Against a backdrop of charging stations operating at different capacities, obstacles to the widespread use of the electric car are gradually being removed, heralding the advent of the electric vehicle as a “mass market commodity”.

This time things have begun to change, and the electric vehicle has moved from being a curiosity eyed with scepticism over the last few years to becoming a mass-market consumer product. The experts agree: the EV market and society at large have now reached the tipping point, and the numbers confirm it. In 2017, the number of orders placed for electric cars in Europe passed the 100,000 mark, and in France all-electric cars accounted for more than 1% of new car sales, with 27,300 registrations.

In another sign of the shift, all automakers have plans to launch electric vehicles and EV range is steadily increasing. Peugeot, for example, has announced five electric vehicle models in 2019 with a nominal range of 450 km, i.e. a bit more than the current 350 km range.

Range remains an obstacle to market rollout, together with the price of vehicles, the small number of models, the weight and capacities of batteries, and the availability of charging stations, even though France can boast a comparatively large number of them: in early March 2018, specialist site Chargemap  showed 54,000 charging areas accessible to the general public.

The long-distance challenge

Within the group, Enfrasys project manager and VINCI Energies electric mobility adviser Caroline Chapuis has an especially good observation post as coordinator of the network of business units rolling out charging infrastructures for both public and private customers. She reports that activity is flourishing, driven by the demonstrable need to install public and private sector charging stations.

“Everywhere, VINCI Energies is booking more and more orders for charging stations,” she says, “especially for fast charging stations with 150 to 350 kW capacity, which make it possible to extend the vehicle’s range from 150 to 300 or even 400 kilometres.”

These HPC (high power charge) stations help solve the problem of distance. A powerful electric vehicle travelling between Paris and Lyon (465 kilometres) could theoretically recharge in 15 minutes at a 350 kW charging station.

Tesla rolled out a network of 120-kW stations in Europe that can recharge a battery in 40 minutes. Following that, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche joined forces with Ford to set up IONITY to provide their own ultra-fast charging network. Some 500 stations, each equipped with six charging points ranging in capacity from 150 to 350 kW, are to be installed along European motorways between now and 2020, including about 100 in France.

“VINCI Energies is involved in the rollout via its Omexom and Citeos energy transition brands, as is EasyCharge, a joint VINCI Energies – VINCI Autoroutes subsidiary dedicated to electric mobility,” says Caroline Chapuis. She draws attention to the European scope of current projects and emphasises the need to address the regulatory and technical requirements in each separate country. “Since VINCI Energies operates all over Europe, it is particularly well placed to support these rollouts.”

Diversifying charging services

Caroline Chapuis puts ultra-fast charging in perspective, saying that it is, in her opinion, “a psychological factor because it reassures the motorist, whose yardstick is the range of the internal combustion engine.” But actually, she says, 80% of motorists drive less than 60 kilometres a day.

“The point is not to install ultra-fast charging stations everywhere but rather to gain a better understanding of how people use charging stations and to round out the network according to those patterns of use,” she says. “For small journeys, slow charging – overnight at home or during the day in the office car park – is appropriate and less costly. Fast charging stations, meanwhile, are needed for regional journeys, and ultra-fast charging should be provided on motorways.”

Variable charging cost will be a factor in consumer choice and therefore help drive diversification of the charging offer. Another issue is infrastructure rollout and the very high cost of reinforcing the charging network. “For ultra-fast charging, the main issue will be to find an energy source for the charging station and to optimise its use,” says Caroline Chapuis.

Ultra-fast charging involves substantial capacities and therefore requires investments that must be recouped. It will also be necessary, says Caroline Chapuis, to manage peak power demand, and this will require adding intelligence to the network, designing the smart grid to support optimised electricity transfers, and possibly providing energy storage near charging stations. Omexom and Citeos business units are already providing all these comprehensive turnkey solutions.

“Cultural” change and public subsidies

Removing obstacles to the mass-market spread of the electric car also involves cultural and social change, says Caroline Chapuis, who gives the example of charging station density in public spaces.

“In Paris, for example, there are few service stations within the city. They are located on the ring road. We are used to coping with the lack of them in the city centre. We will also have to learn to manage the dispersal of charging stations within the city. Similarly, intermodal solutions can be sought for long journeys. A vehicle with a long driving range is not always necessary.”

“Constant progress will increase battery capacity while reducing the weight and price of the generator and therefore of the electric vehicle itself.”

“Constant progress will increase battery capacity while reducing the weight and price of the generator and therefore of the electric vehicle itself,” she says. Meanwhile, public subsidies can help encourage the spread of the electric car. In France, the €6,000 bonus on purchase, free parking in some cities, and pollution penalties are helping to boost sales.

A comparison of Norway and Denmark is also telling. Norway, which champions the electric car, has decided to ban internal combustion cars by 2025 and has rolled out a substantial system of incentives and subsidies, including tax rebates, EV access to bus corridors and free parking, urban tolls, and ferries. In addition, the country has acquired a dense network of charging stations. Conversely, Denmark experienced a collapse in electric car sales over the past two years after it withdrew incentives. Political will is not the only thing driving the advent of the electric car, but it is certainly a major contributing factor.