Voices: The uniquely British perils of owning an electric car

·5-min read
What we did not realise is just how infuriatingly, maddeningly British the charging set-up is (Getty)
What we did not realise is just how infuriatingly, maddeningly British the charging set-up is (Getty)

It should be just like using a petrol pump and I don’t understand why it isn’t,” said the young woman who was trying, and failing, to charge her electric car at Tesco in the East Yorkshire town of Beverley, just as we were.

Yorkshire folk are renowned for their plain speaking and, while this scion of the southern part of that fine region would have added an expletive in front of “petrol pump”, she was a good example. Her comment perfectly summed up one of the major problems people encounter when trying to charge their electric vehicles.

Both she and my wife had been spending the best part of half an hour trying to get apps to work because, for some bizarre reason, you have to have a bloody app to use what seems like well over half the electric charging points currently available in Britain. The problem with those apps is they don’t always work and, even when they do, they’re fiddly and temperamental. Trying to use one often feels a bit like trying to make sense of the Ikea instructions on how to put together a Welsh dresser.

One day there might even be people who set up businesses that help you navigate the bloody things, like the ones which offer to put together the more infuriating kits sold by the giant Swedish furniture retailer. The one question they won’t be able to answer is: why the hell are these apps necessary in the first place?

Electric cars are wonderful things. They’re a joy to drive, they’re cheap as chips to run (well, they were before the energy crisis) and they don’t pump noxious fumes out into the environment. The downside, however, is that they carry with them the risk of tipping drivers into a dystopian hellscape, should they try and use them for extended periods while away from their home charging point.

By comparison, my local fast-charging forecourt just lets me swipe my debit card, plug in, and listen to the radio, or Alexa, or my favourite podcast for a remarkably short time before I can head off. “Download our app”, it says at my garage. But the thing is; customers aren’t forced to do so. In plenty of other places they are.

We knew that going electric would present some challenges with the one really long journey we take every year to Yorkshire for the family holiday. We knew it was going to take longer and would involve some planning with respect to stops. But we were fine with that because we figured the benefits would outweigh the costs, and we’d like for there to be a liveable planet for our children after we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.

What we did not realise is just how infuriatingly, maddeningly British the charging set-up is – by which I mean that the rollout has been complicated by a large dose of completely avoidable stupid.

Those nonsensical apps are just the start. Charging points also have a nasty habit of breaking, so they’re often out of action – new tech, and all that. That can lead to some hairy moments if, say, you’re on the A1, which becomes something of a charging desert in the Midlands. Unless, that is, you drive a Tesla.

Yes, there are Tesla-only charging stations. We came across one of those when we were looking with trepidation at our battery’s life and wondering whether it would have enough puff to get to the next one.

Teslas seem to have become the electric driver’s Merc or BMW. The car that says, “Look at me! See how I have cash – lots of it. Aren’t I a flash git?”. If they reboot Friends, they might even use one of the fancier models to replace the Ferrari Joey polishes up and pretends to own.

One of the unexpected compensations I’ve found from driving electric is that you become part of a community. People chat around the charger and you’ll meet all human life there; it’s not just committed greenies like us. They also help each other out. They share tips on how best to get the most out of these vehicles, and especially how to maximise the battery life. The best one we got was from a tracksuit-wearing bloke with some truly impressive tattoos, who was running a second-hand model home for his daughter (always use the eco-pedal, and don’t forget your B mode).

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Tesla drivers, however, have charging points available just for them so they can juice up without having to bother rubbing shoulders with the little people. Oh, for a set of sharp keys in the vicinity! Sorry. Indulging in vandalism might be pushing it a bit far, even in the case of the adoring (and snobby) customers of the world’s richest man.

Thing is, this mess of a situation matters. The sale of most petrol cars and vans is scheduled to be banned from 2030. Britain needs to install a hell of a lot more charging points between now and then, especially outside of London. By that, I mean charging points that don’t require you to be one of Elon Musk’s groupies to use.

Longer journeys aren’t just extended as a result of charging time, but also as a result of having to queue to use the ones that are available. And, yes, it really ought to be just like using a petrol pump.

There is no earthly reason to demand people download some stupid app before they charge. The latter need to be digitally binned and also banned.