What drivers think about Electric Vehicle smart charging and what will make them do it

Our top 4 recommendations for companies how they should design smart charging offers

Victoria Pelka

The electricity grid in Great Britain is facing a big challenge over the coming years. More and more people are buying Electric Vehicles (EVs). This is good news since their vehicle life cycle emissions are 17–30% lower than a petrol or diesel vehicle.* They are an important ingredient to decarbonise our transport system.

But in order to charge EVs, their owners plug them into the national electricity grid, just like a kettle or washing machine. If all EV owners do that at the same time, they create spikes in energy demand, as in Figure 1. At the moment, most EV owners charge their car when they come home in the evening — which is when the grid already sees a spike in demand from people coming home, turning on lights and heaters, and cooking. The problem is, just as a highway can only carry so many cars before it gets congested, the grid can only carry so much electricity at any point in time. If energy demand outstrips the capacity of the grid, we need to build thicker wires which increases everyone’s electricity bill.

Figure 1: Electricity demand of average non-EV-owning UK household (in black) and EV demand profile when first plugged in at home on a typical weekday (in orange)**

The good news is, Figure 1 shows that there are plenty of times during the day when there is less demand on the electricity grid. So how can we get people to charge their cars during those times of the day and night?

It’s time to speak to drivers

Citizens Advice is the official representative of energy consumers in Great Britain. In our “Future Energy Consumers” programme we are exploring how the energy system, and the rules about how people use it, should change to meet the needs of current and future energy consumers.

We thought it’s time to ask drivers what they think will help them change their charging behaviour, whilst giving them confidence that they will have enough battery to get them to their destination. Working with the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), we spoke to over 90 drivers in England, Scotland and Wales. They were a mix of:

  • full electric, hybrid electric, petrol and diesel drivers;
  • micro, small and medium sized businesses who rely on their vehicle to do business;
  • people with mobility issues and parents with small children. Both of these groups rely more heavily on their car than others.

There are many ways in which EV drivers can be incentivised or assisted to charge at different times of the day. Through focus groups and interviews we spoke to drivers about some products and services that are already on the market, and some that are being developed.

Figure 2: Smart EV charging options we discussed with drivers during our research

What drivers told us

All drivers we spoke to said that at least one of the smart charging options would fit in with their lifestyle and driving habits. But not any cost. It needs to fit in with their daily routines and mobility needs. Drivers also weighed up many factors when deciding whether the smart charging options were for them, including financial risks and benefits, the time they would need to invest in it, and how much control they would still have over their battery level.

It’s not surprising that the drivers with mobility issues and parents with young children we spoke to had concerns about smart charging. Having control over their car’s charging levels was very important to them because of their unpredictable daily routine and potential for emergency journeys. They were unwilling to spend much time on planning their car’s charging in their already busy lives.

“If you have young families, generally you tend to be time poor because you’re spending so much time looking after your children, and so it is an inconvenience, and where does your priority lie?” Parent of young child, England

Small businesses that rely on vehicles told us that their prime concern was to keep their business running, even if that meant charging their vehicles at higher prices. They were not keen on chasing small savings if it cost them a lot of admin time. That’s why a third party managing their charging was seen as a popular proposition. Those businesses whose operating hours coincide with peak electricity usage hours said they would feel penalised if they had to pay more for their energy.

“As a taxi firm, off peak [charging] doesn’t work — we’re a 24/7 country these days with businesses working around the clock.” Small business owner, Scotland

Our top 4 recommendations for how to make smart charging work for drivers

Many different companies are operating in the smart charging market, from energy suppliers and app developers, to demand aggregators and car manufacturers. They all play an important part in shaping the wider EV drivers’ smart charging experience.

During our research, drivers shared their concerns and suggested many things that they would like to see companies offer to make smart charging more appealing to them. This has informed our list of recommendations to companies that are directly or indirectly involved in drivers’ smart charging experience:

1. Smart charging should be easy. Companies need to reduce the complexity, minimise the time needed to engage and ensure design reflects user requirements.

  • Smart charging options should be accessible for people who are not digitally savvy, or have particular motor or sight issues.
  • Users should still be able to charge if they live in locations with weak mobile or internet signal.

2. Smart charging offers should be tailored. They should fit around the routines, needs and energy technology of each household and business. Companies should assess whether their offers are suitable for their customers, and pay particular attention to:

  • small businesses who may have less time and resource to actively engage in smart charging compared to large businesses; and
  • households who rely on their car more than others and would be more vulnerable to not having enough charge. These include individuals with mobility issues, parents of young children, and those living in rural and remote areas with restricted access to public transport or public charging.

3. Users need to be able to retain a level of control that they are comfortable with. Smart charging can involve trusting companies or technology to manage charging. Companies that help drivers manage their EV charging should agree with their customers what the right balance between control and automation is, and:

  • enable users to set and change preferences and requirements, and
  • give users the ability to override scheduled charges or demand side response events.

4. Users of smart charging should be protected. Smart charging is a new proposition which brings uncertainties and risks. Protections and guarantees will help people to use smart chargers with confidence.

  • Companies whose product or service affects drivers’ electricity costs should provide financial guarantees which seek to limit the money that users put at risk, and/or guarantee a minimum level of savings or income.
  • There should be transparency for users about their data. Consumers should be able to control how their data is accessed, used and shared.
  • Companies that manage drivers’ charging on their behalf should offer guarantees or insurances to protect users from any negative effects of smart charging on battery health.
  • Users should be able to easily move between smart charging offers including time-of-use tariffs if they find they are not working for them or if their circumstances change.
  • Companies involved in smart charging should have clear complaints procedures in case something goes wrong, and offer access to redress and alternative dispute resolution.

Smart charging can be a win-win: for EV drivers who can save money on their charging costs, and the electricity grid which is freed up when EVs are charged at different times of the day. It is vital that we achieve this balance, otherwise electricity bills may rise unnecessarily to fund building out the electricity grid, and drivers may be put off from buying an EV if they cannot get enough charge.

Citizens Advice is working with industry and regulators to ensure a smooth and fair transition of the electrification of transport. We are contributing to the EV Energy Taskforce, Ofgem’s review of how consumers pay for the electricity network, and we monitor complaints we receive from EV drivers through our Consumer Helpline.

You can find the full research report “Smart electric vehicle charging: what drivers and businesses find acceptable” on the Citizens Advice website.

Watch this video to see how we brought smart charging to life at our research workshops and hear from drivers themselves.

* European Environment Agency, 2018 https://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/eea-report-confirms-electric-cars

** Data derived from National Grid SO and Element Energy, “EV charging behaviour: A Network Innovation Allowance (NIA) project”, April 2019 https://gallery.mailchimp.com/653aa73e3a1af04b72fa0b5ae/files/bc95eec2-e06e-4fee-8ffe-78a7ab46f604/EV_NIA_v1.0.pdf and OVO https://www.ovoenergy.com/guides/energy-guides/how-much-electricity-does-a-home-use.html

Victoria Pelka

Written by

Senior Policy Researcher on Energy Policy at Citizens Advice

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