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I admit, there are some problems with electric car travel

I’m starting to write this while sitting in our car, upstairs, on a train, under the sea.  Yep, we’re in the channel tunnel.

We’re heading to Kortrijk in Belgium for the Easter weekend and I’m looking forward to getting some time to relax. Having been abroad in our Renault Zoe a couple of times already, this trip feels very different. The excitement and challenge of our first couple of electric car road trips abroad has lessened, so what was previously a challenge has morphed into a minor inconvenience as we left home.

We left home last night under circumstances that were far from ideal. We had a couple of very tiring weeks in our business, I have stitches in my stomach, and Vineeta was so exhausted that she fell asleep in the afternoon and wouldn’t wake up. Having planned to leave home at 3pm and have a relaxing journey, we left at 7pm feeling somewhat gloomy at the prospect of a 4-hour journey to Folkstone.

The carefree spirit of adventure that we had on our previous trips had been replaced with mild frustration and mutual agreement that “it would be so nice to have a Tesla“.

As it turned out, the journey to Folkstone was fine. Although, it took longer than in a normal car, we did appreciate the smoothness and quietness of our Renault ZOE, especially as we were so tired. To my relief, the chargers at Fleet and Clackett Lane services worked without a glitch. We arrived at our hotel in Folkstone with 26 miles of range remaining, which was plenty to prevent any range anxiety kicking in.

The next morning, we headed to the Eurotunnel terminal where we plan to charge before we got on the train.  This part of the journey was freaking me out a little because I was worried that if the Eurotunnel charger didn’t work, we might be stranded inside the terminal, unable to get on our train and unable to leave. Luckily, I was worrying about nothing. There were two AC rapid chargers, and they seemed to be working just fine. As we charged, a Tesla pulled into one of the supercharger bays next to us and effortlessly plugged in. Again, we said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Tesla?

Tesla and Renault Zoe Charging

This journey had emphasized two important things

  1. That there are some real practical issues that need to be solved before doing long-distance electric car travel would be appealing or at least acceptable to the majority of motorists.
  2. That Tesla has already solved these problems (even if currently at a high cost).

So what are these problems, and what’s Tesla done to solve them?

Motorway Range

Firstly, the issue of range, especially on motorways is probably the single biggest problem. We had to stop twice on our 157-mile journey to Folkstone. I calculated that by driving in eco-mode most of the way, which means the slow lane at 60 miles per hour, we had been achieving effectively 76 miles of range. This meant that stopping twice was essential especially when you factor in that you need a margin of error, ideally don’t want to drive 60 miles per hour and that charger locations are never exactly where you want them. The limited range alone meant that a journey that Google Maps says should take 2 hours and 50 minutes actually took us 4 hours. That’s a big difference!

Someone in a Tesla Model S could have driven the whole way at 70 miles per hour without stopping and then charged at the Eurotunnel supercharger before crossing to France. Then, upon arrival in Calais they could drive all the way to Kortrijk in Belgium without stopping, and have plenty of range to drive back to Calais again without charging. In contrast, we have to stop in De Panne for one more charge in Belgium, then charge again in Kortrijk and then again in De Panne on the way back. In reality, we would probably never do the almost 3-hour journey to Folkestone without stopping at all, but the point is that with a genuine range of over 200 miles, you could do so if you wanted to. Even with a genuine 100 miles of motorway range, you could do the journey to Folkestone with only one stop and do the Calais to Kortrijk journey without stopping.  The point is that the Tesla Model S might not have as much range as a petrol or diesel car, but it has plenty more than you need to avoid any delays or inconvenience in the vast majority of situations.

Dependability of Chargers

The second biggest issue the Tesla have solved is the reliability of chargers. In our experience, public charging points, especially rapid chargers, are incredibly unreliable. There is often only one charger at each location. If you’re doing a motorway journey with charge points every 25 to 30 miles, the consequences of a charger being broken or in use by another vehicle could be fairly disastrous. Tesla have solved this by ensuring that their own charging infrastructure is reliable, but perhaps more importantly, they always put at least two charge points at each supercharger station, meaning that there’s no single point failure. You can plan your route with confidence that you can charge where you need to. What’s frustrating is that charger reliability is so much more important for cars with short range like the Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf, yet they are the cars that don’t have access to a reliable charge network.

Related to the issue of charger reliability is a ridiculous requirement that customers have membership of charging networks in order to use public charging points. It means that you can arrive at a charging point and find that you can’t use it because you you haven’t signed up to the local charge network or because you accidentally left the membership card at home. What most people don’t realize is that range anxiety is not just caused by the limited range of the car but even more so by the unreliability, unavailability and restricted access of the public chargers that you depend on. Tesla have solved this by building their own charging network that automatically recognizes the car as a Tesla. No membership card required, no matter what country you’re in.

Charging Time

Finally, there’s the issue of the time it takes to charge. I’ll write another post about this soon , but fr now I’ll just say that there’s a real issue that even the so-called rapid chargers are just not rapid enough. In an ideal world, charging the car should not really take much longer than the amount of time that you would want to stop for naturally. That means that a 35-minute charge every 60 miles is far too slow. The fastest public AC chargers are 43kW and the fastest public DC charges at 50kW, whereas the Tesla superchargers can be up to 120kW, enabling shorter, less frequent charging stops.

Electric Car Charging Point

We have solutions already

The point is that even though I’m a huge electric car advocate, there are some really good reasons why the general public are not ready for them yet. That’s a real shame not just because the world desperately needs to transition to cleaner technologies, but because there isn’t really an excuse for these problems existing. Tesla has thought through the potential problems of electric car travel and they’ve solved them.  Meanwhile, the world’s biggest car manufacturers and public charging networks still fail to look at the bigger picture and to coordinate their efforts to develop the products and services that meet people’s real needs and desires.  These problems will gradually get ironed out, but they have some serious work to do to catch up with Tesla.

Tesla Model 3

This trip catalysed our decision that we will buy a Tesla if all goes to plan, so when Elon Musk unveiled the Model 3 on Friday, we put down a deposit straight away.  If all goes to plan, 2018 looks like it really could be the beginning of the mainstream transition to electric cars.

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