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- In the middle of nowhere with a Battery Electric Car

A Young Curmudgeon's 2200 km Electric Car Road Trip to Scotland

6w ago

25.1K

Long Story Short

* In March 2019 I drove a Renault Zoe electric car 2200 km in 3 days, from the South coast of England to Scotland for a weekend trip

* For the entire journey, charging costs totalled at £38

* Despite general public preconceptions, this was not a zero CO2 emissions journey

* The cold temperatures limited the battery capability to fast charge, consequently extending the journey time more than expected

* It's not Range Anxiety; It's Charger Anxiety. UK rapid charging network is in need of major upgrades

* Observations in this journey, show the strengths of the Tesla strategy which has already dealt with all the issues I observed, several years in advance

* As an engineer, I see no technical showstoppers to solving any of the problems I observed in this journey and that points to a lot of change in the 2020 decade

Introduction

Battery electric vehicles (BEV) are all the rage in the world of passenger cars now. Back in 2013 I test drove a Nissan Leaf and even then it was clear, this is the future, or at least it should be for every-day cars. By that I mean the way they drive; not the issues that are being thoroughly debated (e.g. range anxiety, long charging times, uncertain battery life, life cycle emissions, source of electricity, etc).

With BEVs, silent silky smooth & instant responsiveness need not be an attribute reserved for luxury limousines. So much so that I decided to get my own BEV.

This article is not a review of a vehicle. This is more a 2019 snapshot of BEV user experience.

BEVs are perfect commuters cars. However, improving range and fast charging capabilities on paper, open the door for long journeys. What is this like in practice?

To answer this nagging question, I decided to take my BEV on a 2200 km (1360 mile) three-day road trip from the south coast of England to Scotland and back. The following is a six point summary of what it was like to do this journey in a BEV in the UK in 2019. In the conclusions I'll list what all this may mean for the future of motoring.

If you're not a person of science or have forgotten what all the energy related units mean, please scroll down to the bottom of this article for simplified explanations.

1. The Car

A Renault Zoe

2. The Route

Day 1 - The journey to Fort William and back is 924 km (574 miles). Accounting for roadworks and temporary speed limits and diversions, it takes approximately 13 hours to drive with no stops.

About 17 hours in a typical gasoline/diesel car with rest stops, one re-fueling stop and no driver swapping.

Car cruise control speed value was set to 112.6 km/hour (70 mph) on motorways.

Day 1 and Day 3

Day 3 is the same as Day 1 in distance and times.

Day 2 – 354 km (220 miles) taking 6 hours to drive with no stops. About 8-9 hours in reality with no re-fueling stops in a typical gasoline/diesel car.

Day 2

Total of 2200 km (1368 miles) over 3 days.

In both Day 1 and Day 3, the weather was dominated by heavy westerly winds in the region between Liverpool and Glasgow. The route between Liverpool & Glasgow is also dominated by long rolling hills.

Ambient temperature fluctuated between 6°C and 1°C during the whole journey.

3. Charging

Using the only rapid charger available in the centre of Fort William

Charging is a subject that can make or break the experience of operating an EV. The numbers I gathered out of this journey could either put you off EVs or consider it a good trade-off depending on your perspective. Please don't forget how long this journey was.

* Day 1 Charging time: 6.2 hours

* Day 2 Charging time: 4.6 hours

* Day 3 Charging time: 6.7 hours

* Average Charging Power: 23.7 kW despite all charge points being 43 kW capable

* Total cost of 415.5 kWh of energy purchased to complete the journey: £38.54

Total charging time of 17.5 hours is an astronomical amount of time to kill just to get enough energy to move on. However, considering your age, stamina, driving skills and bladder volume how much time would you have spent stationary when undertaking a 2200 km journey in a gasoline car?

Within my driving capabilities & stamina, I estimate the EV to have added about 3-4 hours to each leg of this long road trip.

There is also no chance of speeding things up by simply swapping drivers.

You can however justify added journey time as a trade-off with operating cost. A small EV can complete this journey with an energy cost between £38 - £80 depending on the deal you have with rapid charger operator. Scotland giving electricity for free for EVs also help. That results in 0.017 - 0.036 £/km for this journey.

The elephant in the above table is the charging speed. The car is capable of accepting ~40 kW charging power but, it did not in this journey. The main reason for this is battery temperature. The Renault Zoe battery thermal management is not advanced enough to enable peak charging power in the cold environments. As far as I know, more expensive BEV battery packs (e.g. Tesla) possess the capability to heat the battery cells to enable faster charging when cold.

If I did this journey in the British summer time in a Renault Zoe, I estimate only a 1 to 2 hour extension of each leg of the journey. BEVs need more advanced thermal management systems to enable robust and consistent performance through different weather conditions.

4. Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Unless you drive a BEV in a 100% renewable energy based electricity grid, each kilometre you drive has a CO2 emissions impact on the environment. A combustion power plant somewhere made a contribution to what's stored in the battery pack. I wanted to know what this was for my road trip in grams of CO2 per kilometre [gCO2/km].

The United Kingdom electricity grid uses a mix of renewable, fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources to generate electricity. You can watch live what the UK grid is doing here or use the excellent GridCarbon smartphone app to see the estimated carbon intensity of a unit of UK electricity at any given time.

The GridCarbon app enabled me to find the UK grid carbon intensity at the times I plug-in. For this journey, I bought 415.5 kWh of energy and based on the grid carbon intensity at each charge, this journey was responsible of approximately 79.7 kg of CO2 emissions.

Indicated electrical energy economy for this journey is 5.47 km/kWh (3.4 miles/kWh)

The kWh value, kg value and km/kWh value can be crunched to a gCO2/kWh value.

The Renault Zoe achieved a 35.1 gCO2/km value for this journey. Comparison with popular modern gasoline powered cars help to derive some meaning out of this value.

Propelling a small BEV even in a dirty energy grid is still likely to have superior CO2 emissions compared to popular high efficiency gasoline vehicles operated in a laboratory test cycle.

Driving a BEV in 2019 in the UK is definitely not a zero emissions exercise. If you drive a bigger heavier BEV with lower km/kWh (low electrical energy economy), it may not be as environmentally friendly as you think it is.

However the falling costs and growing proportion of renewables in the power grid is pushing things in the correct direction. From an energy source to wheels perspective, BEVs are still likely to be better on CO2 emissions than equivalent gasoline/diesel powered vehicles.

5. Anxiety

There was no Range Anxiety in this journey to Scotland. EVs are now better at gauging how far they can go depending on terrain and how it's being driven.

The real anxiety is Charger Anxiety. "Will my next charger be available? Will it work when I connect? Will my Plan B and Plan C chargers work? Will I be languishing at a slow charging point?"

If you decide to use a BEV for a journey longer than your routine, you have to do some pre-planning to ensure arrival on time without getting delayed at slow chargers or stranded. There is no "get in & just go without thinking twice" with an EV, yet.

Most non-Tesla onboard car sat-nav/infotainment systems are rather inept at helping you do the planning. Hence, you need a decent smartphone with apps by charge station operators or charge point location aggregators like ZapMap. The UK motorway rapid charger operator Ecotricity also force you to use their smartphone app to activate chargers.

Most UK motorway rapid charging stations posses only 1 or 2 chargers that can serve one car at a time at a dedicated clearly marked parking space. Either through ignorance or malice, some drivers of normal gasoline/diesel vehicles sometimes decide to occupy these precious charger spaces even when there is no shortage of general parking.

In the EV world this is called "ICE ing a charger"

When you reach an unoccupied rapid charger marked as fully functional and plug-in, there is no solid guarantee that it will charge your car.Some times the electrical/electronic systems in the car simply refuse to work with a charger throwing a red light and no explanation.

Sometimes in such cases, if you unplug and plug back in several times with a prayer to J. J Thomson, it works.

This general inconsistency is unbearable when you're 1000 km away from home in the middle of nowhere. This creates anxiety to levels that at some parts of the journey, I maintained 30-40% energy reserve when deciding to plug-in.

Gasoline/diesel fuel stations and their pumps fail all the time and it's a non issue because of their numbers; number of stations and the number of pumps at each station.

I managed to complete this journey to Scotland and back without incident. The pre-planning worked and I was an off-season tourist and all the charging points were available. However the margins between success, inconvenience and failure was uncomfortably small.

6. Tesla Envy

I can't afford a Tesla yet but my envy is not of their cars; It's their charging network.

Rapid/Super charging Tesla stations are not widespread in the UK but they appear to be well placed and each station is equipped with ample number of chargers almost in preparation to serve a much larger Tesla fleet in the future. Tesla cars can also use non Tesla chargers.

Meanwhile, non Tesla BEV owners are having to get by with a rapid charger network that has a much wider spread but is very disparate and inconsistent. Most high volume car manufacturers from Korea and Europe are about to release large numbers of BEVs to comply with new European laws limiting average carbon intensity of the vehicle fleets they sell.

When these non-Tesla BEVs hit UK roads, the existing motorway charger networks (not the energy grid) will be easily overwhelmed.

Typical major UK motorway non-Tesla charging station with only two chargers. Some may only have one. It will be total misery when all the mainstream BEVs hit the roads

So What?

