London return via Chamonix, charabanc style in 2022
A long electric vehicle (EV) journey in France is all about the network
Stunning views from my local charge point in Chamonix
A charabanc (often pronounced shara-bang) was a horse-drawn and then motorised omnibus which was often open-sided and topped. It was the precursor of the coach and had its heyday between First and Second World Wars, carrying groups of local people away on day trips.
Our first long mileage EV trip on the continent, did not include our neighbours or a stick of rock. But we felt a sense of adventure, freedom and a bit of pioneering spirit with our frequent stops.
When was the last time you spoke to someone at a petrol pump? Plugging in, on the other hand, I was asked where I’d driven from, how I was finding it and where my next stop was going to be? We made three consecutive stops where we charged up with two Audi drivers, one from the UK, the other Belgium.
I’m an EV driver
For keen followers of this newsletter, you’ll be aware that I’ve been driving an EV for a while now. I detailed my early experiences here, last July. I use a monthly rental service called Onto, which allow foreign travel, provided you pay a £200 administrative fee for a Vehicle On Hire Certificate and RAC’s European Breakdown Cover. It sounds expensive until you consider the cost of fuel for a roundtrip of 1,500 miles. Onto provide three charge cards as part of my monthly rental, one of which proved invaluable and was used extensively during this trip to France.
My rental agreement includes 1,000 miles per month, more than adequate for an average month. In order to manage the additional mileage, I bought an extra 750 miles for a couple of months which cost a further £210.
For any potential EV owner/driver, unless you have time to enjoy the journey and don’t mind a bit of planning, this might not be for you. That doesn’t mean it can’t work perfectly well for everyday needs in the UK, especially if you get a home charge point installed. If home parking isn’t possible, local charging needs to be investigated because it’s still a hit and miss affair depending on where you live. I’ve been using one of two West London lampposts which have been converted for overnight trickle charging courtesy of Shell for a while now.
Onto has a thriving community who discuss every conceivable EV topic including what to expect in France. I have at least 10 different apps on my phone which consist of a number of journey planners, online payment services and charge point providers like Shell and Ionity. There is a lot of overlap and I soon discovered which was the most useful.
Where’s my next charge point?
All of this planning is about finding fast charge points, which top your battery up to 80% or better in about 40-minutes. That’s a perfect amount of time to walk the dog and get a hot drink from the service station. Distance between stops was never more than 130 miles, which was roughly a 2 hour drive.
All this planning is to avoid range anxiety, the fear of not making it to the next charge, heightened further by being in France. I needn’t have worried, unlike the UK, French service stations are better prepared with fast charge points, largely because of Ionity a rapidly growing, reliable network, which is co-financed by the Connecting Europe Facility of the EU. We never saw less than 4 Ionity chargers together and they were easy and free to use with my Shell card who partner with them. I wouldn’t have been so happy if we’d been paying though. My Aire de Jura session at 65 minutes, one of our longer stops, cost €43,50. Compare that with an all day trickle charger in Chamonix which cost €2,89.
It was impossible to miss what a great job Tesla have done. At the Channel Tunnel, at all the service stations where we found Ionity chargers, even at the Carrefour Supermarket in Sallanches (near Chamonix). They had it covered with far bigger numbers of chargers available. It’s not been free to charge a Tesla for a while now, but this is a manufacturer owned network, not reliant on third parties for charging. Ionity is the closest alternative, with shared ownership between VW, BMW, Ford, Hyundai and Daimler.
I also wouldn’t have needed lots of different apps if I’d driven a Tesla. Tesla’s online route planner made mincemeat of Notting Hill to Chamonix, telling me exactly how long to charge at the 5 recommended stops, along the 667 mile route, only 14 hours away including stops.
Our rented flat in Chamonix came with underground parking. It would have been perfect if they’d thought to add a charger for the 50 odd cars parked there. I wasn’t in a hurry to charge up when we arrived, but I was interested to find at least one reliable source for the 2 weeks we were planning to stay.
There weren’t too many options and they tended to be located in car parks. One nearby was at the Mont Blanc Hotel which had two charge points. I drove in there when we were next out and about. I was politely asked whether we were residents before being reassured that there was a perfectly, warm underground car park, perfect for my charging needs nearby.
My French is nowhere near perfect, but I think I’d understood the gist of my polite dismissal. I knew where the car park was located, so looked it up online. The information confirmed several spaces and 50% off the cost of parking. It was also free to charge the car. We had a quick scout later that evening. Sure enough, we found the two spaces on the lower level, only to find that they provided the French equivalent of a domestic plug.
More use for a vacuum cleaner
To charge the car would have taken at least 3-days, so no wonder the parking was heavily discounted.
In the end, it was Shell’s app that came to the rescue. I found 4 chargers on the edge of town, which turned out to be the car park for a small manufacturing company. Parking was free, and once I ignored the instructions to use my Shell card on the charger and reverted to the app, communication was made and we returned to a fully charged vehicle six hours later (see top image).
Never quite sure
That neatly sums up the problem and the feeling of having to negotiate your way. I was never quite sure what would happen? The Ionity chargers were excellent, but they’re not everywhere. In Northern France there is currently a noticeable gap. Going south, we found a single charge point from TotalEnergies, which was free. Ironically, it was located next to half a dozen Teslas. On the way home, on the A1, north of Paris, I had to use my Chargemap card for the one charge we ended up paying for. The card comes with guarantees that it can be used at a large variety of charge stations, so I invested my €15 before I left the UK. Bizarrely, credit cards are not always an acceptable payment method.
While this UK government should be commended for setting such an aggressive timetable for the banning of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, I wonder whether they’ve taken the view that they won’t be around to sort out the mess? New hybrids can currently be purchased until 2035 and whose to say that this won’t be extended further, when it’s clear that there is insufficient charging capacity and no EU scheme available.
I really like my EV experience, but I have zero loyalty to Hyundai or Onto. It’s all about the network. I think I know what I’m going to do.