It’s time to talk about personal safety at electric vehicle chargepoints

In this special feature, Charlie Atkinson addresses the issue of personal safety regarding public electric vehicle chargepoints.

For years, the electric vehicle industry has had to fight its corner and answer a number of questions regarding the perceived barriers to EV ownership. Issues such as the cost of electric vehicles, charging time and the availability of infrastructure have often been held against the sector, and whilst those obstacles have been broken down and dismantled by EV owners over time, there is another obstacle to electric vehicle ownership that hasn’t been spoken about in any great depth.

Personal safety at electric vehicle charging points is a serious issue that has not been addressed by the EV industry. There have been only a few reports of fights breaking out over the use of certain units and a handful of cases of charging cables being stolen whilst being used, but one woman’s experience has highlighted an even greater concern.

Earlier this month, a woman, who wishes to go by the name Judith, needed to use a public EV charger located in a dark, secluded corner of a supermarket car park. The nature of EV charging meant that she would have had to sit with her car, alone, in that environment for around 45 minutes.

“The charger was as far away from the store as possible with no lighting,” Judith explained. “Your car is unlocked, you have your phone and your purse in your hand, and you’re peering at a screen and you’re trying to figure out how this particular charger works. The time you’re taking, in a very vulnerable situation, it is concerning.

“Whilst you are charging, if someone came along and was hanging around your car making you feel really uncomfortable, you can’t get away. You would have to get out of your car to unhook yourself and you’re stuck. And if someone really wants to get in your car, they will get into your car, especially when it’s dark, quiet and away from the street.

“I left without a full charge, I just wanted to get away from the situation. I was quite flustered. I shouldn’t be in that position just to charge my car up.”

Before Judith left, however, another vehicle did turn up to use the same charger. The driver of that car was also female and explained to Judith that she also has similar concerns when using electric vehicle chargers.

She said: “When I was using the charger, there was another car there and it was another woman, who was with her boyfriend. I said I was glad that he was there as I was sitting on my own, and the woman explained that when she uses this charger, she goes out of her way to pick her boyfriend up to chaperone her whilst she chargers. Nobody should have to do that.”

This is not an issue specific to female EV owners, either. Judith continued to say that the design of certain chargers are “confusing and not easy to use” which would make other people, such as disabled EV owners, particularly vulnerable.

“To use it, you’re facing the charger and you have your back to the surroundings,” she continued. “The design of the charger itself makes it not very easy to use. They also haven’t been designed with everyone in mind, people that are older, smaller or even disabled, I think, would struggle to use those chargers.”

National disability charities Motability and Designability have previously hit out at public EV chargers, with the two organisations publishing the results from a user engagement survey which found that public EV chargers are “failing” disabled drivers.

Keir Haines, senior product designer at Designability, commented at the time: “It is clear from our research with disabled EV users that public charging solutions are failing them in many ways.”

Catharine Brown, chief executive at Designability, also said: “Whilst it is exciting that the world is forging ahead with electric vehicle infrastructure, it is imperative that it is done with inclusivity and accessibility as a core consideration. Up until this point, disabled drivers have largely been an afterthought in terms of EV charging.”

Although nothing serious happened, Judith explained that the situation left her feeling unsafe and questioning whether she made the right decision to switch an electric car.

“I love my electric car,” she said. “I’ve done the right thing by switching to an electric vehicle, which we are all encouraged to do, but then I’m finding myself in a situation where I can’t charge at home and when I use public chargers, I don’t feel safe.

“I went to a petrol station afterwards to use the shop, and all the pumps are easy to use, it’s well-lit and the cashiers can always see me, and I thought “why the hell aren’t I driving a petrol car?””

The electric vehicle industry has made great strides over the past few years, with the rate of EV adoption growing consistently. Most recently, sales and registrations of battery-electric vehicles surged by 32 per cent in August, in contrast to a sharp decline in petrol and diesel car sales, according to the latest figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

However, situations similar to Judith’s will damage EV adoption if nothing is done to improve people’s safety and confidence when using public chargepoints.

EV Powered has contacted all of the public electric vehicle chargepoint operators in the UK to find out what measures they have introduced in order to ensure the personal safety of their customers.

A brief statement from the Motor Fuel Group (MFG) explained that the company has “thought of personal safety” and as all the chargers are located in forecourts, they are well lit, with security cameras and manned with people in the retail shop.

A spokesperson from Pod Point added: “Concerns about the location and safety of certain public chargepoints are valid and will only become more pronounced as more and more drivers switch to electric.

