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How accessible is charging an electric car for disabled individuals?

Originally posted in NewStart Magazine:

One of the biggest threats to our planet is the overwhelming amount of emissions and pollution transport is responsible for. If we’re going to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, it’s crucial we move away from petrol and diesel vehicles.


In 2019, the Government recorded that 27% of the UK’s total emissions came from the transport industry. Of this, 91% came from road transport vehicles such as cars, vans and buses. Seeing these figures, it’s obvious that in order to reach net zero in time something has to change within the transport sector.


Of course, the cleanest methods of travelling would be walking, cycling and taking public transport. However, it’s clear that as a population we’re not quite ready to give up ownership of domestic vehicles just yet. Electric vehicles are the most viable source of eco-friendly transport we have at this moment in time, but there are some major accessibility issues with EVs.


When looking at electric vehicles, it’s important to note that there are a few different types, but all of them need to be recharged regularly in order to run. One of the biggest discussions regarding electric vehicles at the moment is charging infrastructure. 


While it is suggested that EV owners simply charge their vehicle at their home, this is not easily done for some. It is suggested that roughly a third of UK drivers do not have access to off-street parking. Meanwhile, that statistic jumps to a huge 60% in London. Those who cannot charge an EV at home are left to use the public charging network.


Unfortunately, a big proportion of the UK’s infrastructure has been designed without accessibility and inclusivity in mind. Motability is one of the many disability charities in the UK who have conducted research into the accessibility of EV charging infrastructure. 


The charity’s research estimates that there could be 1.35 million disabled drivers or passengers who are reliant on public charging infrastructure by 2035, yet many of them may not be able to use it.


Is the UK ready for everyone to drive electric?


The EV market in the UK has been growing rapidly, even with the ongoing issues caused by the pandemic. Pure electric vehicles are definitely the most sought after vehicles in the UK right now, with figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) showing sales of EVs increasing dramatically month on month.


Although it isn’t impossible to charge an electric vehicle without off-street parking, it does make it difficult. EV drivers in this position would be forced to make use of charge points available to them on the UK public network, or at work if they’re provided.


When we look at the UK public network, we unfortunately find an array of issues that could put anyone off buying an EV. According to ZapMap, the UK’s leading app for EV drivers, there are over 30,000 charge points available on the UK public network. 


But, how many of them cater for those with accessibility issues? Emilia Platoni, Partnerships Manager at Motability, said “While the transition to electric vehicles is still a few years away, the infrastructure needed for people to charge their cars is being planned and created now. It’s vital that this is done with accessibility in mind, which will benefit not only disabled people but make EV charging easier for everyone.”


What accessibility issues could EV motorists be met with? 


As the Government increases their plans to ensure the UK has a successful public charging network, there are worries that little or no thought has been made of individuals who are physically disabled or have accessibility needs.


Those using public electric vehicle charging stations with a disability may face a wide range of issues. Abled bodied individuals may not even realise, but EV chargers are often fitted with high curbs and heavy cables. Sometimes there are even bollards in front, which are in place to protect the charge point. 


Steven, who drives a Nissan Leaf and struggles with his mobility, expresses how publicly charging his EV can be challenging, especially if you have not used that charging station before. He says, “Thankfully, I charge at home most of the time but when I use the public network it is really difficult. There isn’t a lot of space to move around. It would be better if there was more space like you get in a parent and child space.”


Moreover, Steven highlights how some of these accessibility issues he had never encountered prior to driving an EV. He expresses that as a disabled individual, “driving the Leaf is much different to other cars. I don’t understand why it is so much harder to charge than it would be to go to a petrol garage.”


It’s not just physical barriers either. All electric vehicle charging spots should be clearly labelled and identified. If charge points are not visible and recognisable, some motorists may struggle to understand where they can charge their EV. 


It’s also important to note that EV drivers could face a range of different payment systems while charging their vehicle in public. At the moment, there is not a universal design for charge points. Therefore, motorists may need to download appropriate apps prior to arriving before they can charge their vehicle.


While these may seem like minor inconveniences to some, they can make it near impossible to charge an electric vehicle. It’s also important to note that all of these barriers are not found at a conventional fuel station. They are completely unnecessary. In which case, it would be perfectly reasonable for companies to design EV chargers without these barriers.


Figures from Motability suggest that because of their home parking situation, 50% of disabled drivers are unlikely to be able to charge an EV at home. With one in five people in the UK living with a disability, this is a huge group of individuals who could find it nearly impossible to switch to an electric vehicle.


Safety while charging an electric vehicle


There are also a couple of potential safety issues with the UK’s current network of charge points. While there are now lots of EV charge points across the UK, unfortunately some of these are in secluded, dark and unlit areas. 


Last year, TV presenter Maddie Moate made the switch and bought a pure electric Kia e-Niro. After owning her EV for a few months, and using it regularly to travel up and down the country, Maddie highlights how impractical the public network can be. Not only does she highlight the ongoing issues of reliability with the public network, but also that she can sometimes feel unsafe while charging her EV.


I spoke to Caroline who echoed Maddie’s concerns. Caroline owns the all-electric Mercedes EQC, and expressed that “the majority of places I’ve charged in the past I wouldn’t feel comfortable being in on my own.”


When you charge an electric vehicle on the go you could be waiting for 30-45 minutes for a suitable amount of charge. This could mean waiting on your own in a dark and dingy car park without street lights. 


Caroline went on to say that she regularly plans her journeys using ZapMap to “avoid the chargers that are in the middle of nowhere.” While Caroline understands that convenience is an important factor to installing charge points, at this point in time owning an EV is not as accessible as owning a conventional vehicle.


As the Government pushes to make electric vehicles a mainstream form of transport, there should be more consideration into the accessibility, availability and safety of EV charge points.


How can we make charging an EV more accessible?


It’s clear there are ongoing accessibility issues for electric vehicle users who rely on the UK’s public charging network, but how do we change that? The first step is challenging the fact that there is no guidance or legislation involved when designing and installing EV infrastructure. There are a number of different providers who work with local authorities to get charge points up and running as quickly as possible.


Motability, in partnership with the Government, is sponsoring the British Standards Institution (BSI) to design a national standard for accessible EV charging. This would be a world first, if it were introduced, and would be available to those designing new EV charge points.


Emilia Platoni went on to state how “in the absence of legislation, stakeholders ranging from councils to supermarkets, manufacturers to installers, all have a part to play in making public charging points accessible. This is why having a standard for accessible charging is so important. It creates an expectation that EV charging should be made accessible as well as providing clarity on how to create that in practice.”


Designability specialise in human-centred design practices and will work alongside Motability to create innovative EV chargers that are accessible to all. They are already developing user-friendly charging prototypes that will be tested with disabled individuals across the UK this summer.


Ben Carey, Marketing and Communications Officer at Designability, says, “With careful consideration, all of these barriers to accessibility can be overcome. By doing so we not only ensure EV charging is accessible to disabled people, it also improves access for all.”


While the Government is keen to promote all-electric driving, it’s important to know that a big investment has already been made into public EV infrastructure without the thought of inclusivity. This is a real issue for many disabled individuals living in the UK, and will only get worse as new petrol and diesel vehicles are banned in 2030. 


Governments, local authorities and providers really do need to consider the accessibility of EV charge points sooner rather than  later in order to avoid splurging money on EV chargers that cannot be used by so many.

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