Can old dogs learn new tricks?

The RAC Foundation’s Steve Gooding takes an electrifying road trip

08 March 2024
Steve Gooding
Old Dogs and New Tricks – An electrifying journey.
Old Dogs and New Tricks – An electrifying journey.

 

As director of the RAC Foundation, Steve Gooding is someone who talks a lot about the relationship between the car and society. But he admits that even after more than 30 years discussing driving he still has things to learn.

The emergence of the electric vehicle and the transition to a zero-emission driving economy is a theme that the foundation has been increasingly engaging with. But its director recently realised that he actually had no first hand experience of what it is like to use an electric vehicle.

So, Gooding decided set out on a (short) road trip to get a feeling for what it is like to live with an EV. The result of his day out is a report called Old Dogs and New Tricks – An electrifying journey.

The report by Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, is a personal account of the practicalities involved in driving a battery-electric vehicle around the South East of England and trying to recharge it at a number of locations, with various types and speeds of charger, operated by different companies.

Gooding realised he had no first hand experience realities of using an electric car. He writes: “I have driven several electric cars and motorcycles in recent years but despite having discussed with ministers, officials and journalists the challenges involved in recharging them on the public network – arguably the biggest of the remaining bugbears people have about switching from petrol and diesel – I’d never got round to having a go at recharging one myself.”

Gooding meets up with a friend who owns a Tesla Model 3 and they visit a variety of destinations offering different charging options run by a number of chargepoint different operators:

  • GRIDSERVE Gatwick
  • Cobham Motorway Service Area Reigate Hill
  • Forest Row
  • Crowburgh, Blue Anchor
  • Tonbridge, McDonald’s
  • Dunton Green, Donnington Manor Hotel

By the end of the day, Gooding had gained insights into the fear of running out of power, AKA ‘range anxiety’, the unwieldiness of charging cables, the variations when it came to the pricing of a re-charge, and a wide variety of different charger designs.

The lack of a consistent design in chargers was particularly perplexing, as he writes: “There’s no uniformity of design of charger, even between ones that look similar at first glance. My EV driving chums talk knowingly to each other of the strengths, weaknesses and foibles of different chargers by supplier, location and design. They seem pretty quickly to learn what works best for them. They plan accordingly.”

Gooding suggests that as EV use becomes the norm, chargers must become easy and intuitive to use for the vast majority of people. He says: “I’d urge anyone designing a chargepoint to get an EV novice to give the prototype a try. This is an eminently fixable problem.”

Gooding admits that, by its nature, his  account is subjective and anecdotal. He writes: “The purpose of the exercise was not so much to think ‘how do I do this?’ (and how unfamiliar, strange and unwelcome it is) but ‘how do I feel about getting used to this?’ (and what could be done to make it easier?).”

While it is not a definitive view of the state of electric vehicle charging in this country, Gooding hopes he does provide an insight into the everyday realities faced, at the time of writing, by the million or so drivers in the UK who own a car that needs to be plugged in to refuel. Gooding says that many of those one million drivers will derive the financial and practical benefits of charging at home. However, at one stage or another most will inevitably come face-to-face with the public charging network and are likely to recognise the experiences of the author who is an EV novice.

You never really know until you've had a go

An extract from Old Dogs and New Tricks – An electrifying journey

I have driven several electric cars and motorcycles in recent years but despite having discussed with ministers, officials and journalists the challenges involved in recharging them on the public network – arguably the biggest of the remaining bugbears people have about switching from petrol and diesel - I’d never got round to having a go at recharging one myself. Time long past, you might say, to experience for myself what all the fuss was about.

So it was that on a bright winter’s morning my colleague pulled up outside in his shiny new Tesla Model 3.

Having done my duty, as one does when a chum gets a new car, by admiring clever design touches like the aerodynamic wheel hubs, the astonishingly cavernous boot, and the cleverly disguised charging socket it was time to get in. This took some moments while I tried to fathom how the aerodynamically designed, flush-fitting door handles worked.

I want to make clear at this point that it is absolutely not my ambition in relating this day’s experience to write a stream of knocking copy about how rubbish electric cars are, as one might read in many a journal of late. There are many things about electric motoring that are new to me, but, just like the Tesla doorhandles, I have no doubt that they would soon enough become second nature. (Nor is this a tale of home-charging, on- or off-street, which raises its own set of issues).

The purpose of the exercise was not so much to think ‘how do I do this?’ (and how unfamiliar, strange and unwelcome it is) but ‘how do I feel about getting used to this?’ (and what could be done to make it easier?).

It was a curate’s egg of a day – bits of it were excellent. I feel like I’ve seen the future and it’s perfectly capable of working, For a start it wasn’t so much that there weren’t enough public EV chargers – our trip was in the South East, near the M25, and the map shows there are plenty to be found. But whereas with traditional service stations pretty much the only variation is of price per litre of fuel, and even then it’s a matter of a few pence per litre, there’s quite a variety of experiences to be had in the world of EV chargers, including price, which in the course of our day we found to vary by a multiple (double) rather than a percentage (somewhere around a 20% premium for petrol or diesel at a motorway service area).

There’s no uniformity of design of charger, even between ones that look similar at first glance. My EV driving chums talk knowingly to each other of the strengths, weaknesses and foibles of different chargers by supplier, location and design. They seem pretty quickly to learn what works best for them. They plan accordingly. Am I being unduly harsh on Ionity? Maybe others would have found the instructions perfectly clear.

But the issue isn’t whether some people find the chargers easy and intuitive to use, it’s whether that’s true for the vast majority of us. As a former boss of mine was fond of pointing out, the test of whether you’ve written a clear set of instructions is not whether your friends are capable of following them, it’s whether those less well disposed to you – and less inclined to try – can reasonably claim that they can’t.

I’d urge anyone designing a chargepoint to get an EV novice to give the prototype a try. This is an eminently fixable problem.

And before I get on my high horse to complain that I’ve never really had to plan in order to drive around and get refuelled in my petrol cars I am duty bound to observe that the only reason we had to recharge my colleague’s Model 3 at all to make our round trip was because he deliberately hadn’t recharged his car overnight, as he normally would have, at home, at his domestic electricity rate of less than 10p per kWh. Cheap? As chips. Convenient? Not ’arf.

I wonder what the cabbie at Reigate Hill would have done had the tables been turned and we’d arrived five minutes before him. Would he have sat and lost half an hour of his driving shift waiting for us to move? Would he have braved the cold to stand next to our car so as to bag the next slot when we moved in case some other EV driver rocked up? Or would he have had enough juice to make the 6-mile trip to the next nearest alternative?

At Cobham I was reminded of the rising tide of panic I felt many years ago at a French self-service petrol station where the pump absolutely refused to recognise my GB credit card with my fuel gauge nudging on empty. How well would I have coped had the rain been falling, the skies dark, and the car bearing fidgety toddlers whose fascination with the Tesla’s ability to make silly noises was rapidly wearing thin?

On those gargantuan charging cables, forgive me, but I’m going to allow myself a moment of comparison to the late, great tech entrepreneur Steve Jobs and his insistence that early Apple computers be both silent and (in every sense) cool, and so must not have a fan. Which reduced many an Apple engineer to tears. But he insisted and they came through.

You engineers and scientists are clever people, right? So, let’s have charging cables that don’t make me feel like I’ve unwittingly been signed up to appear on the BBC re-boot of Gladiators.

I also find myself wondering how well even the lovely GRIDSERVE facility will cope when the number of electric vehicles powers past the 1 million mark this month, on its rapid way to many millions as the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate bites on the auto companies, requiring them to ramp up their EV sales. I hope the GRIDSERVE folks are as on-top of the inevitable care and maintenance tasks to keep their facility spick and span as they are on the rest of their business.

And it’s only fair to remember that point about the rate of charging not just being about the rate at which a charger can emit a charge but also the rate at which the vehicle can accept it. Not all cars are the same, and then there’s variability depending on the level of charge the battery is holding and its temperature. I’m told that for many vehicles the sweet spot is not to let the level of charge in the battery fall below about a third and not to top up above three-quarters. Or something like that.

It’d be handy if car designers could agree on where in the vehicle to put the socket, too, so that we don’t have to think too hard about how to park in relation to the charger. I get the designers’  obsession with style, and with hiding things away, but let’s put a healthy dollop of practicality into the mix as well, please.

I generally hesitate to quote Professor Brian Cox of D:Ream and argue that things can only get better. I’m generally the one reminding people that, in practice, things can often get worse. But my suspicion on public EV charging, at least for the rapid network, is that they can and, more importantly, they will improve.

We consumers are a fickle bunch and we will ultimately vote with our wallets which, hopefully, together with the government’s evident willingness to intervene (viz the Public Chargepoint Regulations that came into force late last year) will be pressure enough to drive not only the quality and the cost of EV charging but the consistency of experience.

But time is not on our side, and auto companies now needing to ramp up their EV sales to comply with the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate need to be thinking hard about what they can do to reassure their prospective car-buyer customers that their EV recharging experience will be easy, intuitive and reliable.

Meantime by the end of the day I’m pleased to report that I was routinely remembering how to work that Tesla door handle. And I see there are some excellent deals to be had on new and nearly new EVs…

Steve Gooding is director of the RAC Foundation

Steve Gooding succeeded Professor Stephen Glaister as director in May 2015, after a thirty-year civil service career encompassing many transport-related roles, latterly as director general of roads, traffic and local group at the Department for Transport. Gooding is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (UK president 2021 and 2022) and of the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation, a visiting professor at the University of the West of England’s Centre for Transport and Society (CTS), a trustee of the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund, chair of the DfT/Innovate UK-sponsored Transport Technology Forum, a member of a number government advisory bodies, and a regular columnist in Highways magazine.

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