What's Missing in the Electric-Vehicle Revolution: Enough Places to Plug In

What's Missing in the Electric-Vehicle Revolution: Enough Places to Plug In

As dozens of new battery-powered, plug-in car models come to market, roadtrippers who bought anything but a Tesla are discovering that America's charging infrastructure isn't ready for prime time

Drivers of electric vehicles who wish to take them on road trips need to plan ahead carefully. Here, a fast charging station in the parking lot of a Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas. REUTERS
Drivers of electric vehicles who wish to take them on road trips need to plan ahead carefully. Here, a fast charging station in the parking lot of a Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas. REUTERS

Bradley Wilkinson is the owner of a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt, and the kind of electric-vehicle diehard who knows how to squeeze every last mile of range out of his vehicle.

Even so, during his most recent road trip, from Tampa, Florida, back home to Fort Carson, Colorado, he spent about 58 hours on the road. In a gasoline-powered vehicle, on average, the 1,900-mile journey would take about 30. His relatively sluggish pace was due to his need to regularly power up the Bolt's battery at a "fast" charger -- so called because they're many times faster than typical home chargers.

Less experienced EV owners report far bigger inconveniences than Mr. Wilkinson's. Those include: too few charging stations, too much demand at the stations that are available, broken chargers, confusing payment systems, exorbitant electricity rates, and uncertainty over how long their cars need to charge.

While EVs can be powered up at home, industry analysts and academics believe that a fast-charging infrastructure is essential to getting beyond their current limited adoption. This next wave of slightly-less-early adopters is critical to a global automotive industry betting heavily on battery power.

Yet so far, only one carmaker has offered a reassuring pitch about conveniently and reliably recharging on the go: Tesla. And Tesla's fast-charging technology doesn't work on non-Tesla cars.

Building the requisite charging infrastructure for the rest of the EV universe will be expensive.

The Biden administration has proposed building a network of 500,000 chargers in the next five years, which would cost billions. The fact that many believe such a government investment is required shows just how little faith many industry insiders have in the ability of private enterprise to solve this problem. One issue: Building out the nation's charging infrastructure might not be profitable.

Say what you will about the fit and finish of Tesla CEO Elon Musk's EVs, or his over-the-top promises of imminent self-driving technology, the one thing his company got right from its early days is charging, says Hemant K. Bhargava, director of the Center for Analytics and Technology at UC Davis.

Tesla built a nationwide fast-charging infrastructure for its vehicles even before its cars were widely adopted.

During the development and rollout of Tesla's car-and-charger platform, the company offered to allow other companies to use the patents on its charging standards and equipment, but none took it up on the offer.

While Tesla offered "open source" charging technology, using it meant signing off on terms the world's biggest automakers were unwilling to accept.

The world's automakers collectively adopted a competing standard in the U.S., making their vehicles incompatible with Tesla's. (Notably, the reverse isn't true: With an adapter, Teslas can charge at nearly all fast-charging stations.)

In the automobile's earliest days, motorists couldn't always be sure a fueling station would be available when they needed it. But we no longer think about fuel availability when we shop for conventional cars.

In 2019, there were approximately 128,000 retail gas stations in the U.S. Adding up every kind of fast-charging station in the U.S., there are still only 4,890 of them, according to the Department of Energy.

Traditional car makers, with their sights set on a battery-only future, are aware of the charging problem.

One effort to match Tesla's superchargers has resulted in Electrify America, a nationwide network of fast-charging stations. Its creator, Volkswagen, agreed to invest $2 billion as part of the settlement with the U.S. government and California over its Dieselgate emissions-testing scandal.

Other nationwide networks such as ChargePoint and EVGo, which primarily offer the slower sort of chargers, are now adding fast-charge technology. (The kind of charging that happens at home tops out at a maximum of 7.2 kw. Fast charging is 50kw and up.)

The result, for EV drivers who wish to take their vehicles on road trips -- as well as the many city-dwelling EV owners who are unable to charge at home -- is a patchwork of stations that many say is improving but still needs work.

In a survey of 3,500 EV drivers conducted in September and October 2020 by EV advocacy group Plug In America, more than half reported having problems with public charging. These problems were worse for respondents who drove non-Tesla vehicles; almost 60% of those reported issues. The most common complaint was a non-functional charger.

