Tag Archives: electric vehicles

In touch with the tech…

My friend Pilgrim Beart publishes a monthly email newsletter covering topics from IoT, electric vehicles, clean and smart energy.

I like the format: generally just a list of one-sentence bullet points with links to relevant articles elsewhere. Very easy to skim and find items of interest. You can see back issues here to give you an idea, and sign up here to have it in your inbox each month.

Amongst the many things I learned over breakfast today:

  • In the UK, electric vehicles are now estimated to have one-third of the carbon footprint of their combustion-powered equivalents over their lifetime. (This is partly because of the ever-greener UK power network, one of the few recent national achievements we can be proud of at present!)

  • There’s a new Raspberry Pi designed for embedding in things: the Pico W. It addresses the issue I’ve always had with devices like the Arduino and the earlier Pico: no built-in network connectivity. For me, devices are usually only interesting if they’re networked, and much of my home automation depends on devices containing the wifi-enabled ESP8266 and ESP32 devices – smart plugs & relays, energy monitors etc. At $6, the Pi team are clearly aiming at this market with the new device. They’ll need to enable its Bluetooth capabilities soon, though, if they want people to build devices supporting the new Matter protocols, which I think has a good chance of being a very important cross-vendor standard in the near future.

  • Bloomberg predicts that VW’s EV sales will overtake Tesla’s in 18 months’ time. This can only be a good thing. Much as I love my Tesla, I’ve also been a big fan of VW for decades, and am delighted to see them reborn, Gandalf-like, in whiter raiment than they had before. They (and all car manufacturers) do need major work on their software, though: when I tried the ID-3 a couple of years ago, I found significant bugs even in my 15-min test-drive. Perhaps it has improved since then. If they don’t get a good handle on this, a lot of manufacturers are going to have to buy their software from Apple. I have to say that a VW with Apple software is something I would find very tempting…

Forecourt futures?

If only they all looked like this…

A few years ago, I was involved in a big brainstorming session with some senior staff from BP. We had gathered, from both sides of the Atlantic, to consider some of the implications of technology changes on their business, and one of the topics discussed was the future of the retail forecourt: the petrol station, as most of us know it today. There was one thing we were all pretty much agreed on about its future: that it hadn’t got one.

The problem is that electric cars give you a very different refuelling experience from cars burning dinosaur juice. The bad news is that it takes longer, as we all know. Even when I’m charging my Tesla at speeds that would have astonished me when I first started driving EVs, I’m still generally there for 20-30 minutes, rather than the five minutes I would have spent filling up with petrol.

But the good news is that you don’t have to stand there while it’s happening, shivering, breathing in those lovely fumes, and wondering if your shoes will reek of diesel for the rest of the day. Instead, you can be inside the car watching the latest episode of your favourite show, or having a drink at the nearby cafe, or taking the dog for a walk. One of our favourite superchargers is in a multi-storey car park near Bristol, where you can just plug in and stroll over to John Lewis to purchase pillowcases, or whatever takes your fancy.

(As an aside, I think this is very healthy: on long drives, it’s important to take a proper break every so often, not just for your own wellbeing, but for the safety of those you may be approaching at speed later in the journey. EVs almost enforce that.)

Now, you could beef up the shopping/dining experience at some petrol stations, but it’s not really enough. The problem for those who have invested large amounts in forecourt real estate is that these stations are generally the wrong size for charging points — you need bigger parking areas and bigger retail areas — and many of them are not where you’d actually want to spend much time: on noisy town-centre roundabouts or on the edge of a busy bypass. Add to that the fact that they aren’t necessarily in good locations for a high-power connection to the electricity grid, and you’d think it probably makes sense to start selling them off. Oh, except you’ve spent a few decades storing and spilling toxic liquids there, so that’s a bit tricky too.

After the gas has gone…

We discussed other possible uses for the sites, which, despite some problems, do have the merit of being close to good road links, and often close to towns.

One idea was that they might become last-hop delivery hubs. Instead of fuel tankers rolling in during the night to top up the tanks, it would be big Amazon trucks coming to offload their parcels. Then a fleet of smaller electric vans would zip out from there during the day, doing the deliveries.

Someone else pointed out that there’s another service to which people often need quick and easy access while travelling: the loo! Yes, petrol stations are ideally placed for public conveniences, but up to now, that part of any visit has not always been very inspiring! Apparently one gas station chain in the States made their toilets a feature, advertising that they had the nicest bathrooms in the business! I thought this was very smart: there’s not much else to distinguish one station from another, so this was a cunning way to make your visit one of choice (as well as necessity!) Could you, we wondered, actually dispense with the petrol station, and instead draw people to your roadside retail experience through the quality and cleanliness of the adjacent WC? I like that idea, though it might require some clever marketing!

