It’s hard to imagine how a country like the UK could find itself in a fuel crisis when there is no shortage of fuel. There’s plenty of petrol and diesel stored at refineries, but petrol stations are empty of stocks. The immediate cause is a temporary lack of fuel truck drivers, but this has exposed two root problems – a lack of infrastructure, and human nature. Leaving aside how the panic-buying started – some blame the government, others the media, others the Road Haulage Association – the simple fact is that during a period of unexpectedly high demand, our fuel infrastructure can’t cope, with queues at the pumps and tanker drivers unable to get sufficient stocks out. And then there is human nature: it turns out that range anxiety is not solely confined to electric vehicle drivers. Such is our dependence on the car that, at any hint of shortages, we rush to the pumps to top up. It’s quite possible that this situation could occur again, for whatever reason. If our infrastructure isn’t sufficiently resilient, shortages will occur.
Will I be able to charge my car? Always a nagging worry
So how does this relate to the electric vehicle industry? Human nature is what it is. We have become highly dependent on our favourite form of personal transport – the automobile. We may not as yet have seen the ugly scenes at charging points that some have witnessed on UK petrol station forecourts as tempers fray after hours of queuing. But for fuel anxiety, read charging angst. Infrastructure, or lack of it, is the biggest challenge for the electric vehicle sector, as it is at the moment for UK internal combustion engine vehicles, and it’s slowing down sales of electric vehicles. Along with concerns regarding price and range, potential buyers of electric cars are worried about plugging in. What happens if they can’t find a charging point when power runs low? Or if they get to a charging point and there’s another vehicle standing there taking an age to charge up? These are valid concerns. The electric car sector won’t take off until the infrastructure challenge is met.
A leap of faith is required
So how do we rise to the challenge? It’s a chicken-egg situation. Drivers won’t buy electric vehicles if they are not confident that the charging infrastructure is there to meet their needs when they are out on the road. Conversely, charge point companies are reluctant to invest in charging infrastructure if they’re not confident that the market for electric vehicles is there. The only answer is that companies are going to have to make significant investment ahead of demand, rather than gradually scale up as demand grows. It’s a risk that investors don’t usually take, though it’s likely to pay dividends in the longer term. But these companies will need to have significant national and local government support.
Charging companies cannot go it alone
Electric vehicle roll-out will not be successfully achieved if it’s done, as it has been so far, in a piecemeal fashion. Governments and regulators will need to be in the driving seat, developing a comprehensive and ongoing overview, monitoring progress, distributing targeted funding, and removing barriers to investment. National policies will need to target major arteries such as motorways, so that full and sufficient coverage and uniformity of provision is ensured, guaranteeing EV drivers a seamless driving experience. The availability of fast charging facilities, a clear and uniform pricing system, and across-the-network compatibility where car-charging point connectivity is concerned are key.
Energy distribution companies will have a central role, ensuring the grid has sufficient capacity, and establishing adequate connectivity for more isolated charging sites. Local authorities will have a key part in infrastructure planning and funding at town and city level, overseeing the provision of on-street and public carpark charging facilities. Out of town, they will need to identify local areas where there is a lack of provision, so the balance can be redressed. It’s all about balance and uniformity. If you live out in the sticks you need charging points just as much as you do if you live in the suburbs.
The good news is that most electric cars, and some categories of electric commercial vehicles such as last mile delivery vans, are now cheaper than or at least comparable to internal combustion engines, as long as the customer takes a total cost of ownership perspective. However, government, regulators, power companies and local authorities all have an indispensable role to play in providing the essential back-up which charging point companies will need if they are to make that leap of faith required to ensure transformation on our roads.
To continue the conversation get in touch with Alastair direct: Alastair.Hayfield@InteractAnalysis.com