Is Top Gear encouraging fans to unplug electric cars?

“Won’t 10-year-old boys just go around unplugging cars,” asks James May

By Will Dron on February 6, 2012 12:12 PM

The Top Gear electric car baiting continues after presenter James May highlighted the possibility that cars can be unplugged while charging at a public charging point.

It follows a number of other incidents that some have argued are at best fun-poking and at worst positively anti-electric car.

In Sunday’s Top Gear episode, during the regular car news round-up, May showed the audience a picture of the upcoming pure-electric 2012 Renault Fluence Z.E. – or, as he called it, “the ‘Influenza’…or something a bit like that” – before helpfully highlighting the fact that plug-in cars can also be… wait for it… unplugged.

“I was wondering,” May mused, “when, in the future when we’re all driving electric cars, as they all tell us we will, the cities are full of these charging points, won’t 10-year-old boys just go around unplugging cars, because that’s what we would have done when I was 10.”

Not one to fail to rise to the banter, indomitable co-presenter Jeremy Clarkson quipped, “Do you have to be 10? Why wouldn’t you do that aged, I don’t know, 52? You would, wouldn’t you?”

Thankfully, the third member of the presenting gang was able to inject a small amount of balance to the discussion. “I wouldn’t,” replied Richard Hammond, seemingly unimpressed. “Why would you do that?”

Why indeed?

May likened the practice to locking up someone else’s bicycle with your own bicycle lock, simply to inconvenience them. “You’re just a yob!” snapped Hammond. Quite, but if James May likes to do such things, we have to assume others will also. Especially now its been pointed out on national (actually, international) television.

The joke is on Top Gear

Fortunately, people looking to buy the Fluence Z.E. – or any other electric car for that matter – need not be so concerned, for a number of reasons.

In the first instance, almost all charging points, whether they be a slow three-pin connection or a faster type with a special (mennekes) plug – are lockable at the point of connection. In most cases, charging won’t start until the plug is secured to the unit.

“Preventing someone unplugging someone else's car is a primary requirement of every tender & procurement for public charge points,” a spokesperson from charging point maker POD Point told us. “This is something that was thought of & solved a few years ago.”

Three-pin plugs can be locked under a metal flap on the charge post, while the 7-pin Mennekes fast charge gun (plug) has three indentations on it, which charging posts can lock into. When a user starts a charging cycle, an actuator pushes a pin into one or more of the holes (generally just the top hole), which locks the gun into place. Only when the user swipes their RFID tag to finish the charge cycle does the actuator release the pin and the gun can be removed.

Secondly, carmakers have thought about how to secure the other end of the cable. In the case of the Renault Fluence Z.E., the plug is locked in place with a key. Pure-electric Nissan LEAF owners are supplied with a padlock with which to lock their plug in place. Of course, LEAF owners have to remember to attach the padlock each time.

Thirdly, owners of the Fluence Z.E. will have a secret weapon in their arsenal in the form of a smartphone app, which will immediately inform them if the recharge is interrupted for any reason. The Nissan LEAF also has this feature, and we expect it to be fairly standard on most new models.

So it’s really pretty hard to unplug EVs while they’re charging. And bear in mind that most drivers charge at home most of the time, away from unwarranted attention. In real world testing, such as the UK’s CABLED trial, most drivers were returning home with 40% charge still remaining, meaning on-street top-ups are unlikely to be commonplace.

So, in this particular case, the joke is very much on the Top Gear crew. Just a little bit of research would have prevented their blunder, but perhaps that’s too much to ask.

You can watch the episode here (skip to 19 minutes in). And remember, Top Gear is an entertainment show and perhaps not the best source of accurate vehicle information.