Electric vehicles will play a critical role in slashing transport-related emissions in the years ahead.

Momentum behind the industry is building, with a number of big economies gearing up for the mass rollout of EVs and sales of electric cars hitting 6.6 million in 2021, a record, according to the International Energy Agency.

Not all countries will move at the same pace in the planned transition to low and zero-emission mobility, and the shift away from cars powered by fossil fuels won’t always be smooth.

There are concerns, for example, that the lower noise levels of EVs may pose a challenge to people with sight problems, while talk of a skills gap is sparking discussions about cost and safety.

Charging infrastructure is another area to watch, with the construction of vast networks set to be crucial in allaying fears about range anxiety. Equally important is making sure these EV chargers are accessible to all.

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According to the charity Motability, it’s estimated the U.K. will have 2.7 million disabled drivers by 2035.

As many as 1.35 million of this group, it says, “will be at least wholly or partially reliant on public charging infrastructure.”

The year 2035 is seen as being particularly important because that’s when the U.K. government wants all new cars and vans to have zero tailpipe emissions.

A disabled person who wants to use an EV charger today faces “inaccessibility at lots of different points throughout the process,” Catherine Marris, Motability’s head of innovation, told CNBC.

Such challenges begin when one leaves the house to use a public charger, she added.

“If they want to go on an app, for example, to see where there’s chargers, there isn’t usually information available about which chargers might be more accessible,” Marris said.

“Then, when they get to a charging site, there might not be clear signage and information about where charging points are located.”

The built environment around the charging bay could create difficulties too. “There might not be enough space around the charging bay to exit your vehicle,” Marris said.

“If you’re using a mobility aid, there might be a really high, raised curb that … someone would have to mount to get on the pavement.”

“The charge point itself might be surrounded with bollards that aren’t adequately spaced, so … if you’re using a mobility aid or wheelchair, you wouldn’t be able to actually get up to the charge point itself.”

Marris told CNBC that a charging point may also be “too high for a seated user, it might be too low for someone who might have difficulties reaching down.”

Ensuring EV chargers are accessible to all is a big task, and organizations like Motability are pushing hard to create conditions for change.

In collaboration with the U.K. government’s Office for Zero Emission Vehicles, it commissioned the British Standards Institution to develop a “national accessible charging standard for EV chargepoints.”

PAS 1899:2022, as it’s known, was published in October 2022, and covers everything from curb height and location of charging kits, to the spacing of bollards and height of charge points. 

“There was a yearlong process where industry … accessibility experts and disabled people came together, and they developed the standard through consensus as a group,” Marris said.

She went on to describe the end product as “a really powerful document that sets out exactly what accessible charging is and how it can be achieved.”

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Another charity, Designability, was included in a steering group to help inform PAS 1899:2022. Separately, it received funding from Motability to develop design guidance for those involved in the charging industry.

The guidance covers three main areas: signage and information; the built environment; and the process of charging a vehicle.

“We did a deep dive into the areas that were really difficult,” Matt Ford, director of design and innovation at Designability, told CNBC.

“It’s out there, it’s free, it’s there for anybody to use that’s involved in providing vehicle recharging,” he said.

Having design guidance and a standard like PAS 1899 is one thing. Getting charging stations that actually incorporate accessible features is another.

‘Change is required across the industry’

In February 2023, Tanni Grey-Thompson, a wheelchair user who won multiple gold medals at the Paralympic Games, highlighted the issue when she tweeted a picture of EV chargers from the firm InstaVolt with the caption: “This is why I can’t change to an electric car.”

Expanding on her point, Grey-Thompson — who sits in the U.K.’s House of Lords — tweeted about a lack of space on either side and how she couldn’t “get close enough to reach.”

In a statement sent to CNBC, InstaVolt CEO Adrian Keen said it’s “committed to cooperating with the requirements outlined in the PAS1899 consultation, while also taking on board direct feedback from charge point users, to improve accessibility at InstaVolt sites.”

“We are in contact with Tanni Grey-Thompson to discuss the work we’re doing in the space, challenges that users face, and how this can influence our site designs in future,” he added.

“We recognise that change is required across the industry as a whole and we are taking steps to ensure we’re providing accessible sites where we can.”  

“In addition, we have fully redesigned our chargers based on PAS1899 guidance, and these will be installed at new sites from the spring,” Keen said.

This unit has now incorporated a number of features, such as longer cables, lower screens and payment terminals, as well as what Keen called “an enhanced cable management system, to allow for improved charger accessibility.”

Creating a standard

InstaVolt’s plans represent a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of work ahead.

Designability’s Ford explained that a PAS, or publicly available specification, is “not an official standard — it’s not been adopted into legislation. It’s not … regulation.”

“But by creating a standard, by doing it through a robust process with the British Standards Institute, by having a steering group of stakeholders from across industry and the disabled community … what you have is a standard that is a really good blueprint for making chargepoints accessible.”

Such a standard became “really powerful” when local authorities started to incorporate it in procurement forms for companies bidding to install charging installations, Ford said.

“It’s being adopted, from what we can see, really quite quickly, not just by councils [but] … hotel chains, large companies [as well].”

A global challenge

U.K.-based organizations like Motability and Designability aren’t alone in looking to develop ideas and designs focused on accessibility.  

In July 2022, the U.S. Access Board, an independent federal agency, issued design recommendations for accessible charging stations.

And in December 2022, the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia announced it was launching a trial focused on creating “access standards for people with disabilities seeking to use electric vehicle charging infrastructure.”

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The IEA, seen by many as an authoritative voice on the energy transition, describes EVs as being “the key technology to decarbonise road transport.”

To achieve this mass decarbonization, a huge network of public chargers will be required in the years ahead.

For charities like Designability, that represents a huge chance to put accessibility at the heart of charging networks. “It is a once in a generation opportunity … once an infrastructure goes in, it’s very hard to affect it,” Ford said.

For her part, Motability’s Marris said she firmly believes that “100% of charge points should be accessible.”

“Not only because we want disabled people to charge at any charge point they come across — not just only a select few — but also, accessibility is great for everyone.”

“Whether you’re a disabled person, whether you’re an older person, whether you’re a parent pushing a pram and you need some more space, accessibility really does result in a better consumer experience.”