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[NEWS] Britain's next icon: Autocar designs a roadside EV charger

Britain's next icon: Autocar designs a roadside EV charger

99 designing UKs EV charger standard feature lead

The government has asked for an instantly recognisable roadside EV charger. Our former product designer considers the requirements and sharpens his pencils

Setting out to design something that will become ‘iconic’ is an extremely risky proposition. The status of ‘icon’ used to take decades to earn or was instantly applied to a new product that had received near-universal acclaim.

For the latter, think of the Audi TT, the original Mini or the iPhone. For the former, think of the Big Ben clock tower or the classic red telephone box.

Indeed, the development of this telephone box was a hard-fought battle after London’s boroughs had refused to accommodate the Post Office’s concrete art deco K1 design. The 1924 competition to design a more acceptable box included the Royal Fine Art Commission, the Royal Academy and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The final design was executed by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. He suggested making the box out of steel and painting it silver. It went into production made of cast iron and painted red.

You can’t really write a design brief demanding an ‘iconic’ outcome – but that’s what the UK government has set out to do with the roadside EV charger. “Electric vehicle charge points set to become next great British emblem. Iconic British electric vehicle charge point could be seen on streets across the country from 2022,” declared the press release. “Electric vehicle charge points across the UK could become as recognisable as the red postbox or black cab, following the appointment of the Royal College of Art and PA Consulting to deliver an iconic British charge point design, transport secretary Grant Shapps has announced.”

Of course, prime minister Boris Johnson has form here. During his time as London mayor, he started a competition to replace the ‘iconic’ London black cab (a competition won by Geely- owned London Taxi International, now LEVC, with its range-extender model) and, back in 2007, Autocar helped realise his dream of reinventing the ‘iconic’ Routemaster bus before he was elected mayor. I worked with Capoco, one of the world’s leading bus designers, to develop an engineering concept that revived the open rear deck (using a range-extender drivetrain was the key) and presented the idea to him in his campaign office.

He duly became mayor and held a New Bus for London contest. The Autocar and Capoco design was the joint winner, along with a styling proposal from Aston Martin and architectural firm Foster and Partners. The bus eventually entered production in 2012 and about 1000 were made by Wrightbus in Northern Ireland. Whether it becomes an icon remains to be seen.

So, can Autocar help again? Why not? I spent six years training in product design, and it’s an experience that never leaves you (although I practised for only a year or so before fleeing for motoring journalism). Even better, the Autocar staffers have huge experience of all types of EVs and chargers. So I sent out a plea for complaints and observations.

“I could moan for hours,” said news editor Felix Page. “If it’s raining, you have to drag your own cable through the mud and puddles, getting your hands and boot floor filthy. You also get your phone wet scanning any QR codes to pay online.”

Road test editor Matt Saunders agreed on the subject of vulnerability to weather: “You can’t read the screens when they’re wet and the touchscreens are always glitchy. Proper buttons just age better. And the ones that aren’t working don’t make it obvious enough: they need a big coloured light on the top that shows when they’re in use, available or offline and clear labelling that shows their maximum charging rate.”

Saunders also made a plea for two types of charger, installing lots of smaller units for overnight charging and reducing the need to drag a heavy cable across a couple of parking spaces to reach your car. Who has a 20-metre cable, anyway? “And the little ones should be simple to operate: no apps, just swipe your bank card.

Editorial director Jim Holder made an interesting point about post-pandemic hygiene: “The biggest issue is the bloody cables. Eighteen months ago, I would have said that chargers all need to have them so I wouldn’t have to fish about in the boot, but now I think that I would always rather use my own, because it would be as clean as I would want it to be. I wonder if Covid-19 might make that a widespread issue – not that it has stopped us all filling up our cars with petrol.”

Holder also wonders about some kind of entertainment option for those who are committed to an hour or so charging. Considering the trouble with ensuring a good 4G data link when operating connected infrastructure, a charger with short-distance wi-fi might also be essential. Indeed, I’ve experienced this issue when trying to unlock a rental vehicle in a 4G dead zone.

Both Holder and associate editor Piers Ward highlighted that disabled drivers might have trouble manipulating heavy cables.

