August 5, 2020

My first drive in an electric car was going swimmingly – until the warning light flashed | Electric, hybrid and low-emission cars

My first drive in an electric car was going swimmingly – until the warning light flashed | Electric, hybrid and low-emission cars


I drove an electric car for the first time this week. Pleasingly, it just kind of moved along nicely. This shouldn’t have surprised me; it is a car after all. But after a sorry lifetime of petrol and diesel burning, your hard-wired expectations of electric cars tend to be on the low side. I was initially anxious about how far I could go without recharging, but again my doubts melted away: it said there was 162 miles available before the next charge and I only had 6.8 miles to go. All was well.

But suddenly a large red warning light flashed up on the dashboard, bearing the legend: “RISK OF ENGINE FAILURE. STOP.” This was disappointing; it had all been going so swimmingly. In my experience, warning lights in cars tend towards ambiguity, merely suggesting something needs attention soon. But there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room with this one. And although we were barely moving, stopping wasn’t an option. To come to a complete halt on this particular road would have resulted in a mention on the traffic news. It would have been interesting to have listened to this but, with my range anxiety yet to be fully assuaged, I didn’t have the radio on lest it drain the battery.

I looked for somewhere to turn off but, for a good mile, there were no opportunities to do so. Furthermore, with the warning light burning redder all the time, the car wouldn’t go faster than almost no miles an hour, eliciting various hand signals from other road users. Finally, I managed a left turn and pulled up in a side street. I called the guy the car had been leased through, who told me to wait while he sought advice from the dealer. After 10 minutes he called back, relaying the dealer’s suggestion that I “turn it off and back on again”. “They’re just like computers, these things,” he explained. I executed this technical procedure, which I suppose I’ll have to call a reboot. To my delight, the warning disappeared and I was able to complete the remaining few miles of my journey.

My joy wasn’t unconfined, though. “Just like computers”? How else were these things “just like computers”? If matters had got really serious, who would have come to the rescue? Someone in overalls with oil on their hands, or a mysterious operative from IT support? Would it crash again, perhaps taking critical data with it? Was someone in an unmarked building in the suburbs of Yekaterinburg behind this nerve-shredding caper on the Euston Road? The questions piled up as surely as the percentage charge showing on the instrument panel ticked down.

Safely home, I then applied myself to the question of where I could charge the car near me. Stupidly, I had done precisely no research on this. I had seen lots of charging points around the place and assumed all you had to do was park up, plug in, swipe your card and Bob’s your uncle. Not so. It’s incredible how complicated everyone has contrived to make it. I was now entering a world of competing apps, tariffs, special cables and so on, all offering charging “solutions” couched in the infantilising language beloved of on-trend startups everywhere.

One company offers “intelligent” charging as part of its promise to “make charging simple”. Simple? Really? Another one took the biscuit by – I kid you not – actually having its charge point address me directly: “Hi, my name is Paul-Ruth. I am an Open Charge POD Point. I can charge 2 x electric cars at once at 7kW.”

Incredulous, I investigated further and came across other nearby charge points called June, Adam, Eddy, Otis, Thor, Luke, Gabe and Dawn. I have resolved to make them all my friends. Paul and I didn’t get off to a great start: he seemed to be in a sulk and delivered no charge at all. Ruth, however, did the business. I’m looking for an address to send her a thank-you card.

• Adrian Chiles is a Guardian columnist



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