Charging access is still the “new” problem for Electric Vehicle commercial fleets

Our Managing Partner Carlos Espinal’s Q & A with Niall Riddell and André Pinho, founders of Paua, on the interoperability of an ever-expanding yet fractured charging network and making Electric Vehicle (EV) charging user-friendly 

On a recent epic road trip across the UK this summer, I had my high hopes of a seamless charging experience shattered. Besides having to queue up at some stations, finding others out of service, and installing at least 15 apps to cover all the services on offer, I found the cost of electricity for EV charging to be all over the map – ranging from 28p to nearly £1 depending on where the stations were based and their speed of charge.

This cost variance is much wider than in petrol/diesel vehicles and feels like an unfair penalty for those wishing to help the environment through cleaner vehicles. To aggravate things further, charging speeds range from dead slow to 50x faster depending on where the charger is. These further exacerbate the problem of range and cost anxiety for EV owners – after all, time is money. The reality is most people and businesses care more about their time when they are travelling from A to B than p/kWh.

Despite current geopolitical and energy market developments, the demand for Electric Vehicles is on the rise. Customers’ demands are also changing, putting pressure on EV infrastructure providers to offer higher-quality services. In particular, for commercial fleets, for which reliability and cost efficiency are make-or-break factors, improved access to EV charging and fleet management are pivotal. 

To understand the dynamics of the EV charging market and ways to make it more accessible and user-centric, I turned to the EV charging experts Niall Riddell and André Pinho, co-founders of Paua.

Image credits: Paua

Carlos Espinal: What problem are you solving, and what is your edge?

Niall Riddell: We help businesses transition their polluting fossil fuel cars and vans to emissions-free electric vehicles, we do this by providing them with the best possible public charging experience.

Charging an EV is a very different experience from fueling a petrol or diesel vehicle. You need to manage the process of finding, charging, and paying for your public EV charging needs (we have written about this here). This process creates friction for any EV driver, but this becomes a real challenge for a business with – large EV fleets where this problem is multiplied. 

Paua has built all the tools to do this at scale for a business adopting electric vehicles. Paua provides one app to find chargers, one card to start the charge across thousands of EV chargepoint belonging to various charging network providers, and all aggregated into one simple bill. This saves businesses an enormous amount of time finding the best and available chargers, starting the chargers, and collecting receipts. Businesses can access all of this in one place and control it in real-time.

Our edge is that we provide access to the largest charging network in the UK – with over 20,000 chargepoint connectors – focused on helping businesses. We are also the only company in the UK that provides integrated app and cards (this is important as some chargepoints only accept cards and some only accept app requests to start charging). This combination enables the best possible charging experience you can currently have in the UK.

Carlos Espinal: How has the EV charging infrastructure evolved in recent years?

Niall Riddell: When I started in this space, there were no public chargers that you could just go and test on. There was still a broader debate on connector formats. Problems focused on cars that were unreliable at charging (the old Renault Zoe used to cause an earth fault on certain chargers and “brick” it for the rest of the day). Pricing was even more ad hoc, with a lot of time-based and fixed fees dominating the system. There were no credit card readers. Everything was app and card based. And there was NO ONE ROAMING! Oh, and sometimes chargepoints just failed for no reason.

So there are still problems, but they are changing. And this shouldn’t surprise us. Take any new modern technology; none of it is seamless, and whenever a user makes a transition into that new technology, there are still a lot of things that they struggle with and that don’t work quite right. What’s interesting is that these are the problems of 2.5% of innovators. We haven’t breached that yet (we are around 1.5% EV on the roads today). And we cannot look at the 1.5% for answers on what the 98.5% need. These will be different answers, and we will gain some of these as we head into the next 10-12% of early adopters.

Carlos Espinal: How can the user experience be radically improved?

Niall Riddell: There needs to be increased incentives for the deployment of charging stations, but more importantly, interoperable ones (i.e., no proprietary billing systems or required app-downloads or payment cards to use a charging point). 

André Pinho: Whilst we currently provide the best charging experience, we know the EV charging experience is far from optimal, here is a list of areas we believe needs improvement in the industry: 

  • Increased network aggregation – from the 20k today to the 56k to full coverage (single access to all the chargepoints);
  • In-vehicle navigation to chargers – vehicle navigation systems having wider access to charger data and routing users to the best and available chargers; 
  • Plug & charge – this is an exciting area. The concept is that you connect the charger to the vehicle, and it identifies who you are, and the charging happens automatically;
  • Hardware simplicity – the charging experience is different with different chargers, do you plug in first, then hit start charge, or hit start charge and then plug in? This needs harmonisation;
  • Reliability – better tools and data to ensure the charger will, in fact, charge the vehicle, there are still many steps in the charging process that can prevent a driver from charging (some charging networks have created significant customer loyalty due to their high reliability);
  • Battery performance insights – as users become more experienced with the charging experience they will want more insights into the health of their battery and how it behaves during each charging session; 
  • Fraud prevention and management – this is particularly important for businesses.
Image credits: Paua

Ultimately we need to provide the drivers the confidence that we can take a pin in a map and convert this into a trusted charging experience. Most drivers, when low on charge, are asking one key question: Where can I get a charge?

What we need to do at Paua is give drivers ‘range confidence’ so that they know that they have Paua, and therefore they can trust us to provide them with power everywhere.

