Greg Olsen’s recent article on the trials and tribulations of a new EV owner on the road is a good reminder that our EV charging infrastructure is still a ways behind our existing fossil fuels one.
(Something I also mused on as I travelled from Melbourne to Perth and back earlier this year).
As a longer-term EV owner and distance traveller, I am used to the planning needed – although I do occasionally get the feeling of being the ‘third Leyland brother’.
Greg’s article has done a great job to remind us all that here in Australia we are still at the beginning of our EV Transition as well as learning all the features and differences the EV offers to the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle.
This means Australian EV owners need not only to plan their trips with more care than for a fossil-fuelled vehicle, they need to regularly remind Australia’s elected representatives (at all levels) that their job is to make what is now an inevitable transition a smoother one.
It is therefore interesting to both look back in history at the last transport transition, as well as overseas where the current one is further developed. These, together, give a perspective on what the future of EV charging holds.
Transitions through history
To begin with: when you look back at any historical transition, they seem almost instantaneous, although if you’re in the middle of one they can seem tortuously slow.
Realistically, while we have come a long way since the first Nissan Leafs and Mitsubishi iMiEVs first released around 2010, and we are now at 3-ish percent of new car sales in Australia – we are still not far into it. The world overall is passing 10% and Europe is already at 24%.
In the transition from the horse and cart to the internal combustion engine, the fuel pump that we take for granted was actually only first deployed in 1919.
That’s some 25 years AFTER the advent of the ‘horseless carriage’. Before that, there were two gallon tins you bought at the local hardware or chemist. (At Model T Ford fuel economy, one tin provided perhaps 67km if you were lucky).
A spare tin was handy, but on long trips more than one was essential. Long distance travel at that time not only needed lots of planning and fuel tins: you also needed spare parts, a full took kit and LOTS of puncture repair materials.
(The tarmac road system we take for granted now didn’t exist 100 years ago – in fact, sealing of the Nullarbor Highway was only completed in 1976).
Interestingly, a recent discussion over lunch amongst some older drivers I was with dwelt on the fact that even as recently as the 1960s and 70s, they planned long trips with the then equivalent of the internet: the fuel company paper maps showing the locations of their brand of station … and the times they were open.
What examples can we see for the future of the EV transition?
The UK saw EV charger sites exceed petrol stations back in 2019. Even further down the transition track is Norway. Yes, it is small in size, but it is offering different challenges to an EV transition that they have been working hard to overcome.
Norway is mountainous, subject to extreme winter conditions and in parts it is sparsely populated. Norway has also the highest EV new sales percentage in the world (86% in October this year, made up of 77% BEV and 9% PHEV). In Norway, you don’t need to travel more than 50km to find a DC fast charger.
There are also enough DC chargers in Norway to charge 4,000 EVs at once out of a fleet of almost half a million on the road, meaning little chance of a long queue. This is the result of long-term planning and support from the government.
Another part of Norway’s investment strategy is to provide financial support for housing associations to buy and install chargers – with grants of 20-50% of the cost offered in several cities. (By the way, for more on the UK and Norwegian EV policy and support strategies, see articles here for the UK and here for Norway).
So, where is Australia at?
It was only three years ago that I took off around Victoria in what was effectively the ‘two gallon tin’ era (no DC charging) and had little difficulty in navigating 2400km around the state in seven days.
Now I would say (on the major routes at least) we are already past ‘two gallon tins’ and into the ‘fuel company map’ stage of planning a long-distance EV trip.
DC chargers form a skeletal network throughout NSW, the east coast of Queensland as far as Port Douglas (and as far inland as Winton and Longreach), plus the major routes in Victoria and as far west as Adelaide.
Tasmania is even further developed, recently achieving a maximum of around 80km between DC charging sites. For Tasmania, it is now a matter of expanding the number of chargers at each site as EV numbers increase, rather than establishing new ones.
The internet also makes it easier – but instead of limited opening times we have to deal with the rather more random event of out-of-order chargers. (Mainly due to the still limited numbers of chargers – commonly one – currently found at many sites).
So what have I learnt from my travels in the land of the Slow Transition? Currently the intrepid EV traveller needs both to plan ahead, and have a plan B in place.
Plan A involves having a route-map organised before you leave. It also involves working out beforehand what Apps and (if available) RFID cards may be needed to access these networks.
Google Maps is a quick and simple way to get the basics of distances between chargers – as is the GPS in most modern cars. However that does not take into account your speed, the weather or the terrain you are covering. (For example, flat coastal roads or mountain climbs to the ski fields).
