Running on Empty? A Report on a Long Distance BEV Trip

My wife and I bought a new Renault Zoe ZE50 in July 2020. It’s a fantastic city/local car, knocks spots off any ICE for cost of ownership, driveability, handing, comfort etc. The WLTP range is 395 Kms, and we normally get 300 – 330 Kms in winter and 340 – 380 in warmer weather. We’ve taken it on longer trips up to 150Km from home here in Ireland and explored the charging network with mostly good experiences. I blogged a six month usage report in January 2021.[1]


Last week we headed out to the UK to see family members and friends that we haven’t seen since 2019 to deliver Christmas presents in person. This post is the story of our trip, but it’s really an assessment of how well BEV cars and the charging infrastructure work for serious journeys. The post is a little longer, and more detailed than my normal, but I believe it paints an important picture that is not widely understood!


MONDAY
Our plan was to drive from Cork to Rosslare, then ferry to Pembroke Dock and then drive to Essex, returning via Gloucester and Bristol. Two days before departure we were advised that our ferry would be out of service for technical reasons and we were rebooked out of Dublin. I spoke to the ferry company and found that there were no good alternatives, so we decided to leave very early Monday morning and drive to Dublin to get the 0800 sailing. The original plan was to leave home at 4am, and including a stop at a fast CCS 50Kw charger just 10Kms short of the port, we would get to Rosslare in good time for the 08:45 ferry. However while the distance to Dublin is 77kms more, we also have to factor in much heavier traffic and an earlier, 0800 ferry. So we left home at 2am with full battery, planning to drive 240Kms to Naas, get a fast charge and then arrive at Dublin Port in time to top up with the fast charger there.


Of course we expected to be cold. We know from experience using the heater continuously reduces the range. So we dressed warmly, just like we would have done back in the 1950s in a Ford Popular with no heating, or even the horse and cart! However, what we didn’t factor in was the huge impact of the ambient overnight temperature on the battery. We knew it was going to be cold and planned for lower range accordingly. But on the night the temperature was -4⁰C. It rapidly became clear we were losing over 40% usable power and hence range; we wouldn’t make Naas. I had planned alternative stops, but nothing so soon. We saw a services sign with an E symbol and stopped, fortunate to find an eCars CCS 50Kw fast charger by chance. We took onboard 21Kw in 47 minutes, slow but sufficient to get to Dublin. Note a 50Kw charger should deliver 21Kw in 25 minutes. Throughout the entire journey I only encountered two chargers that operated at the rated speed. When I looked at the email bill later I found an overstay charge of €4.60! Surely the reason we were overstayed was because the charger was so slow. Not impressed.


At Dublin Port, the chargers are easy to find at the Circle K gas station right at the end of the motorway. We had 30 minutes before ferry check-in, and just enough time to take onboard 20Kw and save time on the other side of the Irish Sea. However, the eCars charger gave me a card error! I am an account holder and I assumed this part would be easy. Later that day I discovered my card expiry date had expired and to fix would have taken minutes. But the charger didn’t give that granularity of error message. So we skipped the charge and boarded the ferry. Later I checked my email, and I definitely didn’t receive an alert from eCars to update my payment method. Message to eCars, please provide alerts for card issues and review charger error messages and assume the user is in a hurry and will need clear explanation of the problem. Note also my experience in the UK is that it is common (although far from universal) to allow contactless payment without registration for additional cost. Why is eCars not offering this option?


My plan included a contingency charge just outside the ferry port at Holyhead beside Morrisons. Easily found, the charger is a PodPoint Genie Type 2 43Kw. Genie require registration. Took about 10 minutes. One hour and eleven minutes to get 24.9Kw. I calculate the charger was operating at just less than 50% of the advertised speed. Cost 42p per Kw!


From Holyhead we headed east on the A55 North Wales Coastal Expressway and M56 and then south on the M6. Next planned stop is the Norton Canes Services on the M6 Toll. This is 267 Kms and we start out with sufficient charge. But the weather is still cold and the range drops badly. My backup plan is Stafford Services North, which is 27 Kms closer and gives just that bit of safety margin. The traffic on the M6 is heavy, four lanes full of trucks. We note the hard shoulder has been turned into the fourth (so-called Smart) lane and ponder on how a BEV might fare if it ran out of charge and stopped suddenly. Probably be flattened by the heavy trucks. The charger at Stafford is Gridserve (previously Ecotricity). This is contactless, fast and we get a near full charge in in 60 minutes. Cost 30p per Kw. Chatting to other users they agree this is a great service, and how the norm is mostly woefully inadequate.


