City Life

Leading the charge

Electric cars are the future for Volvo Cars and for the whole motor industry. This means a growing network of charging points to ensure you’ll never be left powerless.

WORDS: STEPHEN WORTHY | PHOTOGRAPHY: SAM CHRISTMAS

There was a time when seeing a car plugged in and charging on your street made you turn your head, as if spotting a rare vintage car. But today charging is on the fast track, as demand for electrified cars accelerates. In 2017, global sales of new plug-in hybrid or fully electric vehicles more than doubled.

Volvo Cars has already committed itself to this bright new electric future. By 2019, all its new models will be available as a mild hybrid, plug-in hybrid or battery electric vehicle. It will also gradually phase out internal combustion cars and, by 2025, make manufacturing operations ‘climate neutral’.

Such a huge increase in electrified cars clearly presents challenges. Not least: where do you charge your car? The truth is that, even today – when fully electric cars or plug-in hybrids make up just 0.2 per cent of vehicles on our roads – there are plenty of places to charge. And it’s going to get much better in the future.

Home truths

Austin, Texas, is one of the most progressive and electric car-friendly cities in the United States. Karl Popham, Electric Vehicles & Emerging Technologies Manager at Austin Energy, leads the city’s drive for electrified mobility. “One thing I get asked is how many charging ports there are in Austin,” he says. “And the real answer is probably somewhere around 30 million. Why? Well, we’re a little over a million folks and there’s probably on average 30 power outlets per person. You can plug your Volvo in anywhere. Go home, plug in and it trickle charges all night. And then, when you wake up in the morning, it’s ready.”

The Volvo home charging connector

A UK-based study in April 2018 by PricewaterhouseCoopers [PwC] found that more than three-quarters of drivers who own their own homes already have access to off-street parking.

More electric cars will, of course, demand more of the electricity grid. But experts suggest this issue can be overcome with smarter charging that automatically minimises demand at peak periods, or with variable tariffs to encourage vehicle owners to charge when demand is low. That, in turn, has the potential to make charging cheaper, says a 2017 study by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Economic affairs. PwC uses an analogy of how the mobile phone market evolved rapidly, upscaling coverage and improving connection speeds to help foster competition and innovation. The same, it says, can happen with electric vehicles.

Joining the dots

“We’re looking at a charging ecosystem where 60 per cent of your car’s energy will flow in at home, and about 30 per cent in the workplace,” says James McKemey, Head of Insights at UK charging solutions company Pod Point. “The remainder is made up of what we call ‘destinations’ or ‘nice-to-haves’ – when you go to the supermarket, gym, maybe the airport – and what we call ‘en-route charging’. Here, we’re kind of replicating your fuel pump experience with high-power charging.”

Supermarkets often already offer fuel stations, so offering charging here is a logical step. The reasoning behind installing charging points is the same, says James McKemey – encouraging footfall. Most car charging points in supermarkets across the EU are 7kW [and free to use] but Pod Point is working with Tesco supermarkets to roll out 50kW units in the UK. You’ll pay for using these, but they will give your battery a rapid boost while you shop.

Close up of rear headlight of the Volvo XC60 T8 Twin Engine at night

Fast track

Back in Austin, Karl Popham explains how his organisation is building a super-fast network of charging points – DC Fast – in the city’s Seaholm EcoDistrict that can charge cars in minutes, not hours. They’re expensive to install, but will address the challenges of serving high-energy users such as cab drivers, the city’s fleet of electric vehicles and those simply wanting a full charge in minutes. Units like these are also being rolled out across Europe at traditional filling stations and motorway service areas – like the 350kW ultra-fast charging point that opened in Spring 2018 at De Watering, near Amsterdam, on the A8 highway.

The benefits for cities such as Austin and Amsterdam are clear. By offering charging solutions for electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles – like the Volvo XC60 T8 Twin Engine – they cut noise and vehicle pollution in cities, and help to combat climate change.

Volvo Cars’ aim is that fully electric cars will make up 50 per cent of its sales by 2025. Just five years later – in 2030 – the number of electric vehicles on the road globally will reach 125 million, forecasts the International Energy Agency. That’s a 4000 per cent increase in 12 years. Your electric future has only just begun.