Self-driving EVs – does the UK have the infrastructure to cope?

3rd January 2018
Joe Bush

Regarding the roll-out of self-driving cars there are many barriers to entry that have raised concerns for consumers and manufacturers alike. However, in the UK, the stumbling block that appears to be causing the most sleepless nights is lack of infrastructure.

We’ve all heard the mumblings around self-driving cars – from who is liable in the event of a self-driving accident, to how autonomous vehicles will successfully interact with the environment around them.

However, as the number of electric cars on our roads continue to rise so too have concerns around infrastructure, particularly the lack of rapid charging bays and the pressure on the National Grid as EV use increases.

There are three main EV charger types: ‘slow’ charging units (up to 3kW) which are best suited for six to eight hours overnight; ‘fast’ chargers (7-22kW) which can fully recharge some models in three to four hours; and ‘rapid’ charging units (43-50kW) which are able to provide an 80% charge in around 30 minutes.

Of the 14,000 EV charging points in the UK, only 2,620 are rapid charging stations. There were around 125,000 electric vehicles on the UK’s roads at the end of 2017. And when you consider that this figure was around 90,000 at the end of 2016 and 50,000 at the end of 2015, the potential issues caused by EV growth are there for all to see, and the potential limitations that could be placed on autonomous travel.

As more people turn to electric vehicles could we see a future scenario where there are queues at electric vehicle superchargers? It would certainly add to the time and inconvenience of a long journey.

In addition, the rise in electric vehicles are expected to place an enormous strain on the National Grid. The company, which runs the UK’s national transmission networks for electricity and gas, has claimed that by 2030 the growth in electric vehicles could see peak demand increase in capacity to the equivalent of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.

There have been incidents in the past where the National Grid has experienced huge spikes on the network at certain times such as at half-time during a major sporting event, when everyone goes into the kitchen and boils the kettle. If we get to the stage where everyone gets home from work at 6 o clock and switches their cars on to charge then how is the infrastructure going to cope?

The planned ban on new diesel and patrol cars from 2040 will also push consumers towards electric vehicles and estimates indicate that the number of EVs on our roads will explode to 20 million by 2040. This means that there will be a huge amount of investment required into new power plants, grid networks and charging points.

A recent report by non-standard vehicle finance provider, Moneybarn, has claimed that the UK’s current infrastructure will be unable to accommodate the expected rise in EVs on our roads by 2020. Currently statistic show that motorists would have to travel around twice the distance for every available EV charging station in the country, compared to petrol stations.

Chancellor Philip Hammond outlined an ambitious strategy and significant investment for autonomous driving in the last budget. However, without the infrastructure in place it’s going to be difficult for these plans to fulfil their potential. No one wants to queue to charge their car, only to find that there’s a power shortage when they try.

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