How has BP lost its pulse?

The latest news from the world of EVs

Hello and welcome back to The Fast Charge, a British EV newsletter. 

In today’s edition… lots of car crashes, Cornish cars, and I check to see if BP has a Pulse.

As ever, do drop me an email at tomrileylondon@gmail.com if you have any feedback, questions or comments.

In the news…

GUY MARTIN: I finally got around to watching the rest of Guy’s show about making a superfast EV - it seems I was too hopeful. In the programme, Martin alleges it cost some £200 for a round trip in his EV. He also said that EVs don’t make any sense unless you only go 50 miles per day. It feels like a total hit in the gut because while criticism of the infrastructure is well-founded these costs seem way off - what the hell was he doing? You can watch the show on C4

CAR CRASH: There’s some tragic news that yesterday there was a crash involving a Tesla and an 8-year-old at a school. The reasons behind the crash are yet to be known but the rumour is it is related to a self-driving feature. I guess we’ll wait to see, though I would be surprised at someone using an autopilot feature in a car park. Read more.

CRASH INVESTIGATED: Speaking of crashes, it seems over in America land the national safety regulator (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has announced an investigation into Tesla’s autopilot after 11 crashes involving first responders since 2018. This news has led to their share price dropping 5%. Read more.

FUNNY CRASH: In lighter Tesla related crash news, if you want a laugh, check out this video of a Model X driving into a bus with its wing door open. I find it utterly bizarre that the vehicle wouldn’t have been beeping at the driver to shut the door. But hey ho!

UNFAIR FUEL: For a long time it has felt like the Fair Fuel UK lobby group has morphed from wanting good prices for consumers to actually wanting to uphold oil as the only way forward for cars – perhaps for its own survival. Now it turns out one of the founders, TV presenter Quentin Willson, thought the same. Quentin revealed on LinkedIn this week that he resigned. Apparently, Fair Fuel didn’t even respond to his resignation. Spicy.

CORNISH EV: The Watt Electric Vehicle Company, a firm based in Cornwall, has announced that it’s planning to build commercial vehicles using its special ‘PACES’ platform. Under its plans, it will be able to produce up to 5,000 a year by 2023. Thus far, the company has only made an EV version of a classic Porsche. A prototype EV van should be ready in early 2022. Read more.

MORE CHARGERS: The London’s Evening Standard has claimed that in a new poll it’s completed that 57% of Brits think they are ready to get an electric. Only 26% took the opposite view. The Standard has called on a joined-up approach across London’s councils and City Hall in order to have a charging network that is suitable for Londoners. This can’t come sooner enough. As Londoner, I can tell you the distribution of chargepoints is disparate to say the least. Read more.

NEW EV: The boss of Honda told Auto Express this week that it is planning to introduce a new all-electric to its line-up (alongside the Honda E) from 2023. The car will be a crossover based on its SUV e-concept from last year. Auto Express have some good images of what the car may look like. It strikes me as very similar to the XC40 in shape. Check it out.

MONEY VOLTS: Good news for the North East this morning, it seems the huge mining company Glencore is pumping money into Britishvolt – the company which is building a Gigafactory in Blyth. When the Gigafactory opens it should create some 8,000 jobs. Read more.

How has BP lost its pulse?

In the last year registrations of pure EVs have nearly doubled, the Tesla Model 3 was the most popular car in June, and the government committed to ending the sale of new fossil-fuelled cars by 2030.

This is great news for the lungs of people across the UK, especially in urban areas, and our ozone layer which has been ravaged like a meat-starved lion by CO2 emissions for decades. However, this increased demand has led to increased pressure on something critical to EVs: infrastructure.

While many companies have risen to the fresh EV demand and thrived – I’m looking at you Gridserve and Instavolt – more established players have found the going tough. Ecotricity, for example, before recently owned the Electric Highway network that it founded many moons ago. What began as an unbelievable commitment to EVs sadly ended up unloved and uncared for. Gridserve (backed by Hitachi) ultimately bought them out recently.