Carlos Espinal: Should information about when a charging point is available be more uniformly shared across the network (e.g., a global use system)? 

Niall Riddell: The Government have PA consulting looking into this at the moment (they have spoken to us). Some networks are worried about exposing too much sensitive business data. If you have the availability data for chargepoints of a publicly listed network, you could very accurately predict their top-line revenues every quarter! Also, one can find out which of your competitors’ locations have what levels of utilisation. So whilst I am supportive of a centralised repository of chargepoint data for the static data (location data), the dynamic status data needs additional consideration. Also, the quality of the data is not great, and different networks implemented the same standard in different ways or, worst, deviated from them.

Carlos Espinal: Should all charging networks abide by an equivalent of the open banking standards that allow aggregator networks like Paua to be able to offer people more choices even if there is still a benefit to using the individual networks on a local basis if that’s your preference?

Niall Riddell: It is quite possible that this is what Government has in mind. But many of the businesses in this space are still developing their tech capabilities. We have been working with many of them to enable OCPI, and educating them on what is needed. So there is a cost to these new businesses and, as such, another possible barrier to entry.

André Pinho: This is the concept of roaming and the OCPI (open charge point interface) standards that we use to integrate with most of our partners. It’s tough to mandate this. What if a charging network does not want to have to deal with low-volume partners from a billing perspective? However, overall we are starting to see wider adoption of these standards and willingness to collaborate across charging networks, this is an important step towards greater and improved user experiences.”. 

Carlos Espinal: How can the coverage of the EVs charging network be extended, including in rural areas?

Niall Riddell: Just as certain sectors of transport receive subsidies today, so will EV charging require subsidies in the future. When consulting with the Scottish Government in 2017, we drew the analogy of the subsidised bus routes in the highlands and islands, and it is likely that infrastructure in these rural areas will need some form of central Government support. However, for heavily frequented locations, this will not be required (think motorways and trunk roads).

One of the greatest advantages of charging infrastructure is that it is a lot less intrusive than having to build and service a petrol station, for example, it can be easily fitted to car parks of major attractions, pubs, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, etc. Chargers also come in a variety of speeds ranging from charging a vehicle in 15 mins (highway ultra-rapid chargers) to 10 hours (residential style slow chargers), the cost of these chargers can also range from £100,000 to £1,000, respectively. So rural areas are likely to install the slower types of chargers (these can fully charge a vehicle in 2-5 hours) that can help drivers get out of sticky situations in rural locations or to get a charge whilst doing something else but avoids the same level of investment of ultra-rapid chargers.

Local authorities are also getting quite active in this space recently, and we are seeing some big commitments to deploy chargers across rural areas. Cornwall is a recent example of this.

Carlos Espinal: What are the biggest challenges your industry faces?

André Pinho: Firstly, standardisation across multiple parties, all with varying interests  Ultimately, that standardisation has to be toward the consumer benefit. For example, there are multiple vehicle OEMs, multiple chargepoint OEMs, multiple software providers, and multiple varying use cases of the infrastructure. At its heart, most EV drivers want to answer the following question: “Can I get a charge?”. However, with variances in connectors, charging speeds, new language, data, payment methods, etc., this whole space becomes a headache.

Secondly, understanding of a new technology. We have to re-educate people on the fundamentals of energy and, in particular, electricity. We now buy electricity in kWh (that’s a big W for Watt, who was a person) rather than litres. We have new connector types and a new approach to charging (“do I plug in first or start the charge first?”), we have new places to go and new time on our hands (“What do EV drivers do whilst charging” is now a Google search phrase – we mostly do normal stuff like drink coffee and go to the toilet, and if we have to, we sit in our car). Education around the home charging ecosystem, around tax benefits, selection of tyres, vehicle efficiency, and how to service an EV are all new things that need to be considered.

Consumers have survived for years buying fuel in litres and considering vehicle efficiency in miles per gallon, so it’s clear that people’s knowledge can bridge this gap. But we need more informed educators out there. When someone stands at a bar and says, “I am thinking about buying an electric car,” and their conversation partner can strike up an intelligent conversation around what they need to consider we will be a long way forward.

Carlos Espinal: What’s the most exciting recent development you think will have a material impact to EV charging in Europe?

André Pinho: Paua! [laughs]

800volt architecture in cars with an ability to charge at 200+kW, adding up to 150miles in a fifteen minutes top (we are back into petrol and diesel refill times). Cars are now computers on wheels with a battery attached – vehicle to grid, connected car, plug & charge are all possible with the additional technology.

Carlos Espinal: What is next for Paua? 

Niall Riddell: The number of businesses transitioning their petrol and diesel vehicles to EVs has been incredible. It is currently growing at 50%+ CAGR. This has been very noticeable in cities with clean air zones like London, where there are financial penalties for driving polluting vehicles. We know this will continue to grow as many big companies have made big commitments to phase out their fossil fuel fleet and consequently have already put orders for these vehicles, just a couple of months ago, Hertz announced they would purchase an additional 175,000 EVs from GM. We are perfectly positioned to support these companies into this transition.

We have some exciting announcements coming in Q4 both from further expansion of our networks, customers, partnerships, and product development (including a whole new product we are now trialling with selected customers).

Image credits: Paua

As we grow and succeed, we will be fundraising again. With this, we’ll announce our European market entry, where we are already working with a number of market-leading partners to access high-growth European markets where we can bring real value to customers.

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