Keeping it simple

Dr Ben Lane
CTO, Zap-Map

We live in an increasingly busy and interconnected world. While technology has always played a part of human life – from stone axes to aqueducts, from sailing ships to combustion engines – the digital revolution during the past 30 years has radically changed almost all aspects of our lives.

For most of us, IT platforms and mobile devices now form the interface for almost all our daily interactions. Within minutes I can check my bank account online, arrange to see friends for a drink, order new clothes for next day delivery, and set up a crowd funding campaign. All from my sofa, and all at the touch of a few buttons, each new platform adding more power to the consumer, and taking the term ‘multi-tasking’ to new levels.

The figures that track our digital behaviour are sobering: almost four hours per day spent on mobiles of which 90% is on an app, with the average smartphone owner using 30 apps each month; 10% of us check our phones every four minutes, and almost half of us open an app more than 11 times each day. Millennials lead the way (and show us where we are collectively going) with a fifth opening an app more than 50 times per day.

Sure, but what does this have to do with EVs I hear you say (almost literally via the latest live feed of new Twitter voice tweets, and my Bluetooth headset!)? We all know the world is complex and getting more so by the day don’t we? But how does this have anything to do with the brave new world of electric vehicles and sustainable transportation?

Well at Zap-Map, we think the intricacies of the modern digital world have everything to do with EVs, the complexity being both an opportunity to support electrification, as well as a challenge to their uptake. In our opinion, all companies in the EV sector have a responsibility to respond to the increasing amounts of data, with the inherent dangers of complexity and overload, in order to help EV drivers use their vehicles and quickly find suitable EV chargers. Indeed, it is Zap-Map’s mission to make EV charging as simple as it can possibly be!

We know that EV drivers agree. In our annual survey, our users – that’s probably you! – repeatedly tell us that, when looking for a public EV charging point, they need it to be reliable and easy-to-use. Time after time, the leading networks as selected by Zap-Map users are those which have good uptime, have frequent status updates, and which are simple to operate. However, whilst individual charge points need to be easy to use, EV drivers are also concerned about the complexity of myriad of different processes and access methods which they need to deal with to charge their EVs across different networks.

So when it comes to data, Zap-Map’s goal is to make sure EV drivers have the best information available with which to locate public charge points. To give you an idea of the volume of data that comes through the Zap platform, and which must be checked before appearing on the map, there are now almost 20,000 charging devices (with around 70% being updated with live availability data direct from the network every 5 minutes), and more than 6,000 being added each year in the UK alone.

The number of charging locations is already way past the number of petrol stations, a milestone passed back in 2019. By the time we have 30 million EVs on UK roads (2035 or thereabouts), there will well over 100 times the number of public charging points – that’s a lot of hardware and a lot of data which all needs to be managed.

So if the future is to be electric and heavily reliant on data (which it will be on both counts), we need to ensure that the complexity does not get the better of us. Better to have clean efficient machines, and just the data you need, rather than gas-guzzlers and be drowning in a sea of information.

The good news is that electric vehicles themselves deliver simplicity in engineering; other than the wheels and motors, EVs have very few moving parts and are already known to reduce maintenance costs by around half. Oh yes, and if you own one, you’ll already know they are great to drive and superior in so many ways compared to their noisy, smoky petrol and diesel forebears. However, when it comes to the charging infrastructure and the data platforms required to manage it, complexity remains a key issue, and there is, therefore, much work yet to be done.

The irony is, of course, that you have to do a great deal of creative thinking and work to make something simple. One of the reasons the iPhone, already this century’s most iconic designer object, originally became so successful, is that people loved the simplicity of the icon driven, buttonless, smart device which could so much more than make phone calls. But its clarity of the design belied the revolutionary ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking of Steve Jobs, together with the creativity of the Apple team who managed to get all that imagination and computing power into a very small box indeed!

My point is this. If we are going to build new infrastructure to make clean electric transport a global reality, we need to bring imaginative solutions to the very complex world which we are in the process of creating. And I’m not just thinking about apps, though they have a key role to play in putting information and control into the hand of EV users. I also include charge point and vehicle design, data standards and sharing platforms, new business models, cutting-edge in-car mapping systems, private-public sector partnerships, and other innovations that have yet to be imagined.

Sure, there is much that we collectively have got right. Tesla has shown how to manufacture desirable cars at volume, governments (ours included) have injected huge amounts of cash into EV grant schemes, the renewable sector has shown that it can beat fossil fuels on costs, new charge point operators have installed quality rapid and ultra-rapid charging units with thousands more to come, and early adopters have spent their hard-earned cash on new tech vehicles that, in most cases, exceed expectations with their owners vowing never to buy a fossil fuel car ever again.

But there is so much more still to be done, particularly on charging infrastructure and the data that glues the numerous charging networks into a seamless national service. While several so-called ‘roaming’ solutions exist, none yet provide a system that enables new networks to easily and cost-effectively join, or the simplicity required by EV drivers to enable them to easily use multiple-networks across the UK and beyond.

While many companies are working hard to bring great data services to EV drivers, at Zap-Map we pay close attention to both the capability of our platform, and the design of our apps, in order to deliver the services that users need. Indeed, we have made it our mission to listen to our EV community of more than 120 thousand users, and to do all the hard work so you don’t have to.

That is why, during the past 12 months (and all through the Covid crisis), we have been working hard and upgrading our systems to use state-of-the-art data standards, and by doing so have created a platform which can connect with the majority of charging networks and electric vehicles.

Ultimately you the user will decide which solutions are the most innovative and succeed in solving the challenges ahead. So we really hope you like our next version of the app v6.0 – do look out for a key launch over the coming weeks and tell us if we have got it right. We have also adopted a new strapline as a reminder of what we are aiming to achieve: ‘Zap-Map – Charging made simple!’