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Consumer views on Electric Vehicles Testing: an insight

11 December 2018

Jonathan Wills
Jonathan Wills Chief Executive Officer

A recent BBC report based on data compiled by The Miles Consultancy highlighted what it claims were tens of thousands of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) bought with government subsidies burning as much fuel as combustion engine cars. The data based on mileage records from 1500 vehicles suggested that PHEV’s in corporate fleets (important because fleets make up 70% of the 37,000 PHEVs sold in 2018) averaged just 40mpg when they could have done 130mpg. It was even reported that some drivers may never have even unwrapped their charging cables. The uptake of ultra-low electric vehicles (ULEV) in the UK car market is around 2.5% at present. This is dominated by early adopter consumers and the fleet market where tax incentives have had a big impact.

With electric vehicles currently being hailed as a panacea for a large part of transport decarbonisation and more models coming to the market than ever before, the question of how mass-market consumers will actually react when provided with an Electric Vehicle becomes very important – both to the rate of take up, and the impact on the wider energy system.

Our Consumers, Vehicles and Energy Integration project aims to understand this area better. How do “ordinary consumers” use the technology, rather than early adopter cheerleaders? What are the required changes to market structures and energy supply systems in order to encourage wider adoption of plug-in vehicles and their integration into the energy system?

As part of the project we have just concluded a trial with mass-market users, run for us by TRL, to understand consumer responses to driving electric vehicles and to alternative managed charging schemes. Full analysis of the data which has included respondents driving 71,000 journeys over 584,000 miles in a series of VW Golf hybrid, plug-in hybrid and pure electric models will be available in Spring 2019, but there are some interesting emerging themes that are worth sharing now.

Many of the trialists return home at around the same time each day and for the trial were segmented into three groups. One group could see how much charge their car had, but were unable to control it; a second group were self/user “managed” – they were given a reward schedule and could set the charge time on a smartphone app to an off-peak period; and the third and final group was also “managed” – they could say how much charge they wanted by when and leave it to the supplier to decide when to charge.

We can already see from the data that the trialists responded well to being giving different tariffs to choose between, and it is noticeable that they tended to choose a delayed charging option to take advantage of the cheaper prices available - trialists appear price sensitive when given the relevant information.

In practice, the two managed charging groups had a delayed peak of when they started charging - either choosing to wait until after 7pm when it was cheaper, or being supplier managed until the late evening/early morning. There appears to be no issue in the user plugging in the vehicle when home, and then handing control over to the supplier to decide when best to charge. For the consumer they just want it to be available fully charged when they need it the next day!

Overall, the data from our trial suggests that mass market consumers respond positively to supplier managed charging – i.e. a utility or third party remotely controlling the details of vehicle charging to achieve given consumer provided constraints. This gives the supplier the possibility to better match generation supply with demand and keep the generating costs low – smoothing out the demand peaks whilst still meeting consumer needs.

This is good news for electricity costs and carbon targets as it means the use of cheaper and lower carbon electricity can be maximised. We can see that it opens up the possibility of suppliers managing electric vehicle charging to maximise the efficient use of existing infrastructure and generation capacity whilst also maximising the best use of low carbon electricity generation to charge the vehicles.

In this trial, the users were able to speak to their home charger through a simple app on their smartphone. In addition to vehicle charging, this behaviour replicates the potential for the “control” of other energy usage such as heating appliances through apps. This begins to give us clues to the mass market implications of the digitalisation of energy as a means of introducing lower carbon solutions and making best use of existing infrastructure – while at the same time enhancing the power of the consumer and minimising cost.

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Jonathan Wills
Jonathan Wills Chief Executive Officer

The vehicle usage data we have collected has also provided us with an indication of how much range needs to improve in order to influence the buying habits of mass-market consumers. It indicates that if battery electric vehicles range increases to 200miles, then this is good enough for 50% of our trialists to choose one as their main car. If it increases to 300miles than 90% would choose one.

And returning to the point at where we started and the use of PHEVs in the real world? Similar to the Miles Consultancy work, our early data indicates that consumers on the ETI trial also did not drive to maximise the number of electric miles and therefore achieved a relatively low efficiency compared to what was possible. We need to understand more why they do this – is it attributed to vehicle design? The user interface? The driver experience? Perhaps something as simple as better explanation of the vehicle features? Or maybe drivers don’t really care how the journey is delivered as long as they get to their destination!

As I said earlier we will be reporting on this more fully in 2019, but already we are beginning to see that the mass market consumer is providing some clear signals. They want bigger ranges, they are willing to engage with charging on their terms and through technology that provides them with the choice of when and how much. But they are also comfortable with a supplier managing their charging, providing optimal benefit to the grid and the wider energy system.

The journey to decarbonisation continues.