The government has revealed a prototype for an electric vehicle (EV) chargepoint, in its push to phase out new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
The charging point has been designed by product designers PA Consulting in collaboration with the Royal College of Art (RCA). It was revealed at the UK Pavilion at UN climate change conference COP26.
As the design team explains, there were a few challenges in developing the device. Many private companies are creating and installing their own charging points already, for example. It is estimated that there are 42,000 charging points in the UK.
The chargepoint has to make “charging easy, safe, and practical for as many people as possible”, the team explains, and incorporate a design that “could become as recognisable as the red post box or black cab”.
Another problem is the perception of EVs and their useability. PA Consulting design and innovation expert Dan Toon says, “We know that excellent design has the power to dismantle barriers to growth and simplify the user experience.”
“For chargepoints, this means making the switch to EVs more attractive, accessible, affordable and secure for drivers without negatively impacting pedestrians and other road users,” he adds.
The work has been commissioned following competition for a contract worth £200,000 from the Department for Transport’s (DFT) Office of Zero Emission Vehicles.
“Simple and modern in appearance”
The prototype comprises a standpoint and a circular handle, used to connect vehicles to the power source. The consultancy describes the design as “simple and modern in appearance” while combining “practicality and inclusivity with inspiring aesthetics”.
The handle lights up on the inside, which indicates charging status to users. While materials have not been finalised, it’s likely to be made of a metallic material with some kind of protective finish, explains Toon.
The grip is set to have a textured finish inside and use a material that is robust but easy to handle, according to the designer.
Toon describes the prototype’s colour as a midnight blue with bronze tones. “We had to be extremely sensitive about what this might be like when it’s on the end of your street,” he says.
He adds: “It’s okay for a red post box because there’s not many of them, but imagine there’s a street with four of five of these installed – you wouldn’t want to see a red dominating.”
Throughout the process, PA Consulting worked with a user group comprising EV and non-EV users in an attempt to “understand wider attitudes to electric vehicles and charging infrastructure in the UK”.
The consultancy also collaborated with semiotics specialists in an attempt to understand “the essence of British design”. This helped the team understand the “tension (or antagonism) between contrasting elements, such as joy and utility or heritage and modernity”.
Toon expands on this concept, outlining the tension between “outright utilitarianism” and “joy” that exists within popular British products such as Dyson’s vacuum cleaner. Another important antagonism was “heritage breakage”, Toon adds.
“It was about understanding and recognising our heritage, but at the same time breaking it in such a way that the design still works,” he says. Toon hopes that this concept comes through with the lighting elements, which are modern but also “part of the user experience”.
One problem that has existed in the industrial design sector is an underrepresentation of female designers, which can result in products that do not address the needs of a wider audience. Toon explains that accessibility was a priority in the prototype – from the grip size to the height of the charging point.
“The automotive industry has been traditionally quite masculine,” Toon says. “The electric car transition has an amazing opportunity to be much more balanced and more feminine. With this design, we found that the design was quite appealing to both men and women.”
Meanwhile the design team carried out user research with 30 different organisations across the motoring sector, including manufacturers, local authorities and consumer groups. These include Motability, a UK disability charity which seeks to help people lease vehicles using their disability benefit.
It is not yet known when the chargepoint will be rolled out, or its final iteration. Toon hopes that a next phase will include real-world testing on protoypes, while PA Consulting is open to sharing its findings with other manufacturers.
According to the DfT, the design will “raise awareness and generate excitement around EVs” as it hopes to “build one of the most convenient, affordable and reliable charging networks in the world”.
The design was revealed by a series of pledges from the UK government. It confirmed that all heavy good vehicles (HGVs) in the UK will be zero-emission and that new, non-emission HGVs would be phased out by 2035.