Freedom to roam – first your phone, now your car?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Market uptake for electric vehicles won’t happen without significantly ramping up investment in recharging infrastructure, says the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA). [Nicola Sznajder / Flickr]

The European Commission has reiterated its ambition to roll out at least one million public electric vehicle charging stations over the next 5 years. But how can the EU ensure that consumers really benefit wherever they are in Europe? One of the keys to success lies in e-roaming, argues Kristof Vereenooghe.

Kristof Vereenooghe, is the CEO of EVBox Group and co-chair of the ChargeUp Europe Alliance. 

Most electric vehicle drivers do not follow a traditional ‘fill up at the gas station’ type of behaviour when they want to charge their car. In fact, 80% of the time they simply do it at home or at work.

However, easy access to publicly available stations is of crucial importance for drivers who either cannot charge at home or are making a long journey. They need to be confident that charging at the grocery store or next to the highway is as convenient to filling a liquid fuel tank today.

Roaming in the electric age

While the early headaches related to standardisation of connectors or plug types have now been resolved, new challenges have emerged that reflect of a more mature electric vehicle sector. These include access to charging stations, ease of payments, vehicle to charger communication and, last but not least, network-to-network communication – or e-roaming.

We are all aware of the benefits of mobile phone roaming, particularly during holiday season. When you are abroad, your smartphone automatically connects to an external network without any need to sign a new contract with the local telecom provider. Roaming for electric vehicle (EV) charging works in a similar way. It allows drivers to charge at stations belonging to the network of another operator (not their “home” operator) with a single subscription provided by a mobility service provider (MSP). This applies both within and across national borders.

Roaming is made possible through commercial agreements between MSPs and Charge Point Operators (CPOs) who manage the charging stations. And it is enabled via an EV charging management software of choice. MSPs offer drivers the possibility to find, book and use a charging point, and they also take care of the billing.

E-roaming is operated via specific communication protocols which are also used to exchange information such as prices, availability and location. Currently, there are several roaming protocols in use in the EU to facilitate communication either directly between providers via peer-to-peer agreements or via roaming hubs. This type of co-existence is synonymous with the starting point of the internet or the telecommunication sectors around 30 years ago. Thankfully, established roaming standards for both these sectors have emerged since then…with a little help from the EU along the way.

Making charging easy

In essence, the ultimate goal for the EU should be to allow any EV driver to charge at any of these 1 million publicly available charging stations across the continent.

However, to do this, a proper discussion about tying together local, national and international charging networks is needed. The situation today is frankly not future proof, because some of the existing national roaming hubs have developed their own proprietary protocols with varying levels of openness, and they neither communicate nor exchange data.

European policymakers can and should step in to protect consumer interests. This can be achieved by mandating that future e-roaming protocols supporting public and semi-public charging are open, not commercially driven, spur market competition, and ensure a level playing field. These are important conditions for establishing a truly open EV market in the EU.

Fostering collaborating

Maximum roaming with the greatest level of independence at the lowest possible cost can be achieved by adopting the Open ChargePoint Interface (OCPI) as the minimum requirement for Europe’s public charging network. OCPI is a mature, independent and open protocol that enables the involved parties to connect via roaming hubs as well as decentralised peer-to-peer connections. It is already embraced by a majority of charging service providers covering almost 90% of Europe’s 200,000 publicly available charging points, and its future development will be based on industry consensus. No privately patented material is allowed to be incorporated into OCPI, ensuring no single market actor can have undue influence over its future development and operation.

The European Commission, as custodian of the single European Market has a real interest in fostering its further development by ensuring fair competition between the automotive, energy, infrastructure and IT players who are active in the e-mobility space. By not being tied to one specific roaming operator, OCPI will move competition away from closed consortia and their inherent protocol choices towards products and services for users at the best possible prices.

And this is really where the greatest potential lies. It not just about connecting EVs with over 1 million chargers, but about the investment choices landowners and fleet operators make, and the wider energy system implications. With the right e-roaming framework in place the policy focus can quickly move to elevating new solutions that solve our pressing clean mobility and energy challenges. This will be to the benefit of all EU citizens.

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