Q&A with Simpson & Partners on the future of EV charging
Image credit: Simpson & Partners
How will we charge our electric vehicles? At home or at work? At the filling station or at the supermarket? DC or AC? And what colour would you like? We ask two experts on chargers.
Mandy and David Simpson are co-directors of family-run Simpson & Partners, which makes designer EV chargers in the Cotswolds. He is a former bank IT professional who heads the engineering side while she, as a former fashion designer previously working at DKNY in New York, takes care of the design, look and feel. I met up with them at their factory in the Cotswolds.
E&T: How did you get started with this venture?
Mandy Simpson: We started Andersen in 2016, making electric car chargers, based in London. It was David's idea on his way into work. He worked at Lloyds IT. And I was having a career in fashion at the time. And he said, oh, let's get into the EV business, because it's booming. So we started Andersen from scratch, he led our design team technical team and I did all the brand. And we did two rounds of Crowdcube. Then these venture capitalists came along and that's where we saw a discord in what our plans were, what our vision was and what they wanted to do, and we decided to part ways.
So in the middle of lockdown in 2020, we relocated to the Cotswolds. We wanted to build our own business again. We had some unfinished business to do. We wanted to build our home here and bring up our kids here, and the week after, we launched our Simpson & Partners brand, as such. We knew we wanted to be a manufacturer. We found this location as a factory space and a manufacturing space, and we knew we could make a difference compared to other competitors.
David has a real passion for electronics and making things and manufacturing things that last, that don't end up in the landfill. We put a stake in the ground to build our factory in Wiltshire, with the idea that we would build affordable and quality products in this sector. He leads this team of engineers. We build our own bespoke electronics and we've got our own set of 3D printers.
David Simpson: We try and do as much vertical integration as we can - OK, on a smaller scale than Elon Musk, but it's about manufacturing the best quality that we can. We're at a very exciting time now for us and other people in the industry where 3D-printing technologies, which I always thought until a few years ago were airy-fairy hobbyist type of kit, now are allowing you to do things that we couldn't even do two years ago.
The difference from our previous business was that we were VC-backed before and I think UK industry suffered from VC backing and private equity, because everyone's got a very short business plan of like 36 months. So if you look at the car industry, why it failed up to the 1970s, maybe unions et cetera too, but if you look at people like the Germans, they had 10-year business plans. And they looked at long-term investments, not short outcomes. My previous business was VC-based and everything was about very short-term and selling the business. They don't want to invest in factories, people, equipment, because it doesn't really reflect in the resale value.
We have the luxury this time of not having that type of investor and we are in for the long game. VC kind of businesses are very short-term, all about two- or three-year plans, whereas when you're making things and having a manufacturing base that's anchored somewhere, a physical space and you're trying to get as many processes in-house to be vertical, it pays off to have a five-, 10- or 15-year vision.
E&T: What does sustainability in this business mean to you?
David Simpson: Making sure that product we make now is still on the wall in 10 years’ time, it can be repaired, it can be upgraded and just make it right. I don't want stuff that's made as cheaply as possible that you throw out in three years’ time. The enclosure should last 20 years. Electronics-wise, there’s the WEEE regulations and we look at how we recycle that.
The challenges become bigger when we start doing batteries etc. They have more challenges like what you do with end-of-life batteries. For our charge-point, we will support for the next 10 years all the components and the parts in those boxes, so people have got a long-term purchase that should last, and the way we manufacture it is hopefully better than our competitors. We have a direct sales model. We don't give 20 per cent to a distributor. People buy direct from us.
E&T: Where will people charge their cars in the future? At home or away?
David Simpson: I think it's a mix, isn't it? We and our customers are fortunate enough to have a space at home to charge. But a lot of people aren't fortunate to have that. Going to a station to charge a car rather than fill up with petrol is applicable in certain areas. However, to fill up a car, that's a right schlep going to the petrol station to fill it up. At home, it’s there, it’s not an extra job, but some people won't have that choice.
Then there's work charging. When electricity was cheap, that was OK. Employers didn't put a free Shell pump out the front of the building, so why would you put electricity out there? Unless you've got a fleet of vans and you want them all charged up. But I think a lot of employers have now started to realise ‘hang on, I can't give you free charging’. And the tax man will want to know about it in the future as a benefit in kind. In a supermarket, if you have a longer period, you might find it very useful to go to shop and charge. But if you've got space at home to charge, why you would not do that? Because it's really convenient: you're sleeping and it's filling up your car.
E&T: What about the millions of homes without off-street parking?
