Market research indicates electric cars are becoming more and more popular, which is great news for our environment. However, inconsistent and patchy charging point coverage is currently standing in the way of progress. Range anxiety is now the biggest barrier to widespread electric car use across Britain today. How will our infrastructure and our built environment need to change to overcome this barrier? Buildingspecifier.com’s Joe Bradbury investigates:
Put simply, range anxiety is the fear that a vehicle has insufficient range in the battery to reach its destination, leaving the driver and their passengers stranded. The term, which is primarily used in reference to battery electric vehicles (BEVs), is one of the main given reasons as to why consumers are put off from buying an electric car.
The concern that users of all-electric vehicles may become stranded has led to public calls for extensive public charging networks. As of December 2013, Estonia is the only country that had deployed an EV charging network with nationwide coverage, with fast chargers available along highways at a maximum distance of between 40 to 60 km (25 to 37 mi), and a higher density in urban areas.
Electric cars are very much the future of the automobile industry and their adoption rate is rising rapidly throughout the UK and the rest of the world. In fact, sales of electric vehicles saw an 11% increase in the past year, bringing the total amount of UK registrations to 2%. This pales in comparison to the figures in Norway, where 48% of registered vehicles are now electric. By the year 2040, the UK government plans to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles in order to curb emissions and hit climate change targets.
Why electric cars matter
Air pollution from petrol and diesel cars and vans results in health bills of nearly £6bn every year in the UK, according to researchers at the universities of Oxford and Bath.
As to be expected, pollution is highest in cities, and diesel vehicles are the worst offenders in terms of harmful pollutants. In total, Oxford and Bath experts concluded the health cost of an average car in inner London over the vehicle’s lifetime was nearly £8,000. For diesel cars this figure was nearly double.
Pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter and PM2.5, found in exhaust fumes, have been linked with an array of health risks including lung cancer and heart disease.
Needless to say, something must be done.
The good news
The last few years have seen a remarkable surge in demand for electric vehicles in the UK – new registrations of plug-in cars increased from 3,500 in 2013 to more than 214,000 by the end of May 2019. There has also been a huge increase in the number of pure-electric and plug-in hybrid models available in the UK with many of the top manufacturers in the UK now offering a number of EVs as part of their model range.
Figures published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) each month show that electric car sales in the UK have risen dramatically over the past few years. While only around 500 electric cars were registered per month during the first half of 2014, this has now risen to an average of 5,000 per month during 2018.
By the end of 2018, almost 60,000 plug-in cars had been registered over the course of the year – a new record. This significantly improved upon the previous record, set in 2017, increasing it by more than 13,000 units. By the end of the year, plug-in cars as a proportion of total UK registrations reached 3.8%, and averaged over 2018 electric cars represented 2.7 per cent of the total new car market in the UK.
In the first five months of 2019, more than 22,000 plug-in cars have been sold, and a rolling 12-month total to the end of May has seen almost 60,000 new electric vehicles hit the road.
The bad news
Unfortunately, analysis suggests that a “patchy” network of charging points is currently preventing British drivers from fully embracing the benefits electric cars, something the government have said that they plan to address going forward.
The RAC have repeatedly stated the current network is the main deterrents for consumers considering a swap to electric cars. Over 35% of local authorities have ten or fewer locations where drivers can plug in their vehicles, with wide variation across the country.
Out of 385 authorities, only three had 100 or more charging locations. Milton Keynes was found to be leading the way with 138, followed by Westminster with 131 and Cornwall with 115. Overall, two thirds of local authorities were found to have 20 or fewer. Only one charging location was identified in Merthyr Tydfil, Caerphilly, North Dorset and Hinckley and Bosworth in the dataset.
The Department for Transport says 80% of charging is done at home, but for drivers who do not have access to off-street parking access to charging points is essential.
This is clearly a cause for concern; however it should not deter people from buying an electric vehicle entirely. The BBC’s Shared Data Unit analysed data from Open Charge Map, a crowd-sourced website of charging locations and found that electric vehicle owners can charge their cars in over 7,000 public locations across the UK, with the average distance between points ranging from 0.16km in Westminster to 10km in Craven, North Yorkshire.
The app currently does not feature all charging points across the country, but aims to be a “reliable single point of reference for charging equipment location information”.
What’s the remedy?
It’s clear to see then that range anxiety is a rational fear, given the current state of our infrastructure. However, studies also suggest that range anxiety may be exaggerated, concluding that most daily trips can be accomplished within the range of an inexpensive electric vehicle.
The main strategies to alleviate this anxiety among electric car drivers are the deployment of extensive charging infrastructure, the development of higher battery capacity at a cost-effective price, battery swapping technology, use of range extenders, accurate navigation and range prediction and availability of free loan vehicles for long trips.
Electric vehicle manufacturers are working hard to eradicate ‘range anxiety’ concerns through increased battery capacities to extend the vehicle’s range. For example, REVA has a proprietary technology called “Revive”, which is a battery reserve that can be released by electric vehicle users by texting or calling an operations center. Using a range extender solution, as implemented in the Chevrolet Volt or the BMW i3, the internal combustion engine switches on to recharge the battery before it is empty. Another method is the proposed Ridek modular vehicle approach whereby a vehicle’s chassis could be exchanged for one containing a larger-capacity battery at a network of chassis-exchange stations before embarking on a long journey.
It seems that since lack of information is an enormous contributing factor in causing ‘range anxiety’, a good navigation system with knowledge of the battery capacity and remaining distance can minimize the fear.