Christmas on the Electric Highway

I drive a BMW 94aH i3 REx. That’s an EREV, an extended range electric vehicle. My highest ever battery range is 170miles in the summer. But at this time of year, and on motorways, the battery gives us about 110 miles depending on outside temperature and my driving speed, which these days is about 65mph on motorways. BMW’s REx technology adds a further 60-80miles range. It doesn’t directly power the car but uses a small petrol engine to trickle charge the battery. It’s not ideal since the idea is to get away from fossil fuel but it does allay range anxiety. I’ve only used it on motorway journeys

The Electric Highway – so called

Ecotricity have the monopoly on providing electric vehicle chargers on UK motorway services. Their brand name is Electric Highway. Just create a charging account with Ecotricity, who will bill me for the charge. A full charge for the i3 is about £8. Sounds OK-ish though at 30p per kWh, it’s about double what they charge for domestic electricity. It certainly sounds handy… pull into a service station, plug in car, buy coffee, carry on after about 40minutes. But a few things can to go wrong with that pleasant scenario:

  • the i3 uses a CCS DC connector for rapid charging and not every motorway stop has one. So that needs checked out beforehand. But OK, not a big drawback, there are probably alternative motorway stops nearby.
  • Ecotricity provide an app which apparently monitors the charge so you can check it if you’re away from the car. I say ‘apparently’ because I found out to my cost last year that, although it counts down the 45 min charge time, it carries on doing that even if the charge has been interrupted. So after 45 minutes and expecting a full charge, you may find out that it had stopped after only few minutes. Now I monitor the charge using the BMW app which does indicate if the charge is interrupted.
  • Mostly there are just one or two charging units at each service stop and not all of those have a CCS connector. I’ve never found a motorway stop with more than one CCS connector. So if another CCS user is charging, or someone is using the Chademo DC connector on a tri-head charger, I’ll be waiting till they finish. There is an etiquette for charging and if you know someone is waiting, it’s polite to stop when you’ve got to around an 80% charge. But still that could add 30 mins to the stopover.
  • then the big drawback, the charge attempt fails altogether, ie charging never begins, or the charger cuts out after a few minutes.

The journey south..

We went from Glasgow down to Oxford last week for Christmas. It’s the second time we’ve done this journey with the i3. (You can find the sad tale of last year’s trip here.) But this time, I was a more experienced electric driver and I plotted out a recharging plan that would let us have two recharging stops (takes about 40min) by using REx a bit to extend each segment of the journey. Since I do all the driving, I prefer to stop twice on the 386 mile journey, so that was all fine.

But the best laid plans of mice, men and electric drivers gang aft aglae. Here is what happened on the south bound drive:

By ChrisO – Reference map provided by Demis Mapper 6, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

We arrived at Killington Lake services to find that both Ecotricity chargers were out of order. So no-one could charge there. No-one. Without REx, I would have been high and dry. As it was, I filled up the REx petrol tank and we continued south to Forton Services at Lancaster where the charger hardware was working. There are two chargers there but only one of them has a CCS connector. I had to wait for an electric van to finish charging but the driver stopped early to let me on.

Next planned stop was Norton Canes on the M6Toll. The charge started. I went for a coffee but kept an eye on the BMW app which tells me how the charging is proceeding….. after five minutes the charger cutout. Three attempts resulted in the same thing and the so-called helpline could not help because the charger software thought it was still charging. The chap on the helpline hoped I’d be OK. I’m sure he meant that kindly but, again, without REx, I’d be waiting for a flat-bed pickup truck. Instead we topped up with petrol, then topped up again at Warwick services just to be sure, didn’t even bother trying the Warwick charger, and RExed it down the 90 miles to Oxford.

So you see why I said that having REx allays range anxiety. But it doesn’t prevent the whole journey being stressful and frustrating.

Allaying stress with derogatory tweets to Ecotricity

The next day I drove a few miles over to Eynsham but the charger there, run by Genie, failed too. 😢 However ten minutes walk from where we were staying over Christmas is Seacourt Park & Ride. It has one electric charging space, run by Polar, with two connectors. One is a three amp socket. I kid you not. The other is a 7kW Type 2 connector, a type usually described as ‘fast’. I hooked up the car, by then at about 6% battery, and left it for the six hours it took to fully charge the battery. By now you’ll understand that ‘fast’ is a relative term.

But actually it was a huge relief to me to get the car charged up. Polar run a setup whereby you subscribe to their network for a monthly fee and then their chargers are free to use. Oxford City Council charged me £2 for the six hours at the park’n’ride but that was reasonable enough, I think.

