9th July 2023

Electric vehicles: Current affairs

Like many aspects of the net zero journey, electric vehicles represent an opportunity for environmental wins, innovation and consumer choice. But they also bring new opportunities for consumer harm.

By Richard Young
Consumers have to be wary; they must get all the information beforehand. It’s important to make sure you know exactly how much you’re being charged per kilowatt

Exaggerated environmental claims, problems with charging infrastructure, pricing anomalies and ‘optimistic’ predicted driving ranges are creating headaches for some drivers who have already bought electric vehicles (EVs), and creating reticence among those still on the fence.

The Government stipulates that all new cars and vans must be fully zero-emission by 2035, which will inevitably mean a dramatic increase in the number of EVs operating in the UK in the near future. This will require a similarly dramatic increase in the number of charging points available and a shift in consumer behaviour; according to the Department for Transport’s ‘Taking Charge: the electric vehicle infrastructure strategy’ report (March 2022) the plan is to have around 300,000 public chargers as a minimum by 2030. The Government’s ambition is “to ensure these chargepoints are installed ahead of demand, inspiring confidence in drivers who have not yet made the switch”.

To that end, around 29,000 publicly available charging devices have already been installed, with a commitment of more than £2.5bn to the EV transition, including nearly £1.7bn to support charging infrastructure.

These numbers are eye-catching, but there are other figures that should be of concern to consumers and regulators. According to the National Audit Office for example, the cost of using public chargepoints could be between 59% and 78% higher than charging at home and the CMA has estimated that people using public chargepoints could be paying £84 more per year than people charging their vehicles domestically.

Steve Playle, CTSI Lead Officer for Energy and Smart Meters, shares concerns that people unable to charge their EVs at home could end up paying over the odds. “Lots of people live in homes without driveways; lots of people live in flats,” he points out. There are also issues of energy grid security with domestic chargepoints. “All of the charging points that are installed will have to be smart chargers, which means that if the national grid is struggling to meet supply, electric car chargers will be switched off to keep the lights on. You may be merrily charging your electric car overnight, ready for a trip somewhere, only to find that the battery is still flat the next morning. At the end of the day, we need to replace all that diesel and petrol with electricity. And that’s got to be generated by the grid. But if it’s not there, then Houston, we have a problem.”

The Government’s ‘Consumer Experience at Public Chargepoints’ report (updated March 2023) was published in response to a consultation which identified a number of consumer protection issues around EVs, including the need to support low-income households. For example, there are currently trials of charging solutions that allow people without off-street parking to charge on cheaper energy tariffs at off-peak times. One trial in Oxford is exploring the use of street adaptations so that people can run a cable from their house to their car through a gulley in the pavement.

The Government also says it will look at mis-selling of EV tariffs and bundles, and will “coordinate with the Electric Vehicle Energy Taskforce to make sure that consumers have access to the right information and advice to choose the right goods or services for their needs”.

Emerging market, emerging problems
In part because widespread take-up of EVs is still some way off, there is limited data available about complaints made to Trading Standards. According to Michelle Bucknell, CTSI Joint Lead Officer for the Motor Trade, “The main complaints are to do with advertised vehicle ranges and EVs not going as far as they’re supposed to on a single charge. In cold conditions particularly, the range is less.

“We need to monitor how many complaints are coming in and what they are about. There are issues with environmental claims, not just in electric vehicles, but generally. A lot of traders are jumping on the bandwagon of trying to sell products with claims that they are cleaner, when actually there’s not a lot of evidence to back that up.

“In general the advice to consumers is the same as for any other type of vehicle: only purchase from a reputable dealer so if you’ve got any problems, you’ve got a better chance of getting them rectified.”

Owen Kennedy is also CTSI Joint Lead Officer for the Motor Trade. “At the moment, the uptake of electric vehicles is being held back by a number of things,” he says. “It’s being held back by the price [new models range from around £50,000 up to over £100,000]; it’s being held back by availability. And there are problems with infrastructure.

“I think we will start to get a rise in complaint levels when the usage goes up. Then we will really get some idea of whether the quoted range figures, for example, are anything close to accurate.”

As an EV owner herself, CTSI Chair Tendy Lindsay has first-hand experience of some of the emerging problems with pricing and infrastructure: “I was recently charged £58 by a public chargepoint, when I would normally pay £26,” she
says. “There was nothing to indicate the price until I’d finished charging. With some of them you have to register with an app, which takes money even if a machine isn’t working.

“Consumers have to be wary; they must get all the information beforehand. It’s important to make sure you know exactly how much you’re being charged per kilowatt. Also find out if it’s cheaper to go to a particular chargepoint.”

The aforementioned ‘Consumer Experience at Public Chargepoints’ report acknowledges that “consumers should be able to understand and compare pricing offers across the UK network to select the best available price, as is currently the case for petrol and diesel vehicles”. However, at present there is little concrete legislation around pricing at public chargepoints. The Electric Vehicles (Smart Charge Points) Regulations 2021, which are overseen by OPSS, apply to domestic chargepoints only.

Room for optimism
James Court is Chief Executive of the Electric Vehicle Association (EVA) England, which represents the interests of current and prospective electric vehicle drivers. He concurs with many of the problems identified by Trading Standards Officers. “The range of an EV depends on so many different factors, and it is really a balance between trying to give the most accurate picture you can, whilst also keeping it understandable and transparent to consumers,” he says.
“As with all cars, range and efficiency is worse in the winter, and worse when driven at high speeds.

“I think dealerships are already getting better at this but there is a huge amount of legislation that we would like to see. There are also a huge amount of claims made which actually are not true. Learning about different driving styles and how the range is affected in different scenarios, is something that dealerships should be acknowledging more.

“The biggest issues that we see are reliability of chargepoints and the transparency of that data. Mostly, as a rule, there are enough chargers in this country; you just don’t necessarily trust them once you get to them. We need to try and get the bad legacy infrastructure off the system.”

In general though, once the teething problems are addressed, Court thinks EVs mark a step in the right direction for consumers and the environment, including in the still-nascent second-hand EV market. “There are fewer things to go wrong with an EV than with a petrol car, and it is much easier to test the health of the car and its battery. There are already companies that offer battery testing but we do need some sort of recognised industry standard to build consumer trust.

“When you have certain companies advertising ‘self-charging hybrids’ I think the ASA should be looking at that more. But according to any independent study I’ve seen, the environmental benefits of EVs far outweigh petrol cars. Is there more the industry can do when it comes to sustainability? There is. But for an industry that has only been going for a few years – and a lot of these cars are still in their first model – there is plenty of room for improvement, and the cars themselves are getting better.”

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