ground. I found serious insect infestations in at least two plugs and one I pulled out from a good looking machine, after a heavy storm, was literally full of water, despite being securely in it’s holster. (I poured the water out and noting that it looked sealed, gave it a good shake before using it, then stood well back when I turned the charger on. It worked ok, but I wouldn’t recommend it 🙂

g. Quality plugs. Some Type 2 and CCS (DC Combo) plugs we used from the charging stations in the UK felt sloppy in the cars socket. The cables put a fair deal of strain on the plugs and sockets and we found that charging could sometimes be hard to start, or accidentally halted because of the looseness of the plug pulled by the heavy cable. One phone support person, when trying to get a charging station to work for us, suggested holding the plug manually in-place to get the charging started, and only letting it go (very gently) after it had been working for a few minutes. Surprisingly this helped, and I found it a useful technique when other chargers were playing up. We haven’t seen this problem yet in Australia, but some plugs do seem a little loose.

h. Timely Maintenance. We have found several lone remote chargers that we were told had been out of action for a number of weeks. If you have a charger in a remote location that provides a vital link for travelers it’s important that breakdowns are fixed promptly, and at the very least, there should be a backup option.

5) How about some backup. With chargers in remote locations, try to have backup options for when things don’t work. We found many potential points of failure with these systems, especially in (but not limited to) remote areas of the British Isles, any one of which can make a perfectly good charging station useless. An AC charger, or even just a standard power point, as a last resort so that people who may be stuck have at least one option.

We were frustrated on several occasions at remote locations in the British Isles, when at charging stations that appeared to be working, with plenty of power, with all the credentials and credit to pay for a charge, there were no network services to actually get the machine started. It doesnt cost much to have a few spare AC charging ports for those EVs waiting in queue for a busy fast charger, or for those who find the lone fast charger to be out of action. It was good to see at the Qld govt sponsored Yurika/Chargefox stations we used on the way to Cairns in 2019, that each had an AC charge option, which was useful and on one occasion proved vital to us.

They were not able to get the new fast charger at Bowen Qld working for us, but at least there was a decent AC charger there to tide us over. Image provided.

6) Accurate information. Please make sure your app and web-site database of charging stations is up-to-date and accurate. We found confusing and incorrect addresses and out of date information in the on-line apps in the UK on a few occasions. Twice we found an incorrect postcode on file. Nothing worse than driving around the wrong suburb looking for a charging place. (Postcodes in the UK generally refer to a very small areas, usually just part of a street.) Accurate information is important.

7) Good locations. When you’ve got half an hour or so to while away, it’s good that you’re in an agreeable location. We have come across a few charging stations that are in the middle of industrial estates, miles from anything of interest, with no facilities. Not very enticing for visitors to the area, nor encouraging to the EV world. Most places we’ve charged at though have something of interest nearby. Clearly motorway service centres are good, but other great locations were cafe’s, clubs, shopping centres, town centres and tourist attractions. I guess it makes sense for any business located on a busy tourist route to commit to a car charging station nearby, so support should be easy to garner from suitable businesses. One type of establishment that would serve the interests of travellers and local businesses alike would be the tourist information centre. But no matter what, all stations really must be only a short walk from toilets and refreshments.

Finding a place for the boat trailer was a bit awkward but full marks to the council at Mackville NSW for providing a free AC charger in this lovely spot right on the river and adjacent to town. Image provided.

8) Apps for all nations. Make any related smart phone apps available to people from all countries. We found the Smoov app (the only way to connect to several charging stations we visited in the UK and Continent, unless you had their network card) was not available to people with a smart phone from outside Europe. As an Australian iPhone user we only had access to apps that were released in Australia. No doubt overseas travellers could suffer this same problem in Australia when hire car companies start leasing EVs here. Accept all cards. Then, when you can get the app to work, you still have the problem of acceptable credit cards. In the UK some EV charging networks rely on local credit cards or direct debit accounts as the only way to set up an account. Luckily a couple of networks let us charge for free without having an account, because they had no solution, but we had to ring them via a call centre to start and stop every charge session.

9) Open field. Tesla has done a tremendous job of not only making electric cars S3XY but also creating a charging network to support them. I don’t for one minute begrudge Tesla reserving their Supercharger network for the very people who effectively paid for them (It seems unfair that competing manufacturers have done nothing to roll out charging facilities for the rest of us). However, I do look forward to the day when all charging stations are equal.

There are times when the Tesla chargers could be getting used and are not, and I am envious at places like Goulburn NSW, where 8 Superchargers are just a short walk from the city centre, while the 3 Chargefox ones are effectively out of town. Tesla have started to open up their chargers to non-Tesla owners in Europe I hear. Good move. I hope the non-Tesla charging stations in Australia will soon be sufficiently numerous so that Tesla can feel comfortable doing the same here.

It’s great news that Tesla may one day open up it’s fast chargers for others to use. In Gundagai, NSW, earlier this year, a Tesla owner pulled up and started using the remaining working NRMA/Chargefox charger beside us (the third one was out of action), despite having 6 Tesla superchargers to choose from. His reason – “it’s cheaper here”. Sad if any non-Tesla drivers come along for a charge I thought. They currently can’t use the Tesla chargers.

Hey Australia, please let’s get more charging stations out there and set them up to make life easier, to encourage more EVenturers.