EV charging and OTA software updates in the UK market

The Device Chronicle interviews EV systems innovation expert Niall Riddell to get his thoughts on the state of play for the EV charging ecosystem in the UK.

Niall is an expert on the EV charging space and has reviewed a wide range of emerging trends and technologies in sustainable energy and the smart cities space. He has forensically examined the key market trends on platforms, IoT devices, low carbon mobility and integrated energy solutions. 

His assessment is that the UK EV charging market is still at a relatively early stage of its development. He quoted some statistics that point to the embryonic state of the market. “Just over 1% of vehicles have a plug and 0.6% of cars come with a pure electric battery. The signals are that 10 to 15% of the market will go to full electric in the next few years so it’s a huge opportunity.” 

Frictionless EV charging experience

Niall’s eyes are also keenly focussed on the underserved needs of customers and how digital design and software can be better leveraged to create better outcomes from distributed energy assets and smart cities. He works with and onboards a range of expert partners in IoT sensors, analytics & dashboards in cloud platforms, and development of EV Hub solutions and extension of smart city partners into LoRA sensors and wireless comms solutions. 

We spoke to Niall about some of the key trends and challenges that he is observing in the UK EV mobility space. He holds up the shining example Tesla has provided for the market.

He describes how Tesla has created the benchmark for the driving experience of helping get the passenger (s) from points A to B in a frictionless way. “The value that Tesla has created is significant for the consumer. The major drawback is that it is a closed ecosystem.” Niall continues “The Tesla driver sets off in their car with seamless digital support in their journey and destination, and the battery power consumed throughout the journey. The driver can easily see where all the charging points on the route are located.”

The digital intelligence goes as far as warming up the car’s battery so as the driver approaches the charging point, the car can optimally receive electricity out of that charging point. It even has the functionality to be able to notify other drivers on a charge point to move if you as the driver is approaching. The incoming driver then pulls up to the charging point and plugs in. After plugging in, there is a digital handshake, it charges based on a preset payment. Therefore there are no clunky payments or associated receipts. Niall describes the benefits of the Tesla driving ecosystem as a “sweet dream”. A digital utopia when compared to the average experience. 

Pragmatic assessment on EV driving and EV charging

Niall is pragmatic in his assessment of the broader EV driving and charging point market in the UK. “The real world of where we are today with public EV charging has much work to reach the standards set by Tesla.” Niall describes the typical friction that exists for an EV driver in the UK. Niall says “There is a dynamic where the driver when charging the car in the public domain is expected to pull up to a charger. They then need to use a credit card to pay for their charging. In a digital era where we now have a connected car, smartphone and a connected EV charger we need to ask the hard question why are we still using credit cards? It appears like something from the 1980s. There must be a better way to improve the experience for the driver. “Surely we can find a better method of engagement between the car, charge point and the user. How do we get the vast majority of electric car drivers, who are not Tesla customers, to be able to have a Tesla-style experience?” 

Interest in OTA software updates

Niall is also interested in exploring the question of how much of the software in the EV charging ecosystem can be updated over the air in those charge points and can it all be managed from a central server. He points to the work that Tritium has done in rolling out charging points globally. 

Minimise friction, maximise satisfaction

Overall, Niall is thinking about overall driver experience encapsulated in finding the most frictionless way to get the driver and passengers from A to B in the safest and most comfortable way possible. Beneath the surface, there is tremendous complexity in connecting the infrastructural dots. It is essentially a fragmented ecosystem with a lot of hard engineering needed between points A and B. “The number of actors required to collaborate and achieve that perfect experience is still far from our reach.” The other question Niall raises is although Tesla has done a great job of creating a fantastic EV driving experience, it is still a closed ecosystem and how many more of these closed ecosystems from different car manufacturers can the marketplace handle?

Towards a more open ecosystem for all

Niall’s preference would be for the EV industry to work together to build an open ecosystem where EV drivers could transition from one provider’s ecosystem to the others. It isn’t hard to imagine the kinds of problems that may arise where you have many different closed ecosystems from different EV manufacturers. The driver will ask where is the Apple charging station? I can see the Nio and Tesla charging stations. It could become a fragmented ecosystem very quickly. 

The industry also has serious challenges in the UK of tackling the needs for EV charging in the home, to make it accessible and almost ubiquitous in the public environment, to tackle street parking and company depots. Niall says “It will not be effective to try to accomplish this by relying on closed ecosystems.”

Public and home EV charging

Niall says there are just a few players in the UK who dominate public and home charging. These include the main options are BP Pulse and Pod Point. Their success lies in the fact that they went into the market early on and quickly acquired market share. But they have been competing against each other and so their ecosystems have remained closed to each other. Now, many other vendors are now following behind and they must now find ways to work together. Niall describes a number of different mechanisms that would enable this. One is the Open Charge Point Protocol (OCPP). This protocol has enabled more types of back office software to engage with more charging points. As the ecosystem has grown in size, this open protocol has enabled more niche players to enter the market and this will continue to expand and grow over the next 3-5 years. OCPP enables the control of the charging point. Niall also points to the rise of Open Charge Point Interface (OCPI) which enables the public interface between the EV charging points. Niall points out that “Critically, these (OCPP and OCPI) are European initiatives as opposed to being UK-built and as a consequence of this, they are slowly being adopted in the UK market.” 

Further ahead on Continental Europe

In regards to EV charging ecosystems, the UK is something of a laggard in Europe. In contrast, if we look at the Netherlands for example, the interoperability between charge points is seamless. Charging points on the route work to a standard mechanism and a methodology. Niall remarks “The only time you have to reach for a credit card or some other form of payment is when you cross the border!” The explanation for this frictionless driving experience is that there are enough e-mobility service providers in the Netherlands that integrated with the bulk of the open charge point networks such that the bulk was accessible through 3-4 key mobility service providers. This is also starting to emerge in Germany and France but the UK is a long way behind this sort of situation. 

Software and the smooth experience

Niall asks a key question for EV driver experience improvement: How can the various software systems that support the interface between the car, the phone, the driver and the EV charging point evolve to enable us to get the smoothest possible experience? Part of the answer to this question is achieving robust and scalable over-the-air software updates to the devices within the ecosystems so they are optimised for peak performance and extensibility so new features can be added after the physical devices have shipped.

Robust and secure OTA software updates and EV charging

For robust and secure OTA software updates, Niall believes that the value starts to come from vendors such as Mender.io who can handle connected device management at scale. “In such an emerging ecosystem, when an EV provider goes beyond 10’s of EV charging points and connected devices through the scaling growth curve to hundreds of thousands of connected devices, you have to partition what you are good at as a company, and what services you are going to get from external providers where they are going to be experts in certain areas.” If you have 10s of devices and you move quickly to hundreds of devices and you hit a bump in the road, you could be suddenly scrambling for a solution without proper planning. If you start engaging early and understand where you are going to go, bring in the right partners early on to enable your best ecosystem to evolve in the right direction and with great impact.” If you look at the EV charging point market in the UK, there are probably going to be half a dozen, maybe a dozen companies that have tens of thousands of devices to roll out, but lots and lots who have few thousand or maybe hundreds of devices rolled out to manage. Niall concludes “A harmonised experience for the tens of thousands, that where a best of breed partner in OTA software updates really kicks in.”

We wish Niall well as he continues to guide the innovation journey within the UK EV charging and driving market. 

For another article with an IoT leader on a transport related IoT topic click here.

Mender Enterprise for OTA software updates

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