Electric cars: Boris backs the wrong technology.

By the end of this year the world’s major car manufacturers will standardise on a new charging system for electric batteries. German manufacturers have already announced support for what is called the ‘7 pin’  option and by the end of the year Nissan, Renault and others are expected to follow. The 7 pin system allows the use of 3 phase electric power rather than the single phase used in domestic homes. This makes charging far quicker, eventually meaning that a full charge will take no more than 30 minutes. The government is ploughing ten of millions into subsidising the creation of public charging points. But in the most important UK location, London, the authorities are insisting on only installing old-fashioned single phase charging points and have locked out those manufacturers offering 7 pin. Mayor Boris Johnson must reopen the tender to allow bids from companies able to offer modern equipment rather than back last century’s technology. The batteries of early electric cars take many hours to recharge. The small numbers of battery cars on the road today are usually charged at the home using standard three pin sockets on an off-peak tariff. The rate at which the batteries can be charged is severely limited but this is not important if the car is not needed overnight.

Public recharging points are different.  Here the speed of recharging is critical to the future acceptability of electric cars. If my car has a range of 100 miles and I need to travel further, I want a widespread charging network that allows me to plug in the vehicle, go to have a snack, and return to find it fully charged.  Quite rationally, the world’s car manufacturers decided they needed a global standard for the electronics, cables and connectors for these networks. Without such a standard my drive to Birmingham might be stalled halfway because the charging points weren’t suitable for my particular vehicle.

In the last few months the form of that international standard has become clear. Mercedes and Smart have committed their support and other manufacturers will follow by the end of 2010. Countries such as Ireland have also committed to creating a national network based on this standard. ‘7 pin’ refers to the number of pins in the connectors. 7 pin is capable of taking charge from 3 phase electricity, the type that is used in almost all commercial locations. So, for example, your office will probably have 3 phase power but your home will not. Broadly speaking, 3 phase power will is available everywhere the authorities are likely to want to put a charging point. Commercial operators, such as motorway service stations will all use it.  Importantly, 7 pin connectors can also be used to charge cars parked at home, using conventional domestic sockets. It is a flexible and robust standard.

The first mass market electric car to arrive in the UK is likely to be the Nissan LEAF in spring 2010. It will almost certainly have a 7 pin connector. For this car to have the success it needs, 7 pin public charging  points are vital.  Remember than Nissan intends eventually to make the Leaf in its Sunderland factory and it won’t look good if Nissan’s UK sales are held back by an inappropriate charging infrastructure.

The 7 pin system allows charging at a rate of up to 63 kilowatts, compared to less than 7 kilowatts at home. This greater charging rate can’t be fully utilised immediately because most cars will not themselves be appropriately equipped.  But commercial electric vehicles, such as the Modec urban delivery vans will probably soon be able to take the full power from 7 pin charging points, enhancing the commercial attractiveness of these British-made world leading vehicles.

All the evidence suggests that the 7 pin system will be installed in all the world’s electric cars from next year. London has chosen to ignore this. By this time next year it intends to have installed 700 public charging points, paid for by central government funds. None of the companies that have been allowed to compete in the tender have the capability to offer the 7 pin charging system and all are offering the older single phase alternative. Importantly, the single phase charging system that London intends to use has metal posts that are physically too small to accommodate 7 pin cabling and in the future.  When London eventually decides to replace single phase posts with the 7 pin alternative, as it eventually must, it will have to dig up the street again.

Why has this happened? Charging technology is moving fast and London didn’t realise soon enough that 7 pin would be the dominant worldwide technology. Public procurement rules meant that that the Mayor’s office had to ‘pre-qualify’ potential suppliers several months ago. This was before reliable supplies of 7 pin equipment from companies such as Chargepoint Services became available. But if London proceeds with the tendering process it will be locking itself into many hundreds of charging points that will be effectively useless by this time next year. This is costly and will delay the takeoff of sales of electric cars. Newcastle, which along with Milton Keynes successfully bid for government money to install a public network of charging points, has just agreed to admit 7 pin suppliers into the contract race. London urgently needs to do the same.