From Stafford we hope to get to our final destination near Stansted Airport, using the M6 Toll, A14 and M11. All fast roads for 277 Kms. But again we are looking at reduced range and as we approach Cambridge I invoke yet another backup plan to visit the Cambridge Services. Bad move. The chargers are Ionity, which are very flashy but prove impossible to register on site or operate by contact. Phone number is not answered. Checking on the web later I note the cost is 69p/Kw contactless and 35p/Kw with subscription! Continuing, we are running low on charge! We figure we might detour off the M11 and use the old A11 which would be more direct. However the roundabout at Great Chesterfield is closed and we are told to use the earlier junction to get to the old road. Uncertainty about the length of a diversion means the M11 is the best option, even though it is not the most direct route, and we are getting very low on juice. We press on and arrive at our destination with just 12% charge and red flashing lights. No pressure!


TUESDAY
My sister in law tells me there are new chargers in the village. I go take a look and find they are four BP Pulse Type 2 3.7Kw chargers in a small, new housing estate with apartments. Clearly intended for local overnight use. I register and set up my card. Try out the system which works fine. The BP Pulse app is very useful, tells me there is a fast charger at Clavering, just 10 Kms away. I stop the slow charge and head off. The fast charger is beside the Cricketers Pub, evidently owned by Jamie Oliver’s dad. Great idea for encouraging pub customers. “I’m just nipping out to get a charge!!” To use I just put the device ID into the app and select the charger type. No problem at all. Starting speed is slow, and after 43 minutes it has given 16.3Kw at 29p /Kw. Not fast enough to be classed as fast charging methinks.


WEDNESDAY
I go back the following day and do similar to get a full charge. There are three other users there, and they report their nightmare experiences of nearly running out of charge. All are incredibly pleased to find the Clavering option in an area which seems to be an BEV desert.


THURSDAY
We head out to Gloucester. We stop at the Holiday Inn High Wycombe on the M40 where there is a BP Pulse CCS 50. It seems the BP network (2500 devices across the UK now) is focused on locations where users can make use of the charge time. Getting coffee, using a gym, doing shopping etc. Makes sense. We get coffee, and lo and behold I get an alert, charging stopped. Able to restart no problem, but no indication of reason. In Gloucester we stay at the Ibis Hotel, where interestingly there is one BP Pulse Type 2 3.7Kw. I hook up and plan to leave it overnight. However after a while I get an alert, charge stopped. There was another user using the other socket when I commenced, and I surmise as he/she unhooked, I got knocked off. This spooks me and I decide to try somewhere else the following day.


FRIDAY
Tried the BP Pulse CCS 50Kw just down the road at the Gloucester Holiday Inn. Didn’t work. BTW I called the BP hotline from there and also the previous evening and got no answer both times. Not impressed!


Later that day stopped in Stroud. In the carpark there are four contactless dual Instavolt CCS 50/Chademo 50 devices. Brilliant performance – 29Kw in 35 minutes, only downside in cost 40p/Kw. Speaking to a VW ID3 driver he says the facility is well used and does a great job. He also speaks about other local options that don’t come close in terms of speed, reliability and cost.


MONDAY/TUESDAY
Heading out to the ferry home from Pembroke Dock we stop at the Holiday Inn, Newport. Another BP Pulse CCS50 location. Charged 21.1 Kw in 63 minutes which is very slow, but the coffee was good. Heading down the M4 we met a “MOTORWAY CLOSED” sign which was pretty disconcerting, however the added distance wasn’t excessive and the satnav worked perfectly. But we are reminded that the potential for extended diversions is always there. Later on we stop at Pont Abraham where there’s another contactless Gridserve. We charge some 21 Kw which will probably allow us to get to the ferry and then the whole way from Rosslare to Cork with no further charge required. However back in Ireland, we need a coffee stop and it gives us the opportunity to try out the eCars CCS50 fast chargers close to the port for future reference. Disappointed to find these are unacceptably slow, 6.3 Kw in 29 minutes! We arrive home and note we didn’t actually need the stop outside Rosslare. But it’s always good to have contingency.