All this was definitely a stressful experience. It took me a couple of days to reclaim a measure of equanimity, helped along by leaving a few derogatory tweets on Ecotricity’s @ElectricHighway twitter feed.

Ecotricity claim 95% availability for their network though they don’t say how they work that out and they admit that they shut down and take faulty chargers off site, which is why there is no CCS connector now at Pear Tree Services, on the Oxford ring road. That policy must keep the availability stats up! Out of the four I tried on the way south, only one was available, ie 25%. It seems that I am not the only person to doubt the 95% claim 😈

The drive back home..

A week later and I was facing the drive home. My new strategy was to avoid the Ecotricity Electric Highway network altogether. 😁 This means going off M6 to use a different networks, Polar in England and ChargePlace Scotland (CPS) when I’m back over the Border. If it worked then I’d also have avoided any cost of charging apart from the Polar & CPS subscriptions. Here is what happened:

CPS let us down at Moffat. Otherwise it was a dream journey. Tillington Hotel is a few minutes off the M6 north of Stafford. Ditto for Holiday Inn at Preston. No problem at either, hurrah! Moffat is a mile of so off the M74. When the charger there said it had lost communications, we just sighed, filled up with petrol and RExed most of the remaining 60 miles up to Glasgow.

I haven’t been a great fan of Chargemaster who are the company running the Polar network after their admin and sales people made a right mess of installing our BMW home charger. But I have to say that their strategy of rolling out rapid chargers at places very close to motorway junctions is very canny. Still only one charger at each site but we were lucky.

The Tillington Hotel charger was immediately available. I finished the charge at 85% when another i3 arrived. Holiday Inn had a Leaf charging when we rolled up but he was about to leave. Both places have bars where coffee is available. I suspect the Polar setup is simpler than Ecotricity. I know they send subscriber data updates their chargers each night. So I suspect the charger doesn’t need to be in contact with the back office system to start a charge. (I might be wrong in saying that.)

In all, the total trip cost £56 for charging and REx petrol for an overall 772 miles. That’s a lot less than two senior train fares at over £200. Or getting on for £100 for a petrol driven car getting 50mpg.

The Way Forward?

We need a better motorway network than Ecotricity’s Electric Highway. I know that they entered the market early and that some of their chargers are now five years old in what is a fast moving market. I know that they are beginning to replace older chargers with new Siemens chargers. Unfortunately Siemens don’t have a very good record, at least not according to posts in the Scottish EV Drivers Facebook group. The Siemens rapid charger at Glasgow Riverside Museum has been pretty well out of use for months.

How hard can it be to provide reliable multi-charger hubs every hundred miles or so on our motorways? Tesla have done it. I get green with envy and frustration when I’m struggling to get a charger to operate and I look over at an array of maybe a dozen chargers provided by Tesla for their electric cars. ScotGov have been trail-blazers in providing our free charging in the CPS network. They need to press on so that we have multi-charger hubs all over Scotland on our main road network. And, please, don’t site them in carparks where there are hefty parking fees. The CPS network doesn’t need to carry on being free. Be good to avoid paying 30p / kWh as charged by Ecotricity, Genie & Shell networks.. But the Polar monthly subscription model would be fine especially if it makes operations more reliable.

PS: I’ve been discussing this post on a couple of EV driving Facebook groups. One comment was that a hundred miles between multi-charger hubs is too far. And yes, that’s true, not everyone has a 100mile EV range yet, though range is increasing with every new generation of EV models, but more to the point we need flexibility and capacity to meet increased numbers of EV vehicles. So probably a reliable multi-charger hub every 35 miles is what’s needed.

Tesla charger array in Germany. Sigh!
By dronepicrElektroauto Tesla Ladestation, CC BY 2.0, Link


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    • Well, yes, I agree. It is a first world problem. But first world driving habits are part of third world problems, well world problems. Since I live in the first world and I can change my driving habits, seems a good idea to do it.

  • I share your frustration with EH. I drove my Ioniq EV home 530 miles from Aberdeen to Wiltshire covering the same M6 CCS dead-zone. It’s a disgraceful state of affairs, and quite how EH have been able to keep a monopoly at the Motorway Service Areas is a mystery. We now rely on Polar, loads of new 50kW chargers have been installed in 2018- mostly at very nice locations too. Well worth the subscription as they then only charge 10,8p/kWh (a third of EH) and you get an RFID card so no fumbling with apps in the dark. It’s about time all chargers had cover from the weather- and a light!!!

    • When I got back home I wrote to Alan Brown, the SNP spokesperson on Energy and Transport at Westminster. Just about to write to Chris Grayling (Transport) and Claire Perry (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; and Energy and Clean Growth)