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Phun with PHEV

Well, that escalated quickly. We went from thinking in November/December that we needed a solution for carrying more kit around than would fit in the Panda, to driving away from Portsmouth on 11th March in a brand-new Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, paid in full (mostly from some money I had sitting in Australia, hoping the $AUD would be worth something some day).

Our logic wasn’t entirely illogical – we recognised that if we did not get a clunky Transit van or similar, we needed at least an estate wagon or SUV. It did not take us long to realise that most SUVs on the market emphasise the ‘Sport’ over the ‘Utility’ part of ‘Vehicle’, and mostly were no bigger (and provided no additional storage) than a family sedan. In some cases they were smaller. The next step up – the Range Rovers, Honda CR-V, Land Rover Discovery, Mitsubishi Pajero/Shogun and similar are eye-wateringly expensive, inconveniently large for getting around London in, and on the whole have lousy mileage. The ideal would have been the SUV that is surely on Tesla’s roadmap, but that is still years away, unless Musk brings one back from Mars. Really for our use cases, crossed with our desire to have an electric or hybrid vehicle that was not a Prius, the Outlander PHEV was the only good choice, despite it being more than we had initially thought about paying.

So far our experience – driving back from Portsmouth, driving backwards and forwards to Coventry, and a little bit of noodling around Woolwich and Charlton – has been excellent. The car is capacious, comfortable, and quiet inside the cabin. Also, it is red.

The hybrid mechanism is quite a neat solution: the batteries have a range of 20-30 miles, and the rear wheels are driven entirely off electric motors. While coasting or braking, energy is regained and fed back to the batteries. When there is insufficient charge, the petrol motor kicks in to run a generator to feed the electrical system. When there is not enough energy in the system, the petrol motor kicks in to drive the front wheels, either to the exclusion of of charging the battery, or while still diverting some energy to the electrical motors. To give you some idea of how effective this is, over the whole 360-odd miles that we drove in the past few days, the petrol engine was active for somewhere well under 20% of the trip, mainly kicking in to pull us up the long rising slopes – going down the other side would then recover most of the energy spent going up.

The mechanism is going to require a slight adjustment to how I think about managing the efficiency of the vehicle. We were sort of able to ignore the efficiency of the Panda, because it was a 0.9 litre turbo engine in a car that we could pick up with one hand. As long as we were not carrying anything other than ourselves and the dog, it was costing us about £0.13/mile (which is what the PHEV has cost so far!), and we could drive it like a tiny sports car. Mitsubishi have made it clear – and made it transparent – that the key metric in managing efficiency is Energy.

To enable this, the car comes with enough computing power and instrumentation to take it to orbit and back. There’s an endless amount of stuff for the passenger to fiddle with on the central screen that provides the GPS display, and key metrics are echoed to the dashboard directly in front of the driver. For myself so far I’ve found it good to have the display of the energy flow up – it echoes nicely with the ‘power’ meter that supplants an expected rev-meter, and gives very good feedback on how my driving habit and technique is consuming, conserving or generating charge. And speaking of habits, I am definitely in love with the cruise control.

Despite the inability of most drivers on the motorway to maintain braking distance between vehicles, the cruise control worked quite nicely on the motorway. It’s not something I’ve used before, and I found it quite eerie to have no sense of the acceleration and deceleration that accompanies manual maintenance of speed. It felt like the car was coasting all the time as it maintained rock steady speed, and it was directly observable that this mode was conserving or generating energy far better than I could ever do. For the first time, I am convinced that we’re very close to being able to eliminate manual control of the vehicle for most circumstances.

The only downside so far is charging the PHEV. We’d taken note of how many charging stations there were around us and along the motorways on ZapMap and similar, and thought no further about it, relaxed that there were plenty of options. That did not prove to be the case.

To begin with, many charging stations on the maps are not working as it turns out, and generally it’s not proving to be worth the effort of whoever had them installed in the first place to get or keep them maintained. Googling started to show up forums like this that reveal a common pattern of premises installing chargers, advertising their existence, and then abandoning responsibility for them. A good example of this is the two ‘Pod Point’ units in Woolwich Arsenal where we live. There is one literally outside our front door that some idiot backed into and took out of commission, and another further up the road that is not responding to the RFID card it requires. These were installed at some point in the past at the behest of Berkeley Homes by one company, and then later rebranded to Pod Point at a later time. We’ve been endeavouring to get these fixed, but spent a week on a four cornered quest between Pod Point, Berkeley Homes, Greenwich Council and Rendall and Rittner facilities management trying to find someone to take responsibility for getting it sorted: initially each player disavowed responsibility, or avowed they were waiting on one of the others, before eventually Pod Point were able to guarantee an engineer would get it sorted during this week (And I will wax very wroth if that does not happen).

The other part of the charging station problem is that the ‘free’ units around are installed by and/or run by a bewildering array of providers – ZapMap lists almost a dozen on their site, and many more in their app, as does the SpeakEV forum. Some of these networks have units that accept RFID cards from other networks, some have an app that works on some of their units but not others, and there is at least one (In the carpark of Wickes at Charlton) that nobody seems to know who to gain access from. The absolutely infuriating thing we found on the first day when we pulled in on the motorway to charge is that the free service required an RFID card from the network. That could only be obtained by filling in an application form on their website, and discovering that it could be up to 10 working days before the RFID card would be sent out.

This. Is. Insane.

As someone on the forum said:

“Can I ask a simple question… Why are there networks so stupid. As in Why insist on a charge card. It’s like going to buy petrol at BP and them saying, sorry you must join our member scheme or you can’t have petrol.

Giving we all carry debit cards isn’t it better to charge say 50p a go or even charge 20p kWh etc, rather than making you join a scheme and carry yet another “free” card. Is there something special about EV charging that means we need to be tracked. The only thing I can think is the cost of the electric is quite low so the cost of preceding card payments would be higher than running a cards scheme?

Even a coin operating parking meter style would be preferable to a charge card. Pay by the minute (though not £7.50 for half hour like chargemaster are doing on CCS).”

This feels very much like a market that is on the verge of transitioning to a single consistent access and payment model, and which will see the myriad suppliers whittled down to 2 or 3 competitors. As it stands, the charging points in place appear to be a mix of quasi-public venues that shopping centers, chain stores and local councils have thought it would be good PR to install, alongside a few providers (Ecotricity and Pod Point being prime examples) hoping to get market dominance in specific geographical locations. And there are a few chancers who are hoping to make a quick and ugly pound out of this mess. POLAR have got the cheek to be aiming for a monthly subscription for access and quite expensive charging fees, including a £1.20 ‘administration’ fee each time you plug in.

So as it stands, I’ve tried to figure out which RFID cards I need to buy – mostly at £20 a pop, and have so far ordered the following:

  • Ecotricity
  • Source London
  • Pod Point
  • Charge Your Car
  • Elektromotive

However I expect that for some trips, I will need to check 10 business days out and see what other pissant regional scheme I have to sign up to.


This Telegraph Article talks about the source of some of the chaos in London around all this:

Ownership of the sites is split between London boroughs, manufacturers of the equipment, private businesses and landlords of commercial property sites. The fundamental stumbling block is defining responsibility and finding funds for maintenance of broken charging points.

Source London says it currently has no jurisdiction to repair broken points, because maintenance is the responsibility of charger manufacturers, some of whom are not cooperating. But that view is disputed by the two main charger manufacturers, Chargemaster, with 647 sites, and Pod Point, with 276.

Pod Point chief executive Erik Fairbairn said: “As part of the purchase of Source London, Bolloré purchased a commitment to fund maintenance agreements of every charge point in the Source London network. We have not yet seen evidence of them doing that.”

Although TfL set up and sold off the network, it is unable or unwilling to clear up where exactly the responsibility lies. It simply said: “Enforcement of these [maintenance] contracts remains the responsibility of the individual consortium partners,” without clarifying whether this means boroughs, Source London or charge point manufacturers.

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