SOME CONCLUSIONS

  1. Urgent Actions for BEV Manufacturers AND Charging Network Operators. Charger network operators need to fix their service. Ireland and UK networks are pretty dreadful. Few fast chargers deliver the rated speed. Our experience is stop times are usually double what they need be. In addition charger reliability and usability is way below acceptable standard, as is support. Telephone support calls are rarely answered. BEV manufacturers need to acknowledge that public charging is an integral part of the driving experience. They don’t need to copy Tesla by providing their own network, but they do need to work with network operators to establish better car/charging integration and integrate journey planning and range management into the cars. The case for industry standards around power usage and charging times is urgent.  Right now there’s widespread breaching of the Trade Descriptions Act!   
  2. A Complete Change of Mindset. This is not business as usual! Our approach to longer journeys has to change dramatically. I will say that myself and my wife are long time intrepid travellers in a wide range of scenarios and we didn’t lose the plot at any stage. But we can imagine that for many people the level of stress may be considerable. When you arrive at a charging point and there’s a 4 hour queue; or the point isn’t working and the service desk isn’t answering; and this is already your second level of contingency! From the outset, all conversations about electric vehicles has focused on range anxiety. In my view this is misleading. It suggests that larger batteries will solve the problem. I suggest the real issue is “journey planning” ensuring as a matter of course that you do not exceed your safe range, that there are always two levels of contingency throughout the journey, either as planned additional range in the battery or alternative in-range charge points.
  3. Contingency planning. Whether it’s cold weather or heavy traffic, roadworks or diversions, or inoperative chargers, there are many unforeseen situations that may occur. For this trip I had plotted multiple options to allow for contingencies. In practice these mostly worked well. The cold weather certainly had a major impact on our range, and increased the number of stops. Our inability to access the Ionity chargers at Cambridge could have been a bad mistake with bad outcomes. Frankly we were just lucky. I hadn’t really expected to need that stop and hadn’t registered in advance. In future I would certainly put more contingencies into the plan. And detailed trip planning is essential.
  4. Time planning. Ferries represent hard deadlines. I had left lots of time going up to Dublin but it was touch and go. Slow (fast) chargers are clearly very common. A 50Kw rated device is no guide at all. Similarly we were lucky that we didn’t have to queue. When I was at Clavering I had three people behind me and two of them were desperate, down to their last few kilowatts. I wasn’t in a hurry and was prepared to cut my charge short but they weren’t in a hurry, they simply needed the charge. And I met several people who said they would happily help others in a crisis.
  5. The Irish charging system is very different to the UK. eCars is part of the ESB semi state operation and is pretty ubiquitous. There are other smaller operators also. With eCars you need an account, contactless isn’t possible. But eCars just looks and feels like a semi state body – they are slow to respond to device problems. Their devices operate way below the rated speed. And simple things like not informing me that my credit card was out of date is unacceptable commercial practice. BEV users on journeys will frequently be under time pressure and eCars gives the impression they are not very responsive. Given they are an effective monopoly, pressure should be brought to bear, either by encouraging greater competition or regulation.
  6. The UK charging system. However bycomparison theUK system is like the wild west. There are so many operators and networks that it’s hard to know where to start. I found Gridserve very good on both contactless price and speed. In future I would look for this network and have them as my first choice where available. Similarly Instavolt. BP Pulse have good coverage and useful locations outside gas stations. But their speed and reliability and support are not there yet.  I would recommend these three operators based on my experience. I fully accept there are other options and these will change over time with personal experience, usage and network development.
  7. Journey time and average speed. Concerns with range have an impact on driving style and average speed. In general use locally we don’t use the Renault ECO system – it’s very sluggish, aggressively recovering power on slowing down whenever possible and discouraging excessive use of power by increasing the effort needed on the accelerator. However, we have found that on longer runs using ECO and manual control (no cruise control) we recover much more power, and avoid situations where the cruise control attempts to keep a constant speed uphill. On this journey we generally kept to around 100Kms/hr which delivers somewhere between 14.5 and 15Kw/100 Kms. Increase speed to 120 Kms/hr and the range reduces significantly. It should be remembered that much of the UK driving was on crowded roads with heavy traffic and we rarely had the opportunity to match the speed limit even if we wanted to. Across the week we travelled about around 1600 Kms in total. Driving time including charging stops was roughly 25 hours. That’s an overall average speed of 64 Kms/hr. Like everyone we would stop for rest breaks and coffee, but with frequent charging the overall stop time was far in excess of normal.
  8. Urgent requirement for better route/charging planning technology. I will tell you there’s a lot of mental maths going on driving distance in a BEV. While this is good for the brain, it’s clear there’s a need for an BEV route planning app. Example: Set preferred charger suppliers/apps; punch in the route, with estimated range based on car make and model, traffic conditions, weather, charger status; get a list of options together with real time alerts on charger status issues.

FINAL THOUGHTS

We need to recognise that the EV market is an early technology market that will, as do all new technologies, undergo a huge wave of innovation in the next few years. And we need to recognise that BEVs are part of a new market in which charging is an integral component.  Of course BEVs are brilliant. They are fast, smooth and quiet. But right now they are only really suitable for city dwellers that don’t stray too far from their own or well proven chargers. Longer journeys need pioneers who are prepared to experience some inconvenience. Early adopters will jump in, but we should be wary of encouraging mass adoption before the infrastructure is fit for purpose.

