Features
26 Jun 19

Power cut – what happens when EVs break down?

Roadside assistance organisations are having to invest in training and equipment for their patrols to support drivers of electric vehicles. 

The rise of electric vehicles is placing a host of new demands on roadside assistance companies. As fleets adopt battery power, recovery operators face the challenge of training their technicians to fix zero emission technology and of developing new equipment to minimise downtime suffered by an out-of-charge EV.

Early indications suggest that electric motors are reliable, but the parts in and around them can fail. Cables sometimes do not fit in charge points or will not disconnect, plug flaps fail to open, and gear levers refuse to shift. EVs are also susceptible to the same faults as petrol and diesel powered cars, such as flat tyres, drivers locking themselves out of the vehicle, and flat 12-volt batteries.

Koen Snoeys, B2B manager at VAB, the Belgian roadside assistance operator, said: “We have to support two types of battery problems, one with the big traction battery and the other with the 12-volt battery you would find in an internal combustion engine. If the 12-volt battery is flat or broken it’s impossible to start the vehicle, even if the big battery unit is fully charged. We see a lot of people who do not really know if they have turned off their car or just stopped, because the motor makes no noise. Sometimes the 12-volt battery is still working.”

Dangerously high voltage

Before technicians can start to diagnose faults, however, it’s imperative that they know how to work safely on a vehicle with a battery pack carrying a dangerously high voltage. VAB has invested in safety training so its mechanics can isolate the battery unit, before they begin to fix vehicles. 

Interestingly, despite driver range anxiety, VAB reports few instances of EVs running out of power.

Snoeys attributes this to the fact that most EVs are being driven by early adopters who are both aware of the battery capacity and have a determination to make zero emission technology work. But in the longer term he expects flat batteries to become more of an issue when company drivers are obliged to drive EVs, and when members of EV car share schemes forget to plug them in when they have finished driving them.

Towed to safety

Much thought and innovation is currently going into a solution for mobile recharging, but in the short-term the majority of recovery operators have decided to tow EVs with flat batteries to charge points rather than recharge them at the roadside. This reduces the delay for the driver in waiting for one of only a handful of patrols with recharging facilities, and then waiting while the battery recharges.

Towing EVs is not a straightforward process, however, given that most electric vehicles are both automatic and four-wheel-drive. 

“Never tow with the front wheels on the ground or four wheels on the ground (forward or backward), as this may cause serious and expensive damage to the motor,” warns the Nissan Leaf manual, which strongly recommends the LEAF to be lifted onto the back of a flatbed truck.

New training equipment

From a driver perspective, when an EV does break down, roadside repair is preferable to a tow to a garage, which is why the AA, the UK’s largest breakdown operator and a member of the pan-European ARC Europe Group network, has collaborated with AG Block to develop the world’s first hybrid vehicle training rig capable of simulating real hybrid and electric vehicle faults.

Keith Miller, AA national technical manager, said: “We use this rig to train our patrols. This year we will be training our patrols to the next level in high voltage vehicles giving them the ability to isolate and reinstate the high voltage system on electric and hybrid vehicles. While we do not work directly on the high voltage system at the roadside due to safety we can still repair electric vehicle faults that are not high voltage systems for example tyres, 12-volt battery, brakes, steering, suspension and keys.”

The AA attended around 3,000 EV breakdowns last year, and has given its technical helpdesk staff EV training so they can speak to drivers with confidence and offer expert advice. About 250 of the breakdowns were to vehicles that had run out of charge, which the AA moved vehicles to the nearest charging station or their destination – whichever was closer, but: “We are testing an alternative refuel development van which carries a hydrogen dispenser for fuel cell vehicles and electric vehicle recharge capability,” said Miller.

Roadside recharging solutions

This touches on the different solutions that are emerging to recharge EVs that have run out of power by the roadside. In France, the rescue organisation ACTA has launched a mobile charging unit based on lithium battery cells carried by patrols. Each fully charged unit is capable of about eight EV recharges – one minute of recharging adds about 1km of range – and the unit can recharge itself from the patrol vehicle’s engine as it drives between calls. 

Across the Channel in the UK, the RAC has just equipped its first six patrol vans with a lightweight mobile electric vehicle charger, called EV Boost. The breakdown company says the solution can be rolled out to hundreds of its vehicles to meet the scale of demand from a rising parc of electric vehicles. The on-board generators, powered by a second alternator connected to the diesel engine of the patrol vehicle, aim to deliver no more than a top-up charge to get the stranded vehicle to its nearest charge point.

Chris Millward RAC head of roadside rescue innovation, said: “The number of electric vehicles on the road will grow rapidly in the next few years, in particular we are seeing increased interest and take-up from business and fleet managers, so it is critical that we have an effective mobile power source for these cars in an emergency giving EV-owners complete peace of mind.”

Image: The RAC EV Boost is powered by the patrol vehicle’s diesel engine and delivers enough charge to get an EV to the nearest charge point.

Authored by: Jonathan Manning