For new EV owners getting used to the energy use characteristics of an EV versus an ICE one (for instance ICE uses more fuel around town, EVs use more on the highway), the dedicated website ‘A Better Route Planner’ (https://abetterrouteplanner.com/) is a boon for planning the first long-distance trips.
This site calculates your likely energy usage based on your EV model, expected speed, load, weather and the actual terrain you will be travelling.
Screenshot from A Better Route Planner. Image: https://abetterrouteplanner.com
Sources of site locations, charger capacity and status updates (in order of coverage):
- Plugshare (Plugshare.com) for a general overview of current and coming chargers by type;
- The major DC charging providers for their own sites and information on charging access (currently Chargefox and Evie are the biggies for EVs other than Tesla);
- For Tesla owners – their extensive Supercharger network (which can be used in addition to Chargefox and Evie); plus:
- Jolt as a new and growing network.
Coming networks to watch:
- Ampol’s AmpCharge has just started and currently has around 5 sites with more soon;
- BP Pulse has just installed the first of a planned ‘1000 across Australia and New Zealand’.
Current DC charging locations. Image: Plugshare.com
Plan B involves:
- In the Plan A route, make sure you include the intermediate chargers between the ones you intend to stop at;
- Ensure you have App and (if available) RFID card access to all the possible network payment systems they use, even if you don’t intend to stop at them in your Plan A route;
- As you leave home, check Plugshare and the network owner’s site for your first planned charging stop to make sure it is still available. (The majors (Chargefox and Evie) have live updates on the status of a charger, as does Plugshare via user comments).
- As per the above point: before you leave each charging stop, check the status of your next one/s.
General ‘E-Venturer’ advice
‘Charge early, charge often’ is a good motto to get around the problem of chargers that may be busy or broken down. It is always best to plan to stop at the one BEFORE you really need that charge.
Also, charge to 80% anyway – even if you don’t think you need that much to get to the next one. This enables you to skip one or two if needed and/or deal with head winds, unexpected uphill sections, etc.
I only break the ‘to 80%’ rule and charge less (to save time) if I am stopping soon afterwards at the end of a day’s travels – I might then just put in enough to get to my destination, plus perhaps a buffer of enough to get me to a DC charger the next day if my overnight charge lets me down. (A very unlikely occurrence, I might add).
Normally I just work on comfortably enough to get to my overnight stop and replenish to 100% by AC overnight.
If going “off the beaten track”
On long trips where any EV chargers (let alone DC ones) are few and far between, power points of varying sizes and shapes are still easily found – but you need to be able to use them to the maximum they can provide.
As I wrote recently, kilowatts matter when it comes to waiting. Having an 8A (2kW) charger is a waste when you have a 22kW, 32A three phase outlet available! (Or for that matter, a maximum 7kW charging car at that 22kW three phase outlet, but that’s another story).
To minimise wait time in these situations, I carry two portable EVSEs. My main one will give me a charge from the lowest possible car charge rate (1.4kW) up to the maximum for my Kona (7kW). It is by the way able to charge at 11 and 22kW AC for newer cars capable of those rates.
Along with it I carry adaptors for 10, 15, 20 and even 32A single-phase sockets. I also carry the OEM one that came with the car for emergency if the other breaks. (For more on these chargers and the leads needed by more adventurous EV drivers – see my article here).
Looking at the maps of coming DC charging sites, the network (and number of chargers at each site) is growing fast. However, unless our politicians follow up the growth of the EV uptake by supporting the network roll-out and developing the grid, we may not have as smooth a transition as is being planned for overseas.
The next planned stage in the growing DC charger network for WA. Image: Synergy.
(BTW: compare this to the existing WA section in the current Plugshare map above).
All-up, I am happy to say that it will probably not be long though before the ‘intrepid’ interstate EV traveller will be no more and travelling intra- or interstate will require no difference in planning to that for an ICE vehicle. (Which we really have only become used to since the 1980s).
At that time, our ‘third Leyland’ mantle can be handed to the first buyers of the Rivian AWD ute as they head into the Australian outback.
I have personally arrived at one charger that broke down as I got there … and had to book a room that night as a result. In some ways that’s the equivalent of arriving after-hours in past times. (Mind-you, after-hours arrival still applies at more remote places, like the Nullarbor Roadhouse. There is always a queue for refuelling at the 7am reopening time).
To find those chargers can be tricky sometimes as some are from very new providers, but the internet helps a lot.
Bryce Gaton is an expert on electric vehicles and contributor for The Driven and Renew Economy. He has been working in the EV sector since 2008 and is currently working as EV electrical safety trainer/supervisor for the University of Melbourne. He also provides support for the EV Transition to business, government and the public through his EV Transition consultancy EVchoice.