Citroën ë-Dispatch

Long distance on the electric highway – a smart move?

Vans and LCVs are often cited as having the ideal duty cycle for electrification. But for journeys that aren’t as straightforward, it can be more of a challenge. To put this theory to the test, John Kendall heads north of the border.

Sales of battery electric cars continue to climb, but as James McKemey, head of insights at Pod Point, said recently, rarely are buyers of new EVs troubled by the range anxiety that journalists like to write about. Why? In short, because most of these cars are bought as second cars, or are used locally, are charged at home and generally are not used to travel far away from home.

That may be the case for electric cars today but, arguably, the position for electric van users is already different. At present, most electric van operators choose vehicles after careful consideration of a range of factors including the total cost of operation and vehicle duty cycles. Most will probably be used for local operations, but if they are needed to travel further, they will need to be able to do it without worrying where the next charge point is.

We have been running a Citroën ë-Dispatch on long-term test to try to gauge for ourselves what life is like living with an electric van. Overall, it was the positive experience I had hoped it would be. The noise levels were notably lower than for a diesel-powered model. It was as simple to drive as we were expecting, helped by the logical controls, while the low noise levels made it as relaxing an experience as you could hope to find driving a van.

First impressions

Initially, I was reluctant to travel too far in it, but got progressively bolder as time went on. The first lesson was an obvious one. If you are going to travel any distance, do all you can to maximise the distance you can travel, even if it is inside the vehicle’s range. Most obviously, that means starting out with a full charge. As I soon learned, switching into 'Eco' mode to limit power use for things like air conditioning, selecting maximum regenerative braking and limiting top speed, particularly on motorways, were all steps worth taking. In fact, turning off air conditioning and heating except when really necessary were both helpful factors.

Then I had an opportunity to put the ë-Dispatch’s long-distance credentials to the test. A change of job for my eldest son Thomas meant moving from Surrey to Edinburgh.

“ Now I was growing concerned. Range was dropping so I decided that we would need to find charging off the motorway network.”

Like most young people in their 20s, his possessions could fairly easily be packed into a van the size of the ë-Dispatch. He needed help and I had the means to do it.

Since we had the option, we took two days to cover the 410-mile journey. Day one involved travelling from home in Somerset to Farnham, then from Farnham to the edge of York where we were staying overnight. Day two would complete the journey to Edinburgh where we would unload. Over the next few days, we would be visiting relatives in the Edinburgh and Glasgow areas and visiting an old friend near Stirling before returning via friends in Macclesfield. What could possibly go wrong?

Maximising range

The ë-Dispatch offers one of the best ranges of any electric LCV with a WLTP combined figure of 205 miles. Charging on a 7kW Pod Point charger at home, I have rarely managed to get the range above 185 miles, although switching into Eco mode usually pushed it over the 190-mile mark. So, with a fully charged battery, we set off for Farnham. That involves a mix of single carriageway, dual carriageway and motorway, made up mostly of dual carriageway and motorway.

Travelling on the motorway at 60mph instead of 70mph makes a noticeable difference and provides an acceptable balance between journey time and range, so that became the strategy for the trip. Where we were not limited by other speed limits.

As any EV drivers will know, Zap Map is a must if you are travelling any distance in an EV. The app will show you where available chargers are, if they are working and also if they are in use. If we were able to charge as much as possible, we would be able to follow Zap Map’s proposed route that would involve one re-charge at Coalville near Leicester.

That plan didn’t last long. Zap Map showed charging points at Lidl (Pod Point) in Farnham or a GeniePoint charger in the Riverside car park in the town. Since Lidl offers some of the lowest cost rapid charging in the country, it seemed like the place to start. Unfortunately, the point was not working and would have been quite difficult to access for the ë-Dispatch because of its position in the car park, so we set off for the Riverside car park instead.

The point was deserted. It also required an app to use the charger (GeniePoint), which, in turn, required a down payment of £10 to get started. Having coughed up, I thought it would be easy, but it seems there was a reason why it was deserted, it just wasn’t working.

We still had plenty of charge but even so, decided to keep off the M25 until we had re-charged. Lidl High Wycombe’s bank of five Osprey chargers did the job. We could take our pick and Osprey requires nothing more than a charge card to hold to the card reader. £12.84 and we were on our way.

The long journey north

This section of the route would require a re-charge stop and I didn’t want to leave it to the last minute in case of problems, given the lack of charging outlets we found in Farnham. I was also aware that the Ecotricity Electric Highway charge point network had recently been sold to Gridserve and that a programme of updating and refurbishing had been started, which might have an impact on the possible charge points along the route.