On a recent drive to Key West, Florida., from his home of Raleigh, North Carolina, Chris Maxwell found that out of 31 stops at fast chargers -- all but one in the Electrify America network -- one in five had problems, and were either completely inoperable or only charged at half their rated speed.

He was towing a heavy trailer, so he only got 120 miles per charge on his Audi e-tron SUV, hence all the stops.

Even with all the hiccups, the Electrify America network is far more reliable than it was even just a year ago, says Mr. Maxwell.

Also, charging stations, unlike gas stations, aren't designed to accommodate cars with trailers.

"The charging station at Charlotte in particular is kind of the bane of my existence," Mr. Maxwell says.

Because of its physical configuration, this station is a tricky place to charge a vehicle that has a trailer attached.

Think of Tesla, a vertically integrated platform in control of the technology in both its vehicles and chargers, like Apple, which controls everything from its microchips to its app store, says Prof. Bhargava.

The rest of the automakers are like the many manufacturers of Android phones, he says.

Only in the current charging environment, there's no Google to direct all those manufacturers. For starters, each EV model's battery can have a different capacity and charge time. In addition, every automaker must interpret a set of open standards for the plug type, charging protocols and payment methods.

Even when chargers are fully functional, issues can arise such as plugs becoming unseated, chargers rebooting, and cars and chargers having trouble communicating, all of which can interrupt a charging session or lead to longer charge times.

Robert Barrosa, senior director of sales and marketing at Electrify America, says his company registers every failed charging session initiated by a customer, and attempts to find patterns across different models of chargers and vehicles.

Many stakeholders -- from automakers and charging companies to utilities and state and federal agencies -- have an interest in a reliable national network of fast chargers, says Mark Wakefield, a managing director and automotive consultant at AlixPartners.

But if the sole source of income for these charging stations is from dispensing electricity, he adds, it doesn't appear they're a viable business.

According to an analysis AlixPartners conducted last year, the average fast-charging station, charging market price for electricity, would take 20 to 25 years to pay off its initial investment.

Part of the problem is that when in use, a single fast-charging stall can draw the equivalent of a whole neighborhood's electricity needs. So it can be very expensive to connect a station with up to a dozen individual chargers to the local electrical grid, and secure enough energy supply.

Tesla offsets the cost of its fast-charging network through sales of vehicles and lucrative regulatory credits, and has only recently started turning a profit after years of losses. And Electrify America's network was part of Volkswagen's settlement.

But these two means of paying for a fast-charging network aren't the only ones, says Katherine Stainken, policy director at Plug In America.

An alternative is to use the federal grant money from the Biden administration to encourage private businesses to set up, and partially fund, their own charging stations.

For example, a restaurant on an interstate or in an area with a high density of EVs could apply for funding, then chip in some of its own money, and perhaps also partner with a private fast-charging network company, in order to build a charging station. (The restaurant's incentive would be that a fast charger could increase business while drivers wait.)

EVs currently make up around 2% of vehicles sold each year in the U.S., and the Department of Energy says more than 80% of EV charging happens at home.

More than half of Americans live in single-family dwellings where, in theory, an EV could be charged, and 63% of all U.S. housing units of every kind have a garage or carport.

But any EV owners planning a trip far from home, or who can't charge at home, must rely on apps to plot an efficient route and ensure they don't get stranded.

Chargeway, for instance, automatically calculates where drivers should stop on a given route in order to spend the least amount of time charging their vehicles.

The company gathers detailed information about how fast chargers can "fuel" any given vehicle -- which depends both on the type of vehicle and the capacity of the charger, says Chargeway chief executive Matt Teske, a veteran of the auto industry.

Mr. Wilkinson, the Bolt driver, uses a similar, competing app, called A Better Route Planner.

The mindset required to make EV road trips, or even just drive an EV regularly if you can't charge it at home, is markedly different from what Americans are used to. And that probably won't change until we have a critical mass of charging stations.

"A gas-powered Mustang might get 350 miles to a tank," says Mr. Teske, "but nobody talks about range anxiety in that vehicle."

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