“As well as an appropriate location that matches charge rate and dwell time, there are a number of factors chargepoint hosts (who own the chargers) have to consider when determining a chargepoint location – landowner permissions, distance to an adequate power supply and electrical infrastructure, and optimal positioning to discourage ICE-ing –  however, due diligence around lighting, accessibility, convenience and security camera requirements must also be undertaken in order to improve the overall consumer experience of EV charging.

“We are always looking for ways to improve our offering for the benefit of all EV drivers and are developing best practice guidelines for our public charging hosts and partners which will address the above factors as a minimum.”

EV Powered also spoke with Ian Johnston, CEO of Osprey Charging, who said that whilst they are limited to what measure they can introduce on existing sites, personal safety is a priority for the company’s new projects.

“I think it’s a real issue. With some of the sites we’re building where we’re starting from scratch, these are the challenges we have to address to make sure that the sites are safe for all drivers. I would put that alongside the charger working and you being able to pay with contactless as an absolute priority and I would be staggered if we were building sites that don’t meet those requirements.”

However, Jordan Brompton, co-founder and CMO of electric vehicle charging supplier myenergi, believes more can be done.

Having experienced a few “sketchy” experiences herself, Jordan said public charging firms should introduce a number of other measures to ensure the safety of their users.

“I’ve had a few sketchy experiences where I’ve had to use chargers in random locations,” she said. “The uptake of electric vehicles is growing amongst women so I do think public charging companies should do more.

“When EV chargers were first introduced to supermarket car parks and places like that, they were only being trialled, so they were tucked away in the corners and out of the way. I think it should be standard that all chargers are well-lit.

“Other features such as panic buttons could be introduced, and there should be CCTV for the chargers as well. Companies should also only be considering venues and destinations that have all of these features in place, too. I’m never intimidated at a Tesla charger as they are all at motorway services or in hotel car parks, so companies can learn from those chargers.”

Whilst more can certainly be done to improve the safety and security of most public EV chargepoints, there may still be occasions where EV owners will have to use a charger in an area or environment that they are not entirely comfortable with.

Although the best course of action would be to plan and ensure you can use a charger you are confident with, Tim Moore, a retired police officer with experience in crime prevention and personal safety, says there are a few steps you can take to reduce any risks.

Moore said: “Most electric vehicle chargepoints should be in a well-lit, public area covered by CCTV and if there are any concerns regarding the safety of a particular unit, then the best course of action is to avoid it entirely. There is an ever-increasing amount of electric vehicle chargepoints around so there is no point using a particular one that is going to leave you feeling scared and vulnerable.

“If, for whatever reason, you are left with no other option than to use a charger that is perhaps in a dark, secluded place then there are some steps you can take to reduce the risk. If you can, don’t go alone and take a friend with you. Alternatively, be on the phone and have your mobile phone connected to your car via Bluetooth. If you are charging at night and the area is particularly dark, then use your headlights or put your hazards on to make yourself visible. Leave any valuable items in your car when operating the chargepoint or even put them in the boot of the vehicle.

“However, the best piece of advice is to go and find a chargepoint that makes you feel safe, with good lighting, visible CCTV and in a public place, so you can charge your electric vehicle with confidence.”

There are also alternative solutions for any electric vehicle owner that does not want to rely on the network of public chargers around the UK.

Home charging is seen as the best way to charge your EV, and whilst there are many people out there who are not able to charge at their home, Co-Charger is an app that allows those electric vehicle owners to charge at somebody else’s.

Co-Charger works by searching for a host in your area, contacting them and agreeing a date and time to use their home charger, and founder of the app, Joel Teague, believes Co-Charger is the perfect solution for those who want to avoid public chargers all together.

“Concerns over safety at some public chargers are completely understandable,” Teague said. “I’ve found myself stood at a charger in a barely-lit, empty car park at 2am, thinking how much less secure it felt than my own driveway or one of the more modern charging facilities now appearing.

“One big factor to help with this is to ensure that public charging is the exception rather than the rule, which means ensuring everyone has a viable base charging option. That is what Co-Charger does as the only purpose-built community charging platform. Parking up and using the same driveway belonging to the same, known neighbour each week is certainly a very different experience to spending time at a public charger, and for me it would feel a lot more secure.”

Whilst availability and ease of use may be the most talked about issues regarding public electric vehicle chargepoints, they are not the most important. As the UK ramps up its transition to electric vehicles, it is imperative that everyone is given the opportunity to make the switch. By improving the safety and security of public chargers, more and more people will have the confidence to transition over to electric.

If anyone from a public charging company is reading this, it’s time to put people’s safety first.

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Charlie Atkinson

Editor for EV Powered, covering and reviewing all things electric.