And it’s not just infrastructure. We should be giving the manufacturers feedback on how they can engineer BEVs to provide the driver with for better range information; to integrate range predictions and charger waypoints into satnavs. Also to integrate BEV journey planning and charger waypoint status into the user experience. We can see already that there are great apps available that provide good data. I would advocate for industry standards for BEV journey data that allowed artificial intelligence based  tools to support the driver in making route and charging decisions.

If mainstream journalists pickup on the issues I and other early adopters are experiencing, they will warn prospective buyers to wait if they are looking for a general purpose vehicle. Similarly, we should be wary about an outbreak of BEV accidents. Driving down the M6 I shuddered to think of what would happen to an inexperienced BEV driver and their car if it stopped suddenly in the “smart lane” in the path of 45 ton trucks right behind them. It wouldn’t take more than a couple of such tragic accidents to give BEVs a bad name.

We have an immature market. There is clearly an imperative to make the transition away from fossil fuels as soon as possible, but if we are not careful, there will be a backlash against BEVs as impractical to replace the typical family car.

Finally would we repeat the exercise? The answer is yes, but preferably not in winter and we would be even better prepared given our experience.  

References

Apps used:
Zap-Map, PodPoint, eCar Connect, BP Pulse,

Useful Networks:

Gridserve: 300 chargers focused on motorways

Instavolt:  600+ chargers

BP Pulse: 2500 chargers focused on stopping points

[1] Renault Zoe 2020 – Report on EV In General Use

Useful Report from Which commenting on many of the problems I encountered and reported upon. Recommended.

About davidsprott

Artist, writer, veteran IT professional
This entry was posted in Electric Vehicles, EV, Renault Zoe, Technology and Society, Technology Platforms, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Running on Empty? A Report on a Long Distance BEV Trip

  1. daveb64 says:

    I am based on Cornwall in the UK and agree with your assessment of the UK charging infrastructure it is insane. Today I visited my local rapid which still has no DC available after being out of service for a month. It’s totally unacceptable.

  2. Andy Bury says:

    Absolutely agree that route planning is essential for long EV trips. I recommend “A Better Route Planner”. I’ve used it to plan trips to Split and Gibraltar amongst other places. Contingency is also needed, I like the quote from the military “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”.

    While cold weather is a challenge all EVs are not the same. We have a 2021 Zoe and a 2015 Tesla. The Tesla loses much less range in cold weather than the newer Zoe and thanks to recent software updates, has the ability to pre heat the battery when navigating to Superchargers. Hopefully other manufacturers will soon duplicate these types of capabilities and roll them out retrospectively.

    • davidsprott says:

      Hi Andy, Thanks yes, someone else has mentioned a better route planner, I will definitely take a look. Very interesting that you can compare Tesla and Zoe’s. I will admit I was shocked by the level of degradation at -4C. Had a major impact on my plans. I think we are all learning loads, and I have been so pleased to get so many comments (BTW) most comments are on Facebook if you are interested. Tx again

  3. Jeremy says:

    David, I surprised to need to tell you (of all people) this, but you’re confusing kW and kWh! The former is power (i.e. rate of energy provision), not energy. So you took 29kWh in 35 minutes. If it took 35 minutes to get 29kW that’s just a really slow ramp-up on the charge rate 😉 And a really slow final charge rate!

  4. davidsprott says:

    Hi Jeremy, Fair cop! I’m was sloppy there. Mea culpa.

  5. adrianrthomasgmailcom says:

    Thanks for the interesting report David. It confirms two things I knew already. EV in still a long way from being suitable for anything more than local trips and MJ are far more SI than kWh 😁. When my son worked for National Grid they were talking about embedding coils in the motorway so you can recharge on the move. Can’t see that happening in a hurry. The other problem was grid capacity to charge big numbers of EVs.

    Enjoy. Adrian

    • davidsprott says:

      Hi Adrian, Yes it’s a no brainer! EVs today are primarily second cars or mostly city centric, or owned by pioneers/early adopters. No prizes for guessing! But the trip was useful to confirm and gather evidence. I will write up a guide for policy makers shortly.

    • Andy says:

      Today while I was recharging my Tesla Model S at a Supercharger I was approached by another guy recharging a Model 3. Turned out it was his Model 3, he’d borrowed his son’s car for this 500 plus mile trip to Scotland because he didn’t fancy using his Merc AMG for the trip.
      So that’s a long journey in cold weather and the owner of an expensive ICE car prefers to use an EV.

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