David Simpson: It's a bit of a crazy situation that the places which are the most polluted now are probably the hardest to use electric cars in and charge them. London is a perfect example. It was never provisioned for charging there. It needs communal charging - enough in the street for everyone to use. And it needs things like fast charging at the modern version of a petrol station I think they're the solutions in the cityscape, but it's very challenging.
E&T: What about charging via lampposts?
David Simpson: The lampposts are a complete non-starter really. It looks good that you're doing something but the power provision is not there as most street lights now are LED. There's not enough power at the post to support it. It looks like a good solution, but it's not really. The local authorities now have to be very assertive in making sure there's proper provision for some sort of public charging in every street.
E&T: What regulatory problems do you face?
David Simpson: Every charger needs to have the ability to connect to the internet – which is great, but it adds cost. Then there were all the security regulations that came in recently. We didn't have to do anything to our boxes to make them more secure but the reality is people in Whitehall had written regulations without understanding the fuller context. For example, if I was going to hijack the energy network in the UK, I wouldn’t go to your house and start playing around with your charger and taking it apart. I would hack the central service controlling thousands of charge points, and there was no regulation around that. A lot of the regulations now are, I think, not necessarily short-sighted but focused on the wrong things. It's not the electrical wiring side that's particularly complex, it's all sorts of other bits and pieces. I don't know why they picked up on home charge points more than the heat pumps or boilers.
E&T: With solar panels generating DC why not make car chargers DC instead of converting to AC and then back again? Would it make sense to produce a DC model?
David Simpson: There's a lot of things in life that are all converted from AC to DC and back. In a car we're getting AC and then converting it back into DC for the batteries. Do we have a home in the future with DC wiring? There’re some safety challenges around DC being a bit more dangerous than AC, but I don’t think it’s long [off]. But once again it needs to be a whole-industry push and for a lot of people that's a little bit too visionary, but it's a sensible idea. It seems crazy that I've made DC power from the sun, I've had to take a few per cent out, convert it and then convert it back again with all the losses. And I've probably lost 10 per cent of efficiency or something like that.
It's the same when people talk about wireless charging as the future, but I'm not so sure it is. There's a convenience factor to it but I think from an environmental perspective it's not efficient. We have wireless charging for our phones now but they’re tiny power. If you start looking at a whole street of people doing it, then it’s 10 per cent of a lot of power. That’s a lot of wasted power, just because someone couldn't be bothered to plug it in. But it could work for buses stopping at bus stops.
E&T: Do your boxes integrate with the ability to store charge in the car and take it out again?
David Simpson: No. For vehicle-to-grid generally, the most supported method of doing it will be – and not many cars do it now – DC. And that means you're putting all the inversion in the charge point, making the boxes very big. My feeling at the moment is that consumers don’t want to pay for all that hardware to be in the charge point rather than the car. If you’ve bought a car that's got an on-board charger with the inverters, do you really want to spend £3000 on a device so that you can get it back out? And the challenge about vehicle-to-grid as well is that it's not a fixed device. ‘Oh, you can't go out now because I'm using electricity out of the car’.
And the other thing that's happening in the market is we're getting sodium batteries, which will become big for home storage, and they’re a fraction of the price of lithium-ion batteries. So I think if you want home storage in the future, it would be static storage and the price would be a lot lower than buying the charge point to get it out of your car. You might as well have a dedicated storage that doesn't go to the gym, doesn't go shopping for the day, and just have it there actually.
Also, car manufacturers secretly don't want to support vehicle-to-grid because everyone's worried about the life of the battery. You put more wear on it by charging and discharging it. They might say they're interested, but if you actually look at who supports it right now, it's a tiny number of manufacturers. Tesla said they won't support it. They said they don't see a market for it.
E&T: Are you providing too much design choice?
Mandy Simpson: Absolutely not! People love choice. If they're given a selection of colours to look at, they can imagine, they can think about what they want, what would suit their home, what suits their taste, their style and, inevitably, in a lot of cases it's the lady who decides this. There’s something for everyone.
People love choice, so I don't think there's too much. There can never be too much choice, I think. I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time thinking about all the colours in the range, and all the finishes, to maximise the choice people have. You will find something that you like.
E&T: How do you decide the range and why all plain colours and no patterns yet?
Mandy Simpson: I spend a huge amount of time looking at architecture, looking at substrates, different walls, different colours, different bricks, where bricks come from, what gives a brick its different colour, what soil it's come from. I print out some different kinds of coloured walls and then I just hold colours up to each scenario in the daytime, in the night time.
We can always do patterns perhaps in the future, but for now it's just a single colour. Letting people think about in their lid choice and their front choice at the moment, that's probably enough.
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