In many respects, electric vehicles are significantly better than their internal combustion engine relatives, which they will eventually replace. They are quieter, they rattle and vibrate less, they accelerate faster and they are much more efficient because they can recover energy when braking. And their batteries should last the life of a car like a petrol engine. But I’m increasingly convinced that unless we get a handle on charger reliability, EV adoption will face real problems.
Even the biggest EV enthusiast cannot ignore the fact that charging a battery takes much longer than filling a tank with liquid hydrocarbons – even when that battery is connected to a very high voltage DC fast charger. For about two-thirds of American car buyers — those who have a spot at home to charge overnight — this isn’t a problem most of the time. On average, Humans only drive 29 miles a dayso even short-range electric vehicles should meet the needs of most drivers.
That’s the purely rational attitude anyway.
But it’s impossible to break away from the car’s cultural context, now closely tied to the American sense of identity after decades of post-war construction have reshaped our built environment to prioritize the individual driver over all others. A car means freedom – to be able to travel from coast to coast on a whim – and stopping every 150 to 250 miles to charge becomes an obstacle to that freedom. And the fact remains that traveling far enough to have to plug in an outlet during your trip is a headache in 2022.
Just plan first, right?
At this point, some of the more EV familiar readers might think, “No, you just need to plan properly.” Of course, good planning is essential and often the most direct route is not possible due to the locations of charging stations. Luckily, there are some helpful apps like PlugShare and A Better Route Planner that make planning relatively easy — at least compared to the old days of paper road atlases — and the onboard navigation systems of most EVs know chargers. Many will also consider your efficiency to most efficiently guide you to your destination via charging stops.
Finding a charger isn’t really the issue though, even if it adds another 50 miles to your road trip. According to the Department of Energy Alternative gas station Locator, there are 1,433 Tesla Supercharger locations and another 4,564 public DC fast charging stations that use the CCS plug, which charges basically any commercially available EV except a Tesla or a Nissan Leaf.
Between networks like Electrify America and White House plans, we as a nation are spending billions to expand EV charging infrastructure.
No, the issue is whether or not one of the chargers is working when you arrive. (Unless you drive a Tesla, as Superchargers are painless to use and seem extremely reliable.)
Man plans, the universe laughs
And here I owe the universe an apology. A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article about an electric car road trip gone wrong. The headline says it all: “I rented an electric car for a four day road trip. I spent more time charging it than I slept.”
As a smug EV evangelist and self-proclaimed EV expert, I rolled my eyes. “You just didn’t plan well enough,” I thought to myself, not realizing I was just pulling myself up on my own petard. A few weeks later, it was time to drive from DC to Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes region of New York, this time in a BMW iX. And despite plenty of planning, I still spent almost as much time standing up and arguing with charging machines about actually pulling electrons into the car’s battery during the 600-mile drive.
I encountered problems at every charging stop in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. A five-minute wait to see if the car and charger would connect was invariably the case. Waiting 10 minutes was not uncommon. Even then there was no time to relax; More than once, a bug somewhere in the loop shut everything down after just a few kWh.
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