Alex Outhwaite’s VW electric van can be seen charging on the far left.
- The TV presenter Alex Outhwaite was offered a VW ABT Transporter for her cross-country UK tour.
- The trip required meticulous planning, and still, one in four charging stations had an issue.
- She encountered long waits and out-of-service charging stations but found EV travel more affordable.
I want to get an electric vehicle one day. The reduced environmental impact and lower cost are appealing — but their range and the process of charging make me anxious to take the plunge, even as EVs go farther and charging points become more common. AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson said in February that most EV drivers were still not taking overnight trips away from their home-charging setup.
By chance, I got the opportunity to have a monthlong test drive and experience what relying on an EV to travel long distances is really like.
In my day job as a TV and events presenter, I had to drive with a colleague around Britain working at food events. When my client offered me an electric Volkswagen ABT Transporter, I jumped at it.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy
The ABT had a range of only 80 miles, so my trip required numerous charges during the day and constant planning. Each morning, rather than setting a location in a GPS and simply setting off, we’d have to map the route via fast-charge points, individually checking each point against recent Google reviews to ensure they were in service.
Even this couldn’t guarantee that another driver wouldn’t slip in before us when we arrived.
Meticulous planning was needed to ensure that the journey passed EV charging spots.
Apps like PlugShare and Zap Map allowed for route planning. User-sourced data theoretically allows drivers to see which charge points are out of service or in use, but even using this information I found issues with one in four of the 36 charge points I visited over the month.
At some charge stations, these apps showed there was a free charging point because there were several. But at one, it turned out to be only possible to charge one vehicle at a time.
I immediately called the responsive customer service for the point’s owner, Gridserve, who confirmed this.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. We had to wait at times for a charge point for up to 45 minutes. Repeatedly doing this could add hours onto a longer journey.
A charging station where poor parking and disorganization meant the free port was inaccessible for the large van until a car moved.
Waiting also highlighted another issue. Gas stations are designed to facilitate cars lining up at the pump. But on weekends and public holidays, we encountered charge points in stations that had numerous cars waiting, with no obvious way to tell who arrived when and no obvious place to wait without blocking other drivers.
I was also glad I wasn’t alone, as some of the charge points were badly lit
Another recurring issue was having to register to use new charge points, which could be challenging in places where I had limited signal. You can aim for a charge point you’re already registered at, but with more than 300 electric-charging companies globally, that’s not always possible.
This charging station required the use of an app and therefore good cell service or Wi-Fi.
Traveling across Britain, the provision of charge points — and by extension the inconvenience of one being unavailable — varied. Much of our tour was in the North of England and we had a few sticky situations near the beginning of the month where we hadn’t planned as thoroughly.
Much of our tour was in the north of England, where we had a few sticky situations early on in which we hadn’t planned as thoroughly. One time we arrived at a fast-charge point at a highway gas station, only to discover the card reader wasn’t working to start the charge.
With limited options, we finally rolled into a spot at Ikea with less than 1 mile left of charge
It got me thinking how difficult it must be in more remote parts of the world.
California is home to a third of all the EV charge points in the US, but in North Dakota, home to only 60 charging stations, a suddenly out-of-service charge point could leave you stranded.
One of the out-of-service charging stations on Alex’s journey.
The VW ABT and other electric vans such as the Mercedes eVito — which has a range of 93 miles — have a significantly lower range than personal vehicles like the Tesla Model 3 (278 miles) and Mustang Mach E (370 miles). Range anxiety might be gone, but numerous inconveniences can still add hours to cross-country journeys.
The most common 7-kilowatt chargers in shopping-center parking lots in the UK require just under eight hours to charge a typical EV.
There were two of us, so one could check the apps to be sure we were heading to faster charges. But those driving alone must rely on highway signs to direct them, which don’t specify what is available. More detailed signs would be incredibly helpful.
On the flip side, the low financial and environmental cost of my month on the road was significantly more important to me than the inconvenience.
Prices of a full charge.
The average gas price in the UK is about 1.45 pounds (about $1.96) per liter, which works out at around 25 pence (about $0.34) per mile, compared with about 12.5 pence (about $0.17) per mile or 10 pounds (about $13.50) per full charge on the ABT.
This would be a lot cheaper for those able to charge at home rather than public charge points.
True, it required more planning, but with 500,000 charge points in the US promised by 2030, I’m hoping the problems I encountered will be no more when I buy an EV for myself.