The axiom that new technology is created to make our lives easier seems to have been ignored when establishing the UK’s electric vehicle charging network. The patchwork of dozens of different operators, each with its own payment system, has long bamboozled the ever-growing number of EV and PHEV drivers.
But that’s now changing. In July 2019, the government stepped in to say that it wanted all “newly installed rapid or higher powered charge points” to accept card payment by spring 2020. The goal was to offer a single payment method “without needing smartphone apps or membership cards”.
The Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) said it was looking into EV charging to address any competition issues and “ensure the sector works well for people now and in the future”. The statement that chimed most with us at Autocar was this, from CMA boss Andrea Coscelli: “Being able to easily stop off at a petrol station is a standard part of a journey and consumers must trust that electric charge points will provide a similarly straightforward service.”
We wanted to understand how far off we were from that. So without subscribing or, if possible, downloading any app, we set off to try charging a Volkswagen ID 3 at locations run by six of the UK’s best-known charger operators. We centred on Milton Keynes, as it was recently revealed to be one of the best-served towns, at 23 chargers per EV, according to data checked against charger app Zap-Map’s locator.
Our results were hugely varied. One good experience with a possibly newly installed charger offering effortless card payment doesn’t necessarily mean that the company’s whole network is great, and the reverse is also true. However, it gives a snapshot of what a first-time EV user could face when charging away from home.
We discovered that it’s still a gamble and will continue to be until contactless payment is widely available and we have easy access to up-to-date, reliable information showing us whether or not the charger is working and available, plus exactly where it’s located.
Milton Keynes Coachway, Type: 350kW, CCS Price: 69p per kWh, Paid: Nothing (but £134 of pre-authorisation charges), Ease-of-use rating: 0/5
Ionity is backed by a number of manufacturers, including Ford and Volkswagen, and is targeting its ultra-rapid chargers along motorway routes, like this one, not far from junction 14 of the M1. Ionity claims only 10-20% of users aren’t a member of some scheme. ID 3 owners, for example, can cut the very steep price of 69p per kWh to 25p by subscribing to Volkswagen’s We Charge Plus for £14 per month.
How it went
Disastrously. To start with, the pay-as-you-go process is difficult. Ionity wants you to scan a code with your phone, log into a website, input your card number and then start charging. The first charger had a problem, however, showing ‘charging error, communication problem’ on the screen. It wasn’t shown as inoperative initially, and neither was the second one I tried, but that too showed the same error after going through the payment process. The third was out of order, so I didn’t bother with the fourth. Yet upon returning home, I found that Ionity had pre-authorised a £67 charge on my card for each attempt. No money left my account, but that was £134 that I couldn’t use for several days. Ionity told me it was currently “unable to disable” this verification process but that it will launch a new app and payment process this year that eliminates those charges.