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Electric Vehicle takeup failed by poor mobile phone signals at chargepoints

Around two-thirds of Britain’s most common type of public charge point suffer limited mobile signal connectivity.

Failure to design public charge points to work around Britain’s patchy mobile signal coverage means drivers of electric cars could be facing problems when they seek to ‘fill up’ at thousands of locations, research by the RAC Foundation suggests. 

According to Department for Transport figures (based on data from ZapMap) there were 53,677 public charging devices in the UK at the start of 2024.  

Of these, 31,910 have speeds up to 8kw and almost all will be so-called Type-2 chargers. 

Unlike chargepoints with a speed of 8kw or faster, chargers below 8kw are not obliged to provide for contactless payment. 

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The vast majority require drivers to access them via mobile phone apps.  

What is more, most chargers themselves also need an adequate mobile signal connection to function. 

Britain has four mobile network providers: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, on which other companies – giffgaff, Tesco Mobile etc. – can piggyback. 

Unless all four are providing adequate signal coverage at the chargepoint location there’s a risk that either the user or the charger will lack the connection needed to unlock the flow of electricity. 

The RAC Foundation analysed a randomly selected sample of 2,059 Type-2 public chargers across Britain.  

The research reveals that the majority of these chargers do not have an adequate level of coverage from all four mobile phone network providers to guarantee they can be activated 100% of the time.  

In Britain, outside of London, just a third (33.4%) of the Type-2 chargers analysed are in locations where there is acceptable all-network 4G coverage. 

Two-thirds (66.4%) are in spots where a signal from one, two, three or even all the providers is absent or too weak to work. 

NB: The percentages do not sum to 100 because of missing data for a small number of the chargers sampled. 

In London, the picture is only slightly better at 39.7% and 61.3% respectively. 

Where a 4G signal is absent then a residual 3G signal might still be available, but the national 3G network is due to be shut down completely by 2033. Vodafone has already turned off its 3G network with EE and Three expected to complete their shutdowns later this year, and O2 next year.  

The mobile signal strength data used in the analysis was provided by Teragence. This data was then matched to the 2,059 chargers used in the study. 

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: 

“Drivers of vehicles fuelled by petrol and diesel are used to reliable and hassle-free filling up at any of the 8,400 forecourts across Britain. The same cannot yet be said of topping up the battery of an electric car at a public chargepoint. 

“In many instances the mobile phone has become the key to unlocking the potential of the electric car. Unfortunately, that key does not always work. 

“The mobile phone is already deeply embedded in our daily lives, not least when it comes to driving where we rely on a good mobile connection to inform our sat navs, pay for parking and to unlock electric chargers. 

“But all these systems need to be designed with an eye sharply focused on real-world network coverage, which is often patchy, sometimes non-existent, and not about to become infinitely better. 

“Where signal connectivity at a chargepoint is a problem drivers might conclude that the charger is at fault hence undermining the confidence we should be building in the reliability of public charging options for electric vehicles. 

“What’s more, the poor connectivity won’t get picked up in the new mandatory reporting system applying only to the rapid charger network. 

“In order to design reliable connected services that work for motorists we need a better approach to assessing and reporting the adequacy of on-the-move connectivity so that designers, including electric chargepoint providers, can select which of the readily available workarounds would cover for the shortcomings of the mobile networks.” 

Where adequate mobile phone signal coverage is unavailable workarounds could include: 

  • signposting the availability of a limited wi-fi hotspot for drivers to use (e.g. in the on-charger instructions for use) if the chargepoint’s connection is robust but the motorist’s might not be; 
  • use of roaming SIM cards (i.e., from other countries), which have become increasingly common on the Internet of Things sector, so that connectivity can adjust by roaming to whichever mobile network is most robust at a given moment;  
  • use of external and/or directional antennae for more reliable data connections; 
  • making ‘roaming’ RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) cards more widely, and freely, available to remove the motorist’s phone from the equation;  
  • improvements to signal quality through the “Single Rural Network” (SRN) programme of mast sharing between mobile network operators; 
  • satellite internet provision from operators like Starlink and OneWeb; and, 
  • as a fallback, when the issue is an unresolvable signal connectivity failure, the charger itself could be set to default to provide a free charge up to a limit that would at least guard against a potential breakdown for lack of a sufficiently charged battery.  

This study comes as the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reports that the market share of new pure battery electric cars was 15.2% in March compared with 16.2% in the same month last year. 

The SMMT called for EV purchase incentives including reduced VAT on public charging and halve VAT on new electric vehicle sales. 

Last month the RAC Foundation published an account of an EV ‘road trip’ around the south-east of England which highlighted some of the challenges drivers of electric cars face when they try and recharge. 

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