Is our infrastructure ready to support electric vehicles?

Peter calls for collaborative working, reimagined processes and better use of data to drive EV adoption and the related benefits.

An illustration of a plug socket with pieces of material slotting into it, such as homes and a car.

Attitudes toward combustible cars are changing.

With finite natural resources and greater awareness about the environmental impact of our choices, motorists are looking to more sustainable vehicles. With the price of electric vehicles (EVs) falling and charging provisions increasing, uptake is set to rise.

But can our infrastructure support the mass adoption of EVs in the near future? 

Electric vehicles: A first step

The rise in availability due to offerings from leading brands and reduction in cost — combined with a shift in consumer attitudes to environmental protection — mark an opportunity for change waiting to be seized.

Studies suggest that the number of EVs on the world’s roads is set to triple by the end of the decade, and favourable governmental policy could see EV levels reach 125 million by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. This is equivalent to two EVs per household in the UK.

This level of ownership presents a clear challenge to city planners and local authorities, while also offering some unforeseen opportunities.

Infrastructure and adoption

The EV boom may seem to be a foregone conclusion but is our current infrastructure ready for this kind of shift?

Large cities may be able to cope with such changes on some scale — and some do in line with today’s current usage. However, right now, the demand on infrastructure is low and based on slow charging times.

As adoption increases, the expectation and demand for fast charging will rise. Much greater speed, scale and collaboration will be required between governing bodies, automotive and energy providers to make this a reality. These parties need to start now, or their lack of a joined-up approach will impede adoption.

Moreover, inner-city space is precious. Service stations for combustible vehicles are already crowded, and petrol/diesel car ownership won’t disappear overnight. This makes it hard for these spaces to transform without removing the thing which makes them the most money today.

Nor will the level of infrastructure required to fast-charge EVs from home be provided quickly, particularly in non-urban areas where the grid is less enforced. That’s without considering the of on and off-road parking in inner-city environments, which would ease charging woes.

Current charging times to power electric vehicles are around 6-12 hours on a slow-charging unit, and the amount of driving you can do between charges ranges from 100 to 300 miles. Costs are also higher compared to similar combustible models. These things combined put the EV future under scrutiny.

Even if inner-city infrastructure were reformed, millions of people who live in rural communities would have to self-charge from home for the foreseeable future. With non-rapid charging times of eight hours, this could decrease adoption in these communities due to fewer places to charge on the go.

Could focusing on charging stations help?

One option is to reimagine the charging port experience. This is already happening, but for every eight electric vehicles, there is only one charge point and far fewer which offer rapid charging.

The real opportunity could come from fast-charging tech which sees charge times break the ten-minute barrier.

However, until someone cracks this, longer charge times and a higher frequency of visits to service stations call for a focus on the customer experience of these spaces. This could ease the expectations people have from fast-fuelling combustibles and make service stations an attractive alternative to charging elsewhere.

Tying in on-demand entertainment is one way to go. Another could be transforming the sustenance offering. For example, Shell partnering with Jamie Oliver to reimagine the food they provide at service stations.

If people visit fuelling stations rather than charging at home, the people who own these facilities can use data as a differentiator. By using customer data to enhance their products and service, providers can offer intelligent recommendations or sell data to adjacent service providers such as insurers or car manufacturers.

Who knows most about your EV? Well, it’s probably not your mechanic, but whoever you stop to charge with. The brands behind fuelling stations could become automotive giants in their own right.

By combining data and entertainment in B2C and B2B contexts, the oil and gas giants behind fuelling stations could bring their own EV offering to market with customer-centricity and personalised experiences at their heart. But until fast-charging is cracked at scale, the adoption curve may still stall. 

EV data as a civic tool 

When it comes to the user experience, EVs have clear advantages over their combustible partners — particularly in the form of data. EVs report granular levels of data about user interactions, driving patterns and the environment around them. All of this help drivers keep abreast of their driving patterns and behaviours which impact road safety and time between charges.

However, with cities getting smarter and inter-connectivity on the rise, data can be leveraged if planners and authorities get smart fast. Data can help them to better understand how vehicles flow around inner cities, for example, the amount of time people wait at traffic lights, or the speed at which they move in congested areas.

This could help planners look at spaces through a different lens or allow them to make intelligent recommendations to drivers on the go.

This ties mobility to social and civic considerations which is crucial as autonomous vehicles mature alongside EVs. 

Moreover, this is an opportunity for today while EV adoption ramps up: the data from EVs gives tell-tale signs about those in combustible vehicles around them. Overall, this makes for a better provision of space for all.

Start today 

For EVs to kickstart a radical change in the mobility space, there are technological, social and cultural barriers for the sector to confront and overcome within the next decade.

To best serve motorists, EV manufacturers must continue to work collaboratively, streamline processes and harness data to provide a greater driving experience.   

Without serious consideration and commitment, EV manufacturers will struggle to affect change and reimagine the mobility space from a much broader perspective.

For more thinking on/around mobility, check out Rob's CarHMi 2019 review.

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