And now it seems the wooden spoon is falling to BP – the oil giant. Like its major competitor, Shell, the oil company began getting involved in electric cars a long time ago – well before the government’s commitment to getting rid of internal combustion.

Where Ecotricity may have struggled to invest into expanding or improving its network – its estimated revenues are around £190 million – the likes of BP and Shell are turning over around £130 billion. Naturally, profits and costs could be widely different, but I think you get the picture that the oil crew probably have a lot more money to play with.

It’s no surprise that both BP and Shell have done what all companies with too much money do: throw it at projects and buy up smaller companies. Shell has this year committed to increasing the number of chargepoints worldwide from 60,000 to 500,000 by 2025. It also purchased Ubitricity, the UK’s biggest charging network, and recently partnered with Waitrose promising to build 800 points at their stores.

BP in many ways were ahead of Shell on this. However, unlike Shell, they’ve gone for a very involved approach. In previous years they bought the firm Chargemaster. It was founded back in 2008 by David Martall and created the Polar network (it also installed private chargepoints). After growing to thousands of public chargepoints, Chargemaster acquired the network Charge Your Car in 2017. A year later, after it became the biggest network in the UK, BP snapped it all up for a reported £130 million. And BP Pulse was born.

Now, while many in the EV world will call this greenwashing – the act of making your company seems ‘greener’ than it is by associating with green activities – I personally don’t care if it works. If oil giants want to switch the products over, that’s fine by me. But the key is, they’ve got to do a good job. And from what I can see, while Shell seems to be getting by alright – perhaps due to their seemingly ‘leave the experts to it’ strategy – BP Pulse is struggling. In fact, they seem to be on death’s door.

BP Pulse, the charging network that encompasses a total of 8,000 points, is one of the largest in the UK. When it comes to rapid chargers, those that can juice a car about 30 minutes or less, it’s the 2nd biggest (if you don’t include Tesla’s Supercharger network).

This huge behemoth size means BP has a huge responsibility to ensure that its network is working. Not only for EV owners but also to show those on the fence that it’s possible to switch. However, BP’s failures are now having the opposite effect.

Service reliability

According to Zap Map, well over 100 BP Pulse sites are reportedly out of service. And most of these broken devices are their rapid points. If they were petrol stations, we’d have protests in Parliament. Yet BP is seemingly able to escape this while the number of EV drivers is still small.

However, the lack of proper maintenance is having a large impact. In preparation for this write-up, I have read hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of complaints by people struggling with the BP Pulse network. Everything from touchscreens being broken, calls for help going unanswered for hours and people’s billing being all over the place.

A post that really stuck out for me was a user on Twitter who went so far as to say that he’d be giving up on EV’s because of his experience.

But it’s not just those perhaps on the fence where BP is causing annoyance. Even advocates are getting to the end of their tether. Only in the last week, the popular user known as ‘YoungEVDriver’ showed in a video how he was shocked by the lack of reliability at a group of BP chargepoints. Many didn’t work, but he only found this out after giving a £15 holding deposit each time (read my previous article on these deposits here).

What really grates people about the service issues though is not just that the chargepoints don’t work, but that they’re never fixed and costs have only gone up. Earlier this year I did my own research into how long chargepoints were left unfixed by companies. BP came up again and again with some being left for months. Likewise, only in June BP Pulse increased its prices by nearly 16% for guests and almost 50% for subscribers so they can keep ‘investing’ in the network.

In a recent feature about an EV road trip, Guardian journalist Sam Wollaston singled out BP Pulse as a network he struggled with:

“I identify a BP Pulse point. “Ultra fast charging here,” says the big sign, which, after crossing the Cairngorms, is like reaching an oasis in the desert (I’m limited in my Scottish charging, remember – entirely my own fault). Guess what, though? It doesn’t bloody work. Is it a contactless issue? I download the app, open an account, put £20 on it, try again. The man on the helpline reboots the machine, twice. Still no joy. BP No Pulse, I’m calling it. BP Clinically Dead. If you’re reading, BP Pulse, you owe me £20.”