In 2019, if you primarily use a BEV for a routine ~200 km or shorter round trip with charging at home or destination, rarely any of the above problems will ever register on your radar. You get to enjoy the ownership of a cheap to run, quiet and silky smooth driving car in its technical comfort zone.

The cynical among you might take my experience as proof of how BEVs will not be or should not be the future of motoring. If any of these problems could not be solved, then I would agree.

For now I'm hanging on to my 20 year old gasoline Lexus V8 which is now serving less thane 10% of my driving needs. A point-by-point look at the problems tell me that affordable BEVs may well be able to serve that difficult 10% of driving within the next decade.

* I'm too skeptical to believe reports of imminent battery "breakthroughs". I will believe it when I see it making way from a laboratory to mass produced consumer electronics or premium BEVs. Otherwise it might as well be a breakthrough in toilet paper

* Latest generation of battery packs with liquid thermal management systems are capable of enabling the battery perform better in cold environments and charge faster. The curtailed charging power I faced is already solved in the latest generations of BEVs

* Charger Anxiety is something that may linger until established car manufacturers do something to replicate the Tesla Supercharger strategy for their electric cars. However, latest news relating to organisations like GRIDSERVE appear to be preparing to cash-in on a future need for well placed EV charger clusters. News like this point to a possibility of Charger Anxiety in long journeys disappearing

* A compact affordable BEV with about 60 kWh liquid cooled battery pack which can charge at least at 50 kW power consistently, would have enabled me to complete this journey with little or no pain. As of 2019, BEVs of this particular specification are already available to order in the UK

Conclusions

When some journalists and analysts say, majority of people will be driving BEVs by 2025 or 2030 and BEVs are simpler than gasoline cars, don't trust them.

BEVs that you can get in and drive are not the same as toy cars we used to play with. They are different machines but can be as complex as any gasoline/diesel vehicle to engineer and build. BEVs have a long way to go to match the affordability & robustness of the transport infrastructure built around gasoline/diesel vehicles around the globe over a 100 year period. The BEV utopia of Norway is very difficult to be replicated with a snap of a finger in other countries.

With BEVs you can buy today, what you see is equivalent to the first few generations of the Apple iPhone. They have issues that will take a few model iterations to iron out. The infrastructure will take about a decade of consistent development to reach acceptable reliability and availability (that's just in the UK).

So until then we have to stop demonising or taxing out conventional gasoline/diesel powered cars available now. People need to get to work on time, build houses, save lives, care for the elderly and teach the kids. Taxing / pricing the load bearers of an economy out of robust cars with no real improvement in public transport, will lead to failure. The internal combustion engine will be around for a long time around the world with the assistance of hybrid electrification.

My experience of BEV ownership has been mostly positive. There is nothing better than quiet serenity in a car when doing the daily grind to go make a living. There are no technical showstoppers to solving any of the major issues discussed in this article. The real concerns could be in the supply chain of key BEV parts and the CO2 impact of building them (and disposal at end of life).

BEVs have enough consumer appeal to sell fast, well before their capabilities reach parity with equivalent gasoline/diesel vehicles. The disruptions this will cause in the transport and energy industry makes the 2020 decade a very exiting time to be an engineer.

And finally, yes the trip was worth it. Scotland is very very beautiful.

Simplified Definitions of Units

Newton [N] = A measure of force. 1 Newton is what you feel when holding still approximately 1/10th of a kg mass on planet earth

Joule [J] = A measure of work done. 1 J of work is done when 1 N of force is used to move a mass for 1 meter of distance

Watt [W] = A measure of power or ability to do work. 1 Watt is equivalent to 1 J of work done in 1 second of time (speed of work)

Kilo Watt [kW] = 1000 Watts

KiloWatt hour [kWh] = Measure of total energy used, stored or delivered. A 10 kWh capacity battery can theoretically deliver 10 kW for 1 hour or 5 kW for 2 hours.

kilometres per kilo Watt hour [km/kWh] = kilometres that can be driven using 1 kWh of energy (energy economy of a vehicle).

References

1. Google Maps

2. Prof. Alex Rogers, Dr Oliver Parson (2019). GridCarbon application, University of Oxford. URL: www.cs.ox.ac.uk/people/alex.rogers/gridcarbon/

3. Volkswagen and Toyota OEM websites and public domain product specifications

4. Electric Vehicle Database; ev-database.uk/

5. Current News Website, Liam Stoker. (2009). GRIDSERVE unveils £1 Billion 'Electric Forecourt' EV infrastructure programme. URL: www.current-news.co.uk/news/gridserve-unveils-1-billion-electric-forecourt-ev-charging-programme, Accessed: 5 April 2019

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