Keeping up with the EVs


According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the number of charging points is shrinking compared with the number of electric vehicles (EVs) coming onto UK roads. There’s now just one charger per 32 cars, compared with one for 16 cars in 2021.

With the 2030 deadline looming for the end of sales of petrol and diesel cars, manufacturers are reporting a shift in buying habits towards EVs. The proportion of sales of EVs in the UK grew suddenly to 11.5% last year. But the infrastructure of charging points is increasingly lagging behind.

Central government policy is focused on the importance of home charging. It’s cheap and convenient (and there can be grants to help people living in flats or without a driveway). At the same time, there’s a recognition that public chargers currently have a bad reputation, in terms of both their availability and whether they’ll actually work when you most need them.

The role of local authorities in supporting the transition to EVs has been foggy. A sustainable transport strategy is a must-have, but the practical details tend to be lost within the overarching ambitions and vision. To date, most councils are thinking in terms of using limited budgets to meet obvious priorities: public charging points in areas where drivers don’t have access to off-street parking; supporting drivers who need to re-charge during the day for their work (taxis etc); and public access to charging in places for people undertaking longer journeys (like train stations).

The problem here is that we become stuck in old ways of thinking about the public as just consumers of energy. Even when EVs have become the norm, there is still going to be an imperative need for a different kind of infrastructure from what we’re used to, not one solely based on consumers pulling into energy stations. Sharing and not just consumption.

The EV situation is an example of the importance of mobility innovations such as the ‘Mobility as a Service’ (MaaS) approach. Data analysis and modelling allows for the different stakeholders — in this case, local authorities, energy providers (DNOs, the distributed network operators) and transport users — to work together more efficiently and offer new kinds of business models which make more sense to EV users and for supporting environmental policies.

We have to make the best possible use of existing infrastructure: where the electric charging points are or easily can be (homes, workplace hubs, public car parks etc). And, importantly, how those places can also be linked to renewable energy sites, solar panelling in particular. In other words, a network that also makes use of the battery capacity of the EVs themselves, acting as a part of the storage and transmission network. All of this would create a more flexible ‘soft’ infrastructure for a world of electrified transport.

In this context, a MaaS approach would use data on real-world demand, the where and when. Cranfield research is already setting out how this can be made possible: how anonymised mobile phone data can be used to see who’s going where, distances travelled and locations where cars are actually being left, and for how long. This in turn produces a picture of the opportunities for charging, as well as opportunities for EVs to feed in their excess charge into the system for others to use, and to act as batteries for downloading charge from local solar power generation.

All of which leads to rich insights for informing and evolving transport strategy — how funds can most effectively be used to encourage local residents to make ‘better’ choices in terms of the environmental impact of their transport choices.

The electricity DNOs can incentivise EV users and influence behaviours and types of usage: how they interact with the system and call on electricity supplies. They can provide discounts for charging at lower-demand times or in particular places; they can also offer pay-back schemes for EV users who are giving back their unneeded battery charge. A simple smartphone app will be able to do all the work, setting out the best, most cost-effective and sustainable options.

Our work on MaaS modelling and algorithms for incentivising EV users is expected to lead to actionable insights in 2023. Early evidence suggests that data-enhanced transport initiatives will best work through partnerships between the public and private sectors. Bodies like local authorities can set the ground rules to ensure a focus on sustainability and good social impact, and outsource the work to private providers like the DNOs to deliver.

In this way, personal mobility and car driving become something more conscious, about active choices, empowering consumers and facilitating their transition into ‘pro-sumers’ – those who are part of a community of electricity users, working together for a better, more co-operative local environment.

Dr Ali Alderete Peralta is an interdisciplinary artificial intelligence expert at the Centre for Energy Systems and Strategy, Cranfield University 

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