This is seemingly a situation many others have found themselves in. And if you want to see the anger for yourself, look at any social media post by BP Pulse and you’ll see a stream of upset.

As it happens, The Guardian’s consumer column has also written about BP Pulse today and customer complaints. According to the paper, BP “acknowledges it must do better, and that it is already putting measures in place to improve its customer experience. It has doubled the size of its call centre, is upgrading its technology, and is working to improve the speed of the installation process.”

But are these just empty words?

Looking at complaints of a service is one thing, but to realise the problem that BP faces we need to look deeper. Specifically, whether they’ve delivered on previous promises. And the sad truth is, they seem to be serial underachievers when it comes to their charging network.

Broken promises

Across the UK, there are stories of sites where BP had planned to install EV chargepoints – even going so far as to install the machines themselves – but are yet to deliver or switch them on. Some have been left this way, teasing local EV owners, for nearly a year.

In one example, an EV forum user shared: “I called in at Stafford North yesterday and saw a dozen machines in the petrol station with Polar covers over them.” Another user replied that the machines were “first spotted in mid-2020”. They added: “I wouldn't hold my breath on it opening any time soon.”

On the same thread, another user explained that a set of BP Pulse chargepoints had been installed in Formby, Merseyside. However, a year later they are yet to be activated. There’s a similar story at Monkton in Ayrshire.

Perhaps these are just isolated cases? However, while passing my local BP station, I found a similar sad sight.

In the forecourt at the Chiswick BP, there are two spaces at the front that had been painted blue with an EV logo on them. There are no machines visible. When I asked the staff about when they were coming, I was told they’d been waiting a long time. “BP came a few months ago to check them,” I was told by a staff member. “We are told they are coming soon,” they added with a smirk. The blue paint and logo have now started to fade. It’s not a good look.

Some have defended BP saying that installing the machines is one thing, connecting them to power is another. I’m not going to pretend to you that I’m an electrician and that I understand the world of working with DNO’s (Distribution Network Operators) but what I can assume is, surely a company as big as BP has the tools to handle this area of work. So, I’m not sure you can blame the National Grid (or others) for the lack of delivery. Others seem to be coping!

What next?

In a recent survey by the consumer group Which?, BP Pulse was rated the seventh-best network. Charge Your Car, which is also owned by BP, was rated the worst. By comparison, Shell Recharge came in fourth.

Ultimately, is this any surprise? From the unfixed chargepoints to the undelivered machines, what it says to me is: we don’t care. It’s no wonder many are labelling their activity as simply greenwashing.

If BP wants to change people’s perceptions, they’ve got to take some serious action and invest in their EV activities. However, something tells me that they won’t. The Prime Minister himself only recently lapped praise on BP Pulse and others at Downing Street for forming a new group promising to turbocharge the number of commercial EVs in their fleet. Boris even posed with a BP Pulse machine. Rather poignantly, it wasn’t switched on.

It's also worth remembering in all this that BP’s main business (oil) is rocketing at the moment as fuel prices rise around the world. EVs I imagine probably aren’t a priority.

Likewise, it’s not like there’s any legal enforcement if BP doesn't provide a good service to the consumer.

So, the real question is, how bad can things get at BP Pulse before someone with authority calls them out?

Ideally, it will be at a ministerial-level – though given the PM’s recent posing I doubt that – therefore at the very least more noise needs to be made by the EV Associations across the UK. While drivers are still few and far between, the onus is on them to be loud. However, it still feels like many of them are yet to realise their place as EV protectors, not general EV fan clubs.

Naturally, I have written to BP for a response or comment about the criticism they are facing, however, I’m yet to hear back. One assumes their response will be similar to what they told The Guardian. If I do get anything different, I’ll certainly share or update with their comment. But, for the moment, it seems EV drivers will have to leave themselves at the mercy of this massive network and its flaky promises.

By Tom Riley