In Nottinghamshire, we started looking for charging options. Our first opportunity came with Trowell services on the M1. We had barely turned in to the car park when we could see the answer for ourselves. The chargers were being upgraded. It looks as though there will be around six on completion and they were all fenced off. Not a volt or an amp in sight.

The next M1 northbound service area was Tibshelf, not far from Mansfield in Nottinghamshire. Here there was a single Ecotricity charge point and it wasn’t working. On we went north, this time to Woodall services, having crossed the boundary into South Yorkshire. History repeated itself; here with a solitary Ecotricity charger, notable only for its inability to charge anything.

Now I was growing concerned. Range was dropping so I decided that we would need to find charging off the motorway network. Fortunately, the A57 junction (31) was next and Zap Map showed a bank of four Instavolt chargers a short distance west along the A57 at Beighton.

Previous experience with Instavolt showed that the company really understands what drivers need when they re-fuel – exactly what drivers expect at any fuel pump. Pull up, plug-in, wave your card at a card reader and charge. In return we paid 40p per kWh at every Instavolt charger we used whether on the motorway or not. The Beighton chargers were deserted so we hooked up, charged up and went on our way to our overnight stop.

Back on the road

Having engaged the local knowledge of Twitter, we decided that our best strategy the next morning was to head south-west from York. This meant backtracking slightly to Bilborough Top where Instavolt would once more be able to satisfy our need for charge.

After that charge, we returned to the A1M and headed north. This time our Zap Map planned route held up. We stuck to the A1 coast road with a re-charging stop at Alnwick, using the Ionity charging network. Again, the four 350kW chargers were deserted and we plugged in for our most expensive electricity on the trip at 69p per kWh. We couldn’t make the chargers work initially but a call to the number on the chargers resolved the problem fairly swiftly, giving us enough charge to reach Edinburgh with ease. Having unloaded, we headed for our hotel. We had already established that they had no charging points, so we were up early the next morning to find a charger and again, Instavolt provided what was needed.

Our day would take us from Edinburgh to Glasgow and then on to the Scottish countryside near Stirling. It seemed that taking on some charge between Edinburgh and Glasgow would be wise and the lure of a bank of six new 150kW BP Pulse chargers at Harthill Services seemed to provide the answer. Just a pity that they were not working.

Since it was only a precautionary charge, we carried on. With enough charge to take us on to Glasgow then further north to our destination for the night, we had no need to worry. I made a mistake on our arrival, though. I turned down the opportunity for an unknown charge from the local village hall. Had I realised I was turning down the opportunity for a recharge using a 22kW charger which would probably have recharged the ë-Dispatch in around four hours, I would have had second thoughts.

The return journey

As it was, we headed south the next morning, taking in another Instavolt charge at Bellshill on the edge of Glasgow. If I had charged overnight, it would have eliminated the need for that charge and we would have managed with just one stop on our route to Macclesfield. As it turned out, we repeated our experience heading north on the M1 but, this time, heading south on the M6. A succession of charge points that were not working led us to follow Zap Map off the motorway at Penrith to an Instavolt charger in the centre of the town.

Our overnight stop in Macclesfield allowed a trickle charge from a domestic 13-amp socket which undoubtedly helped us for our final leg the following day. It also showed just how long it would take to charge a 75kWh battery from a 13-amp socket – something like 22 hours. Our final charge was at an Osprey charger in Wolverhampton, again away from the motorway network, giving us enough charge to get home.

In conclusion

In total we covered around 1,100 miles over five days and spent £117.99 on charging, including the £10 Geniepoint fee but excluding overnight charging in Macclesfield. The rough equivalent for a diesel-powered variant of the Dispatch would have cost around £183.55 in fuel for the same trip. Against that you need to consider the higher purchase price of the ë-Dispatch.

One of the biggest lessons from the trip was the lack of overnight charging in hotels and car parks. As James McKemey of Pod Point told me, if he has access to a 100kW power supply, he could install either a single 50kW rapid charger or 10 7kW charge points. We need more of both, but if we had more 7kW chargers for overnight charging, we would reduce the need for rapid charging.

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As for the ë-Dispatch, it performed faultlessly. The lower noise levels in the cab are great news for drivers, but to balance range and journey times it is a slower process than many drivers will be used to. For local running, it would be the obvious choice, if the business case works.

We also need to keep charging simple. Drivers do not need half a dozen apps on their phones just to pay for charging. Instavolt and Osprey show how it can be done. The clock is ticking.

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