“Should I buy an electric car or should I buy a petrol car instead?” – This is not a surprising question to get asked when you work on transport at a consumer organisation. Here is what you have to keep in mind when making your choice:
Electric cars are becoming financially interesting. The average cost of owning an electric car is expected to match that of a petrol car by 2024. As for example our colleagues at consumer group DECO show, it already is a cost-effective option in Portugal.
But then, a colleague recently asked: “Will I be able to charge an electric car as easily as I fill up a petrol car, everywhere I go?”. His question shows that, beyond price, the convenience of charging electric cars is a crucial factor for these cleaner vehicles to move away from the sidelines and into the mainstream. It is not an insurmountable challenge – if decision-makers pay attention and enforce the law. Let us take you on a brief road trip of what’s needed.
Condition 1: Accessible charging points across Europe
There are disparities in terms of the number of charging stations. The answer is legally binding deployment targets and better EU funding to make this deployment happen. This is especially pertinent in urban areas where people are less likely to have their own parking space and cannot use their home’s electricity supply.
Where public charging points already exist, they must work for all cars. Electric car drivers today complain about defective charging stations – which in a worst-case scenario can turn a long-distance drive into a nightmare. To combat this, maintenance and repair must be part of authorities’ tendering processes with charging station providers – limiting the likelihood of malfunction.
By default, charging stations should set tariffs based on the amount of power the car is charged with – that is, price/kWh.
It’s also frustrating to pull up to a station and find it occupied. Information about real-time availability is indispensable. For best-practices we can look to Norway, where an open, publicly-owned database centralises all information on charging stations in real-time. In the physical world, uniform and visible signposting ought to guide drivers so they are not distracted from driving during their search for a place to charge. Drivers should also feel safe at charging stations. This means visiting prominently placed, well-lit stations that provide protection from inclement weather.
And while some people might be able to install a system for home-charging, others living in apartments may not. Existing schemes can serve as inspiration here. France and Spain’s ‘right to plug’ facilitates the installation of a charging station in the parking lot of an apartment building. An Amsterdam resident who does not own a parking space and lacks access to a charging station within a 300-metre radius, can request to have one installed near their home or workplace.
Condition 2: Easy use of and payment at charging points
Charging stations must be practical to use. German consumer group Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband notes it is often not possible to drive up to a charging station and use it – as would be the case with petrol stations. Currently, a driver tends to have to sign a contract with an operator. He/she then gets asked to confirm their identity at the charging station using an app or contactless card.
The result? A person driving across Europe may need an array of apps or cards to charge on-the-go. This is hardly practical: an Austrian person wishing to drive to Croatia will only be able to do so with accessible and easy charging possibilities. A patchwork of systems – that may or may not be interoperable – won’t instil consumer confidence.
But this can be improved: firstly, ad-hoc charging – that is, charging at any station without the need for a contract – with commonly available debit cards and, where available, cash must always be possible. Where stations do not support this, some sort of ‘roaming’ system will be needed: a driver uses the charging station belonging to another provider with the app/card of their home operator – and pays a surcharge for doing so. The onus here is on regulators to monitor so that surcharges do not become discriminatory.
Condition 3: Make charging tariffs fair, transparent and comparable
Petrol stations must clearly display their prices in cost per litre. This works well in terms of market competition as drivers can easily compare and look for a cheaper option. At charging stations, however, direct pricing info is often unavailable. The consumer is expected to have an app or to consult some online pricing catalogue.
[B]eyond price, the convenience of charging electric cars is a crucial factor for these cleaner vehicles to move away from the sidelines and into the mainstream.
Even the selection of an operator is difficult. Consumer group Arbeiterkammer analysed over 4,000 public charging stations in Austria: their research found huge price variations – with the most expensive option 2.5 times more costly than the cheapest one – and, above all, that any comparison is virtually impossible. The fact that there is no reference for pricing complicates things too: some operators propose monthly subscriptions, others pay-as-you-go or session rates.
And yet EU law requires clear, comparable and fair tariffs. This is possible by mirroring the price/litre logic of petrol stations. By default, charging stations should set tariffs based on the amount of power the car is charged with – that is, price/kWh.
Create a convenient system now, rather than fixing headaches later
As new electric car models enter the market, the need for convenient charging grows. By setting the right market conditions, decision-makers can avoid turning today’s headache into tomorrow’s chronic migraine.
[Update] A brochure on electric car charging is now also available: Making electric cars convenient across Europe
 See, for example, https://fr.chargemap.com/map for a good overview of charging points in Europe.
 See also: Norsk Elbilforening (2019) Elbilforeningen vil ta ladegrep.
 An existing EU law, the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive, already requests this – and should be better enforced.
 Again the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive.