The new age of socket wars

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Could the energy of the electric vehicle movement soon consume itself? As popularity for hybrid and EV cars continues to rise, Simon Hacker warns sparks may soon fly in the UK…

jeer11 Individuality is a cool thing, you might say, until everyone’s doing it. Take the inexorable global rise of the electric vehicle (EV). Everybody, including me, is at it. The Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research says it estimates the world market now stands at 740,000 cars (with more than 320,000 EV registrations in 2014 alone). The chief plug-in protagonists are (in order of ascending popularity): Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, Tesla Model S, Prius PHEV, Chevrolet Volt and (by far and away in front) the Nissan Leaf. So the consequent demand for a charging infrastructure that can cope threatens to add serious headaches to the lives of drivers opting out of fossil-fuel.

EVgo and BMW partner to bring ChargeNow DC Fast electric vehicle charging program to 25 cities nationwide. EVgo Network will have more than 600 50 kW DC Fast Combo chargers in next 2 years. BMW i3 drivers get 2 years free charging with the purchase of their vehicle (PRNewsFoto/EVgo)

2 Rough tallies of the extent of this brewing problem in the USA suggests there are now about 170,000 electric cars over there (that’s one in every three EVs), but at the last count there existed just one charging point per six cars. Do the math and it’s inevitable that sparks will soon fly, and not in an efficient electrical way. Indeed, “charge rage” has already been identified in California where Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf owners have been going head-to-head in some ugly jostling for sockets. Angry notes have been left on windshields and, in many cases, owners have returned to find their cars rudely unplugged. In a nation that reports more than one mass shooting every day, the first headline of a row that spills into something far worse is surely not far off…

3 Most of the anger emanates from Silicon Valley, where well-meaning firms have incentivised employees by installing charge points, only to find the success of the initiative can’t cope with take-up. Well-meaning German software firm SAP put in 16 charge points in 2010 – but 61 employees now want to use them. And when you have a tiny group of users, civility blossoms, but as the group expanded, says Peter Graf, SAP’s chief sustainability officer, tempers rise: “Cars are getting unplugged while they are actively charging, and that’s a problem,” he says. “Employees are messaging each other, saying, ‘I see you’re fully charged, can you please move your car?'”

4 Among some petrolheads on social media, such disputes about who has the greater need for a charge-up, and therefore should take priority, have triggered mass outbreaks of Schadenfreude: ”I’d pay to see two EV owners fight over a charge spot,” one tweeted, “I don’t think any fists would be involved… it would be either a slap attack or purses being swung.” US EV firm Plugincars has waded in with an attempt to offer charging etiquette for the considerate electric motorist: they are urged to charge only when necessary and then get going, rather than hogging the space all of the working day. Notes can be left, but they must be “expressed in polite language – in a goodwill gesture that will hopefully convince the offender not to make the mistake again”.

jeer65 Over here, the RAC Foundation says there are about 16,000 EV users in Britain, while estimates of available public charging points are put at 1,500, which equates to 10.66 cars per point. While the Foundation has research on take-up of available charging points in London that suggests only 36 per cent were being used, the underlying figures suggest this spare capacity will soon be eaten up. But as EV experience in the USA has found, the ideal ratio of cars to sockets is 2:1. Are we therefore sitting on an etiquette time bomb?

6 The arrival of a smartphone app Chargebump might help. It enables you to tap in the registration of the car you’re waiting to exit before you can hook up, thereby sending them a polite request to note that their car is now fully charged (and thus taking the heat out of any potential “thanks for hogging the space” conversations). And seeing as the type of consumers who use EVs are likely to be sufficiently tech-savvy to readily embrace such a communications route, maybe solutions such as this can only help? Watch this parking space…

One Response

  1. Nice article, but leaves a bit out. Most EV drivers today have the ability to charge at home. This is why many public stations are little used. With all non-Tesla cars only capable of 100 mile or less range, the majority of early owners have usage within their range, charge at home, and only use public stations occasionally.
    High EV density areas like CA do have issues, as some people routinely live at the edge of their range, with long commutes. The CA market is a good predictor of EV issues elsewhere. Two things are likely. As more early cars are sold used, with ever less range, more stations will be needed. More workplace stations are ideal, but also more DC quick charge stations at strategic travel locations on major roads.
    The upcoming advent of 200-300 mile cars will lessen demand for public charging, yielding more availability to the used cars.
    Confrontations at stations do occur, but are not a major problem. Early adopters understand the limitations of the developing market, but some people have issues with charge management.
    The larger problem is public education of non-EV drivers. Many charging stations are blocked by gas cars, and so, unavailable. Until these spots are regulated like handicap spots are, this will continue to be a problem.

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