I suggested that they might want to develop a brand and business that wasn’t tied to particular premises in the same way. In the past, petrol stations were expensive and difficult to install, and they added retail experiences onto them to try to increase the profitability of each visit. But in the future, what people would want was not a Costa Coffee shop next to their refuelling point, but a refuelling stop next to their Costa Coffee. And that was much more viable than it ever had been in the past. Who was going to make it really easy for a supermarket, restaurant, shopping mall or pub to turn their existing car park into a charging centre? This, I thought, was an opportunity.

(Interestingly, almost on that exact day, it also became public that BP were buying the Polar/Chargemaster charging network, which was a smart way to get a good foothold in the charging world in the UK.)

Happy memories

Anyway, just to finish this on a personal note, and to show they’re not all bad, I do have a favourite petrol station, of all the ones I’ve visited in my life.

It stood right on the side of a Norwegian fjord, not far from a cottage where I stayed with my parents and grandparents on holiday sometime in the mid-1980s. You filled up your tank in a gentle sea breeze, surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen, and then strolled into the shop to pay. This was also the local grocery shop for that side of the fjord. (For the post office, bank, and the other shop, we would just go into to the cottage’s boathouse, get into the dinghy and chug across to the other side of the water.) Anyway, I remember that the two or three fuel pumps had unusually long hoses, because they were also sometimes used to fill up the boats which could pull in just as easily as cars.

And in the spaces between the pumps? Flower boxes.

Yes, that was a really lovely spot to fill up, and it would also make an amazing charging station. Perhaps, knowing Norway, I’ll be able to go back someday in my current car and fill up again…

The sound of bubbles

Late last summer we were in Cornwall and spent a delightful day on the Helford river in a boat we rented for the purpose. It had a motor, which was very convenient, but having driven an electric car for the last 6 years, I was very conscious again of just how much noise a combustion engine makes, especially when it’s in the form of an outboard sitting right behind you. Since that day, I’ve been desirous of an electric-powered boat.

Well, today we were able to try out a couple of recent purchases. Our new vessel, Tiddler, is an inflatable that comes somewhere between a RIB tender and an inflatable kayak — and we paired it with an ePropulsion electric outboard, which is a marvellous thing that can be put in the back of the car without any risk of petrol spills. In fact we can just about get the boat, the pump, the engine, the battery and the oars in the boot of our saloon car without needing to fold the seats down.

It took some research to find a combination that would do that, but I was keen to try because it turns out that Teslas are ridiculously dependent on their very low drag coefficient for their range, and doing reckless things like putting something on a roof-rack or towing it behind has quite an impact, so keeping things inside is a good idea if you can.

Anyway, we had a rather idyllic but high-tech day, zooming from our house to the little harbour just over an hour away, along a highway that took us almost all the way, so the car did the vast majority of the driving. Then pottering around the estuary mostly in sunshine and mostly in silence, mooring near a famous waterside pub that we knew to serve excellent fish and chips, and then heading back home the same way. This simultaneously proved two things to my satisfaction: firstly, that most forms of transport can be improved with the addition of a good battery, and secondly, that despite all this technology there’s still nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Fully Charged Live

One YouTube channel that I’ve been following for really quite a long time is Fully Charged, a series discussing electric vehicles, home power generation, renewable energy and other related topics. It does so in an amusing and light-hearted way, not least because it’s hosted by Robert Llewellyn, also known for his roles in TV series such as Red Dwarf, who’s a naturally engaging host. More recently he’s been joined by the motoring journalist Jonny Smith, previously a presenter on Fifth Gear. They make a great couple.

This weekend saw the first Fully Charged Live event, a two-day gathering at Silverstone organised by the team, with talks, exhibitions, demos of electric vehicles, and much else besides. This was quite a leap of faith for a small, self-published show – it was a big financial commitment and they were very nervous about whether it would be a success, but it seems to have been resoundingly so, to the extent that the catering and A/V facilities were rather overwhelmed on the first day, and extra arrangements had to be made – things went much more smoothly today.

Robert told me that they’d sold well over 5,000 tickets in advance and quite a lot more were bought at the event. Many people, like me, came for both days, so there must have been a good three or four thousand people there, I imagine, and the feeling of goodwill in the air was palpable; everyone wanted it to succeed.

There were lots of interesting vehicles to see; the Jaguar iPace was naturally getting a lot of attention, not surprisingly: it’s the most interesting big cat since the E-type, and the first I’ve actually wanted to own.

When it’s about 10 years old, I might be able to afford one.

In the meantime, I got to try out a couple of electric scooters, which were great fun — I think we’ll see more of those — and there were some lovely electric conversions of classic vehicles: I was particularly taken by these:

I, on the other hand, was staying nearby in my recently-acquired and non-electric campervan (of which more in a future post). This meant, that despite actually owning an electric vehicle, I actually turned up to Fully Charged Live in a VW diesel. I was joking with people that I needed a bumper sticker: “My other car is electric!”

I also got to meet Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield, whose Transport Evolved news show I’ve also been watching and supporting (in a very modest way) via Patreon for some time.

All in all, a fun and informative event. I wish it every success for the future, and will wear my T-shirt proudly.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser