Getting under the skin of EV charging

Urban Fox EV charger at night

Urban Electric’s retractable EV charging technology is enabling more people to be part of the electrification journey. Undaunted’s reporter, Franca Davenport, found out more about the technology for our Climate Solutions Up-Close series.

There are an increasing number of financial, environmental and political incentives for using an electric vehicle, but charging infrastructure remains a barrier to large scale adoption.

Over two fifths of UK householders can’t charge their cars on the streets where they live: a problem that is particularly acute in urban areas and which is the very place where electric cars could have the most climate benefit. 

This problem is not new, but few have really tried to get under the skin of the complex issues at play. Urban Electric have taken the time to understand the barriers around EV charging, working closely with local authorities and councils to develop, test and de-risk pop-up (and pop-down) EV chargers. The result is a disruptive technology but one that still works within the boundaries of city systems. 

Seeing the problem from all angles

The difficulty of installing charge points is multifaceted: on top of the logistics of digging up the road, there are concerns from residents about street clutter and the knock-on effect they could have on parking space.

Co-founder and CEO of Urban Electric, Oli Freeling-Wilkinson, became aware of the problem when talking to neighbours and realising how many had been deterred from buying an electric vehicle because of concerns with charging. “Currently it is mainly only those people who have access to a drive or a garage that own electric vehicles,” he says. “Which means huge swathes of people living in towns and cities feel they can’t take part in the electrification journey. And it’s these places that need electrification the most.”

Urban Electric’s journey to commercialise their charging unit has involved uncovering a range of technical and societal challenges, and then solving them. They originally planned to produce a unit that was part of the pavement but the aesthetic challenge of minimising street clutter necessitated a retractable charger. This then had to meet regulatory challenges around electrical safety whilst also ensuring the technology could be accessible to wheelchair users.

“Early on we had a tough decision to make between whether to stick to what we wanted to do and hope people would come round to our way of thinking, or to be sympathetic to the regulations that have been in place for decades. We did the latter: it meant a more complex product, but ultimately, we wanted to deliver the best solution.”

Oli Freeling-Wilkinson, Co-founder and CEO Urban Electric

Having decided on a retractable approach, Urban Electric then had to meet the mechanical and engineering challenges of ensuring the charger could function reliably and safely, whilst working in a range of weather conditions from driving rain to scorching heat. There was also the nitty gritty of dealing with small objects getting into the system, which they solved by actuators that can push past smaller objects while pushing out the larger ones.

Lastly the chargers needed an accessible user interface to allow people to operate the charging systems. This involved designing a chargepoint to rise up to a suitable operating window to allow users to simply plug in without having to bend down and an app from which users can identify and activate their chosen chargepoint.

Urban Fox EV charger above ground

The key to unlocking grant funding

Urban Electric was formed in 2017 and joined the Imperial Climate Accelerator in 2018 which provided them with support and funding to fully investigate the different facets of the EV charging problem and come up with the solutions in one piece of tech.

Through the accelerator the founders also received bespoke advice on their grant funding applications. “From the very beginning they wanted to help us bring our vision to reality,” says Freeling-Wilkinson. ”They helped us get into the mind of a funding assessor to understand what they are looking for in an application. I still believe that one session enabled us to change the course of our business.”

This funding and support allowed Urban Electric to get match funding from Innovate UK so they could install and test their technology in a living lab in a street in Oxford. “It was an invaluable opportunity as a young business,” says Freeling-Wilkinson. “Testing our product in a live environment with real users.” 

Urban Electric worked with a car-sharing company (Co wheels) to give residents the opportunity to drive an electric car and use the retractable charging points. This gave the company vital data to develop the technology and further de-risk the business plan. On the basis of this they carried out testing in Plymouth, Dundee and Staffordshire, and in 2023 the company formed a partnership with Balfour Beatty investments who ​​are planning to invest up to £60 million of capital to fund the roll out of 35,000 chargepoints across the UK over the next decade. The partnership is aptly named ‘Urban Fox’ and aims to offer an agile solution to EV charging for local authorities by building, operating and maintaining a range of fast, rapid and slow chargepoints.

Thinking ahead, EV charging remains a global problem and, once established in UK cities, Urban Electric has the potential to solve it at scale. “We’ve got an eye on the future,” says Freeling-Wilkinson. “There will always need to be changes to scale and transfer our tech to other countries but the modular approach we’ve taken should allow us to adapt certain aspects of it to suit different regions and grow with minimal disruption.”

Climate Solutions Up-Close

Take a deeper-dive into innovative climate technology by exploring other posts in Undaunted’s Climate Solutions Up-Close blog series.

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