How tough is it today to be an Electric Vehicle (EV) driver? Really tough it turns out. As we sit on the precipice of mass-market adoption, more cars are on the road, and the charging infrastructure is not growing nearly as fast as it should. A fact making things worse is all the lip service governments seem to give EV promotion and charger installation, but the results are not there. In all of this is the promise of greater Electric sales and adoption, cleaner energy sources, and price pressures on gas pushing more towards the EV market. But, in my two years of driving an EV, there is a clear dark cloud over charging infrastructure. There aren’t many “Good” chargers out there.
When it comes to chargers, the numbers sound really good: According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center , there are some 44,000 outlets (on 16,130 chargers) in the U.S. CAA estimates 5,378 chargers, which might translate into 14,670 outlets in Canada. In this case, the numbers lie (like a Trump). Most EV drivers are likely to have a charger at home in the garage, and public chargers are still a challenge. The reality is that most of those chargers are probably poor at best, with few what I would consider “Good”. So, what’s a “Good” charger, and why should you care?
A “Good” charger is installed, first and foremost, with respect to its suitability. It is not located in an overlapping use area likely to be crammed by gas cars. The parking spot allows for easy access for use of one to four hours. Located close to this parking spot are ways the EV driver can make use of her time while charging: A coffee shop, a shopping centre, wireless Internet access. The parking spot is not ultra-expensive, nor is it tied to some luxury service. A “Good” charger uses well-known public networks (such as Chargepoint) and is clearly labelled and easy to find in your complex. These characteristics are important to keep EVs moving.
I ask my gas car driving brethren: When was the last time you needed a gas station and couldn’t find one? The reality for an electric car driver: this is all too common. If you find yourself at the four Vaughn Mills chargers after 5PM, you’ll likely see these spots filled with gas cars. At any time of the day, attempting to charge at Bridgepoint Health is a futile experience. I still rate that location as one of the worst places to charge in Toronto. Even some of the better chargers you can find are so remote that charging involves sitting alone in the car for at least an hour. There is really no public charger that is completely “Good”.
This doesn’t even account for the difference in charger types. The most important of these: Fast Chargers. We’re diving headlong into a competition for standards and an ageing electric grid that can’t possibly handle all of these new fast chargers. But, if we’re to make the electric car viable as a long distance mode of transport, the charging time has to come down to at least 30 minutes or less, and realistically, much closer to the 5 minutes it takes to fill a gas tank. Will we get there? I really don’t know. My own car could have included the fast charging option called CHAdeMO, but at the time there were one or two. For a large premium, I wasn’t going to pay more for something I couldn’t use.
A few days ago I left the house with a less-than-full battery. I had to drive about 70 km, and my battery, at the current level, would only get me to the 60 km distance I needed. I drove, knowing of a few chargers in the area that are “good”, feeling that I’d be ok. After the meeting, I arrived at the first charging location and two of the three spots were in use. The third spot had malfunctioned on the Chargepoint network. Leaning on Plugshare, I found another charging location that I had been to once before and they were down under construction. This fact was buried in the charger’s comments and I kicked myself for not noticing that. Again, I found chargers on Plugshare at a hotel, but these charging spots were filled with other cars charging. Circling back an hour later, I returned to the first charging location with a battery level warning.
With a low battery, I was stranded. I called Chargepoint about their broken charger and they mentioned they’d dispatch a repair person. When? Who knows. But, I knew it wouldn’t be fixed now. Next, I did something I had never done before: I pulled an active charging cable from the adjacent car, connected it to my own, and left a very contrite note about how much I needed it. I knew the car next door was full (They also had a Leaf, and I knew the indicators), and I had also planned to plug them back in when I was done. Almost three hours after leaving my meeting, I was charged enough to head home.
The practicalities of gas fueling and EV charging demand a different approach. Filling gas takes about 5 minutes. Filling an EV battery, at the fastest speed, will take you roughly 30 minutes. If you’re driving an EV to unknown areas, you’ll need the most compatible charging option, and that could take up to 14 hours to fill your tank. In the middle, the “Level 2” charger will give you a worthwhile charge in about an hour, and fill your tank in roughly four. So, to design a location for a car to top-up on energy for at least an hour, versus a quick five minutes, requires an entirely different approach to land use and location.
Could a gas station an EV charger cohabitate? I think so. In fact, I could see gas stations being retrofitted to include more and more chargers as fewer gas pumps are required, sustaining this business. How is this possible? many gas stations are installing stores and/or coffee shops. They also include areas on the property for parking. To make this possible, turn all the parking spots into chargers and progressively expand this area. Add shopping and food options to sell to the idle and captive customer.
This rapidly approaching tipping point may be met with a smooth transition, but experience shows that’s unlikely. What is more likely is that the lack of “Good” chargers will drive many EV supporters back to the versatility of gas until the infrastructure can support them. The infrastructure will work hard to bear the weight of new chargers and stubble a number of times to blackout. Then, a fast-charging standard for all cars emerges and a path is charted. That may be too late to ensure the survival of the electric car, but we’ll have learned a lot in the process.
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