Which? has also compiled some interesting insights on EV charging, with a big emphasis on making it much easier to pay. It proposed a single payment method, possibly via a universally recognised charging card. It also suggested expressing charging in kWh to make the pricing more transparent. Actual charging speed (which depends on the charging capabilities of individual EVs) was also thought to be a good idea.

What’s my conclusion, then? Well, that ‘iconic’ styling isn’t the most important aspect of a new- generation national charger’s design. As Clive Grinyer, head of service design at the Royal College of Art, said in that government press release, we must design “the total service experience to ensure a usable, beautiful and inclusive design that’s an excellent experience for all”.

That said, I don’t believe that form follows function (unless perhaps you’re designing a fighter jet). There’s plenty of room for good design and  great detailing while also making the new charger much easier and instinctive to operate.

So, where to start? I think we must break down the requirements into a number of distinct areas.

● Weatherproofing. There’s a serious problem with wet touchscreens, phones getting wet when scanning QR codes and the significant problem of cables dragging around on wet and dirty pavement, gathering mess that they will soon transfer to hands and boot carpets.

● Eliminating touchscreens and specific apps and making payment as simple as using a cashpoint.

● Giving the charger its own wi-fi provision.

● Clearly indicating that the charger is operational.

● Clearly indicating the actual charging rate.

● Finding some way of dealing with heavy cables.

I might also add a couple of my own observations from people who have quizzed me about buying an EV. A number of female drivers have expressed safety concerns about charging in dark areas or deserted car parks, and it would be a good idea to make it easier to spot a charger from a distance, especially at driving speeds. (In fact, this was one of the reasons the classic telephone box gained backlit glass signage around the top and one of the issues with the 1980s replacement for it. The replacement was a lightweight construction in stainless steel that was so hard to pick out from a streetscape that it was later given an illuminated moulded top in the style of its predecessor.)

With the outline requirements covered, the other main issue is the design and how to achieve an ‘iconic’ result. ‘Icon’ status either takes time or is the result of something truly groundbreaking. Picking up on retro design cues is a good way of bridging this gap. The New Routemaster bus, designed by Heatherwick Studio, has a curved rear window that follows the staircase, which was inspired by the curved staircase on London’s original horse-drawn double-decker buses. Likewise, the Mk1 Audi TT was partly inspired by 1930s Auto Union race cars and managed to reflect the Bauhaus furniture and art deco engineering of that era.

We may be talking about a roadside EV charger, but the retro reference is relatively easy to uncover: original petrol pumps. Aside from the now highly collectable illuminated lamps that used to advertise the brand of fuel, one of the most interesting things about vintage pumps is their very long hoses.

It seems likely that these hose designs were a consequence of fuel fillers being in widely differing positions in early cars – a situation replicated with today’s EVs. Many of the pumps also have swivelling supports for the long and heavy hoses, which would also be applicable today for the weighty charging cables. They’re also nicely detailed and full of period character, most with large, clock-style faces that show the amount of fuel dispensed.

Today’s EV chargers are usually generic boxes made of folded steel and covered in logos. They will never be iconic and do little for neighbourhoods already ruined with street furniture, over-signage and multi-coloured roads. Good product design can do a lot better.

The final consideration for a new charger design is the vital issue of operating it. We’ve heard the complaints about exposed touchscreens and a lack of rain protection. Touchscreens seem unpopular and paying with a bank card needs to be made as simple as when we buy petrol or diesel.

There’s an existing answer for these issues: adopt the keypad and screen design used by millions of cashpoints. These have proved reliable and weather-resistant over billions of transactions. Recessed enough to escape the worst of the rain, the steel keypad is durable and vandal-proof and the screen is bordered by buttons rather than being a tetchy touchscreen. The cashpoint is so familiar to everyone that it would surely be poor industrial design practice to try to reinvent it.

One last idea. Drivers using non-rapid chargers inevitably see their cables dragging across the ground, picking up dirt. In winter, the mess is much worse. It’s something that I experienced a decade ago with my first-generation Nissan Leaf, yet little has since been done to address this issue. Perhaps a simple mechanical cable tie on the side of the charger would allow the driver to tension the cable so it is off the ground before plugging in.

You can see my design proposal brigning all of this together above. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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