Continental EV adventures

Continental adventures; an EV experience

Take a three-year-old Renault Zoe, an EV proponent and a request to judge student engineer business cases at an EV event in Belgium, and a road trip is born. Not any road trip but one in a car that has a real range of about 85 miles and, from the outset, little or no understanding of the electric vehicle charging infrastructure in Europe.

The event was Evodays and central to the event, held in Hasselt, some 50km east of Brussels at the end of June 2017, was a competition of student built electric vehicles. I’d been asked to attend as part of a panel, to judge the business case stage of the competition. As an owner of a Renault Zoe, and always keen for an adventure there was surely only one way to get there; by EV. I’ve been curious about the practicalities of travelling across Europe in an EV and this was a great opportunity for a real-world test of the infrastructure. Of course, if you own a Tesla, then there is a vast network of Superchargers and you have the range; but this is just one vendor so what about the rest of us driving cars with smaller batteries and without access to the Superchargers?

First I needed a route and at least some idea of where I might be able to charge. In the UK Zap Map, based in Bristol is a brilliant resource for EV drivers. It has an up to date map of all the charge points and recent status updates. Zap Map don’t cover Europe but a quick call to Ben at their HQ, pointed me in the direction of ChargeMap. ChargeMap covers charging stations in Europe and like Zap Map shows the type of charger at each location so you know if your car will be compatible and how quickly it will charge.

With this new-found knowledge, a route was planned. Some nearly 400 miles door-to-door. I’ve travelled long-distance in the Zoe but these trips were less than half this distance and all in the UK. So, with tickets booked for the Eurotunnel, a few weeks later I set off.

I live near Bath and I had to stop in Hastings enroute to the Eurotunnel to meet a client. The journey to Hastings was uneventful with an easy drive via Southampton and Hove. The first stop was a charging station at the Southampton is at the motorway services, one of the Ecotricity network and a second stop at Withdean Leisure Centre in Hove. The latter was only a couple of miles from the main road and easy to find with the SatNav (and free). Once in Hastings, it wasn’t quite as straight forward. The rapid charger I’d hoped to use was out of service for AC charging and despite calls to the operator’s helpline, it couldn’t be coaxed into operation. The only other public charger was a slow charger in a locked public carpark on the seafront, so I headed to the hotel, determined to be up early and get as much charge as possible before my meeting.

I got the car on charge in the morning and went for a coffee, hoping to get enough in to reach the Eurotunnel before heading to my meeting. When I took the car off charge it was looking tight with the car thinking it had 46 miles of range to cover a distance of 43 miles. With no other alternative, later that afternoon I set off for the Eurotunnel. The SatNav found a slightly shorter route but experience suggests that these can involve more stop-starts and more hills. Eventually after very careful driving we arrived at the Eurotunnel with 4 miles left and the car complaining (lots of loud beeping) and pulled up at the Eurotunnel charging station. 


The Eurotunnel is great with several EV rapid chargers covering all the usual types as well as a Tesla Supercharger station on both sides of the channel. I had just enough time (30minutes) to charge the car before boarding the train. I grabbed a coffee and headed back to the car happy to see the battery was 99% charged. I unhooked the car and headed off to board the train. This was a mistake. It is less than a mile from the charger to the train but to my dismay the car had gone from 87miles to 75miles in that short distance with the battery obviously not fully charged.  I guess when Renault say it takes 30 minutes it actually does and it is worth double checking how much charge the charger has delivered (it usually shows on the display).

The next leg of the trip was a long run from Calais to Bruges. With 75 miles range and not quite a full battery it would be a big gamble and it was already gone 8pm. No problem I thought, I’ll just head to the Calais Eurotunnel terminal and top up. However, it isn’t possible to get back into the French terminal so I had to head into Calais in search of a charger. ChargeMap had the answers and I found one outside a nearby hypermarket. However, as I pulled up needing just a quick 10 minutes, a Nissan Leaf driver was just ahead of me and hooked up for what turned out to be a full 45 minutes. Overall a frustrating one-hour delay to the trip, however at 9pm the Zoe was fully charged and I headed off to Bruges.

The direct road to Bruges is a motorway, and the Zoe isn’t particularly efficient at high-speeds so it was a steady 56mph all the way with a close eye on the range and the Sat Nav. For the long distance EV driver, Sat Nav is an essential aide. It shows exactly the distance remaining to your destination, which you can monitor along-side the remaining range in the battery. If it is starting to look like you haven’t enough to get to your destination, you can drop your speed, which can make all the difference to reaching your destination or ending up on a tow truck. The Zoe’s SatNav has a feature that estimates if you have enough range to reach your destination. However I’ve found it overly pessimistic so tend to ignore it.

At nearly 10:30pm we reached Bruges and found the Allego rapid charger. The information on ChargeMap showed that it could be accessed by a smartphone App but an Allego app didn’t appear in the app store; not ideal at 10:30pm. Fortunately, a very helpful Belgian was charging a BMW i3 and between us we discovered the app was called SMOOV. Once downloaded and the requisite credit card details added, the car was charging.

At 11:15 the car was charged and I headed off to Brussels. I’d hoped to make Hasselt that night but that was now looking rather ambitious and I was glad to have booked a hotel in Brussels. It is 68 miles to Brussels from Bruges so after another steady drive, I finally pulled into the Brussels charging station at 12:30pm; to find it wasn’t working! Now very glad I’d booked a hotel, I head there with a view to sorting it out in the morning.

After a good sleep, I was up early and off to find a charger. Conveniently there was an Audi garage nearby with a charger (and coffee!). After half an hour on charge we were on our way again and arrived in Hasselt just after 10am.

It was a long trip and perhaps not for the faint hearted. As a rule of thumb driving the standard Zoe long distance is going add another 50% to your journey time as you need to drive slowly and factor in 30 minutes of charge time every 80 miles or so.

At this week’s Frankfurt Motor show we are expecting to see many new electric vehicles being revealed, with bigger batteries, greater efficiency and longer range. At a certain point, however, the size of batteries will start to become less relevant and the speed of charging, in mile per minute of charge, will be the defining quality of an electric vehicle. The experience on this adventure was that on the rapid AC charger (43kW) the Zoe charges at about 2.7 miles per minute. This compares to the Tesla Model S on a Tesla Supercharger that charges at about 5.7 miles per minute at 120kW. There are plans for a future generation of chargers capable of charging at 350kW, potentially giving 16 miles per minute. A typical petrol car gains around 300 miles a minute, based on typical pump speeds and efficiencies, however with home and destination charging perhaps this becomes less important for EV drivers; and it is also good to stop for a break after a couple of hundred miles behind the wheel.

Finally, long distance EV driving, for cars like the Zoe, makes for an interesting and relaxing driving experience, taking the slower road and seeing more of life around you, rather than speeding down the motorway; and if you thought this trip was a step too far, check out Chris Ramsey from Plug-In Adventures who has just completed the Mongol Rally in a Nissan Leaf. Incredible!