A big mess (“grand bazar”), a tangled web (“verworrenes Netz”) – these are headlines French and German newspapers have used to describe the maze people need to navigate when charging their electric car. Beyond access to public charging points, paying for a charge – and knowing what you might have to pay – is indeed a hot consumer topic as road transport electrifies.
The overhaul of an EU law on ‘alternative fuels infrastructure’ this year could make this easier – provided legislators reinforce it to allow people to compare tariffs in price per kilowatt-hour (kWh) and pay using their debit or credit cards. Such basic convenience plays a crucial role in the success of the EU’s climate ambition.
From the cost of electric car ownership to daily convenience
Electric cars are on the rise. BEUC research this year on the lifetime cost of owning an electric car showed they are already an affordable option for many consumers. We revealed electric cars are also the most ‘equitable’ engine on the market. That is because second- and third-hand owners – who bear less of the car’s depreciation and benefit from low maintenance costs – will make savings for each electric car sold today.
For such savings to become a reality, electric cars must also be the most convenient option in terms of day-to-day use. Unlike what we’re used to at petrol stations – or greengrocers and fishmongers, for that matter – many charging point operators have their own payment systems, such as cards or apps. People driving longer distances, or across borders, are therefore required to have multiple cards or apps at the ready. And they may face confusing pricing systems.
Research by consumer groups from across the BEUC network illustrates the issue: In 2018, Austria’s Arbeiterkammer highlighted that price comparisons between charging point operators are difficult. In 2020, Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband from Germany warned three charging operators about using non-transparent prices. One provider for instance charged a price per minute – although this has no relation to the actual amount of power supplied. Another one used different prices on the basis of people’s charging behaviour.
A “bewildering array of sub-standard apps and payment methods, and drivers can face unnecessarily expensive charges,” UK consumer group Which? meanwhile commented following their analysis of the country’s public charging network last March. And an electric car journey in Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain found that “consumers are forced to contract two, three or even more energy suppliers to ensure that they can use the next station” .
Payment and pricing’s role in climate action
‘Card payment’ and ‘pricing systems’ may not sound environmental, but they are the nuts and bolts that translate climate policies to the reality of our daily lives – and ensure its success. Electric cars can play a major role in decarbonising road transport, but only with easy payment and comparable pricing to make them more convenient for consumers.
Good news: as part of its ‘Fit for 55’ plan to cut CO2 emissions 55% by 2030, the European Commission is revising the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive which regulates charging infrastructure. It makes a very promising proposal: there are targets for more charging infrastructure, and the law will be turned into a stronger ‘regulation’ which should help limit differences in the charging experience between EU countries. In terms of payment, operators will be required to allow so-called ‘ad hoc’ methods beyond their own subscription models. The Commission will also require charging prices to be displayed in a comparable and transparent manner.
Reinforce the law to make electric cars the most convenient option
Consumer groups advise the European Parliament and Member States to reinforce the Commission’s proposal. For example, the Commission intends to allow low-power (<50 KW) charging stations to take payment by QR code only. And existing fast charging stations would only need to be retrofitted ad hoc payments – such as debit cards – by 2027.
For BEUC, all charging points should enable payment by card and contactless devices as soon as possible. We cannot wait another five years. This is in line with consumer expectations: Germans interested in electric driving express their preference (84%) for using a card to pay when they charge without a provider-specific contract. It is therefore promising to see a recent decision by Germany’s Federal Council which will make card readers mandatory at all charging points in the country.
The Commission’s proposal also does not rule out time-based or session fees. Neither are useful to help Europeans compare tariffs between providers or knowing what they will pay. BEUC advises EU decision-makers to clearly set prices in kilowatt-hour by default.
As we already wrote in 2019, the need for convenient charging grows as more electric cars hit Europe’s roads. EU legislators should untangle the web of electric car charging, so current and future drivers can compare providers and get the best deal.
 This electric car journey was a joint project by consumer organisations Altroconsumo (Italy), DECO Proteste (Portugal), OCU (Spain), and Test Aankoop/Test Achats (Belgium).