Opinion: The EV charging ‘blind-spot’

Joel Teague, founder of community charging app Co-Charger, discusses alternative base charging, or in his words, the EV charging blind-spot.

Charge UK, the much-needed industry group for EV charging infrastructure, launched on April 28th with an excellent press release and national coverage.  The first response read out on BBC Radio 5 from Joe Public was, “Never mind public charging points for these EVs; what about people who live on main roads or have no driveways?” It’s time we looked again at Joe’s needs.

Working within any industry undergoing radical transformation is never dull.  Everyone has their paradigm through which they view the situation and form their opinions.  Understanding all of those angles to form a rounded picture and make good decisions is vital when it has a direct impact on things like air quality and climate change. Meanwhile, lurking ready to distort and derail that empirical thinking are the familiar psychological barriers of perception bias, convenience bias, commercial bias and groupthink.

When combined, these things are capable of skewing even the most well-informed and intelligent of minds to some extraordinarily bad conclusions.  In the world of EVs, we have a huge example and it’s causing damage and friction.

It is an assumption that’s been around, unchallenged, for so long that we don’t even consider it an opinion; we just drop it into our logic as if it’s as certain as the sunrise:  If you build enough public charge points, people without driveways will buy EVs.

To me, that’s never made sense because it conflicts with my experience of how people think.   Once you take the innovators and early adopters out of the way (they already bought EVs) you’re left with Joe F Public, our common-or-garden, ill-informed, change-resistant salt-of-the-earth motorist.   This person, with their “research” via the media and Facebook, isn’t looking for ways to switch away from the familiar to the unfamiliar; they’re looking for excuses to stick with what they’re comfortable with.  These are the people still buying fossil fuel cars.  These are the people we need to focus on, not EV drivers.

About half of those Joes, for one reason or another, aren’t likely to install charge point at home.  That’s over 15 million fossil fuel vehicles that need to be replaced with EVs without the benefits of convenience, dependability and cost that the driveway-owners use to justify their switch.

It is also important, when predicting behaviour, to ask “will they” rather than “can they”.   Can Joe – change-resistant, misinformed Joe – switch away from their familiar, dino-juice burner to the unfamiliar, much-derided, pricier EV on the basis that about once a week they will have to go and find a working, available public charge point, spend close to the cost of petrol and stay with the car for an hour or two while it charges?

Yes, they can.  But will they?  We all know the answer to that.  We’ve all met Joe.

The scientist in me always wants to test a hypothesis in both directions.  If the abductive projection of behaviour says we have a problem, what does deduction from years of data say?

I’m a big fan of the insights team at Zapmap.  They’ve been asking the right questions of the right people in a consistent way for many years and we’d all be far less informed without them.  They have been tracking various key statistics for years*, so how do we use that data to test the industry theory about Joe?

Well, if better public charging equals more Joes in EVs, you’d see the proportion of EV owners without home charge points rise in correlation to the quality and quantity of public charging.

But it hasn’t.  And it isn’t.

According to Zapmap, 84% of EV owners have a home charge point.  Given that about 40% of UK residents don’t even have driveways and about another 10% have other barriers to charger ownership, that’s a sobering figure.   When you consider that the balancing 16% includes professional drivers pushed into EVs – such as London’s thousands of Uber drivers – it’s pretty obvious that Joe isn’t convinced.

There’s even more conclusive evidence that points not just to the situation but the trend:  Since 2019 public charging infrastructure has grown over 250% and become far more reliable, powerful and convenient.   Yet in the same period, in Zapmap’s own words, there has been “no significant change in the proportion of respondents with a home charger”.

To put it in statto terms: The coefficient between public charging and EV purchase by people without driveways is near to zero and it’s not changing.

At this point, if you find yourself wanting to push back on what I’m saying without any real evidence… ask some honest questions of yourself as to why you’re doing it.  If, however, you do have an evidenced counter-argument, speak up!  This data shows too clean a conclusion for my liking, and we need to find the balanced truth.

All of this raises the awkward question of why the government and many businesses, staffed with intelligent, experienced people, still plan using an assumption that is so clearly contrary to both abductive reasoning and deductive analysis.  The answer is simple: because it’s more complicated than that.

This EV baby is, in societal change terms, still wet behind the ears, and most EV drivers are first-timers.  The industry has had to plan based on projections and guesses until observed data arrived, and the car buying cycle is several years long.   2019 seems a long time ago but until recently the majority of public chargers then were generic, not built and located specifically for residential, base charging.  Will the needles move once we’ve had lamp-post, kerbside and ‘community hub’ chargers in numbers for several years?  We don’t know.   Personally I think and hope so.  But it’s down to what Joe thinks, not the tech.

It’s obvious that public charging is absolutely essential – nobody wants an EV without it.  What we have to accept is that on its own it’s pointless because without “base” charging, nobody’s got an EV in the first place.   Home charging is sorted; those people are switching.  The rest aren’t, and they’re getting spiky about it.

After all this pontificating, what exactly am I suggesting?  Well, we start by changing how we look at EV charging.  We need to re-model our thinking and the narrative from the user perspective, so that we can get poor Joe on board.

On my way to Fully Charged Live in Farnborough I heard the launch announcement of Charge UK on BBC Radio 5.  It was 6:30am and the report was well-presented, national coverage for what I see as a very important new industry body supporting work that’s vital for EV adoption.  It was good stuff.

Three minutes later the response of the first caller was: “Never mind public charging points for these EVs; what about people who live on main roads or have no driveways?”.   That caller sums it up: Joe does not consider public charging to be an alternative to home charging, and after years of being told otherwise, they’re not feeling listened to.  They want an EV but can’t make it stack up until they have options that are convenient, affordable and dependable.  Those options exist, and it’s vital to the entire industry that Joe knows about them so that they have the confidence to switch.

We have a lot to work with, and the list is growing: workplace charging, mobile ‘charging as a service’ in vans, trailers and even robots; “take a battery home” services; gadgets to route cables under, through and over pavements; kerbside and lamp-post chargers – and of course my personal passion, Community Charging, where neighbours share private chargers.  The problem is that the Joes of this world don’t hear about that.  For years all they’ve heard and seen is, “look at all these public chargers”.  This is why Joe phones Radio 5 and vents.

Let’s bring Joe in.  Let’s have the whole industry talk about three elements of charging: Home charging, alternative base charging, and public charging.  Everyone needs one of the first two plus the last one.  Everyone’s included and everyone can see how to make an EV viable for their circumstances.

This is a good move for absolutely everyone, not least public charging companies.  More confident Joes means more EVs on the roads sooner, which mean more revenue for public chargers when those people are away from home.  We may not be able to do much about how much of the charging pie public charging gets, but by supporting alternative base charging we can double the size of that pie.

It’s also important to put some scale on this.  If 85% of EV drivers have home charge points, then in a world where everyone has an EV, that means over 40% of charging will have to come from sources other than home charging – and it looks like it won’t be public charging.  That means that there is a gap in our thinking, modelling and narrative that is over 40% of the need – over twice the size of all public charging combined.  A true elephant in the decarbonising room.

This is both a huge gap and a huge opportunity.  It is in everyone’s interest to address that gap, first by giving it a name, then by including it in all discussions, models, tools and plans.  By adding that hitherto misunderstood segment into the standard narrative, we grow the EV market for everyone.  More to the point, we change the minds of millions of Joes so they are finally ready to #StopBurningStuff.

It’s time to talk about Joe.  He needs a hug.

*Zapmap EV Charging Survey: https://www.zap-map.com/ev-charging-survey

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