Not a bunch of gas stations — EV charging infrastructure is coming and it's different
There’s no question that more and better charging infrastructure will be needed to support the transition to e-mobility. However, many non-EV drivers (and many mainstream journalists) erroneously assume that this will mean simply replacing gas stations with charging stations.
Above: Tesla Model 3 charged up at a Chargepoint location (Source: Chargepoint)
In fact, one of the joys of driving electric is not having to waste time stopping at gas stations. Most of us plug in when we get home, and when we’re ready to head out on the road again, voila! The battery’s full. Public charging is important, both for enabling long road trips and as a partial solution for those who don’t have the option of charging at home. However, many industry observers, including your favorite EV writer, believe that the most important function of public charging will be a psychological one—seeing lots of public charging stations reassures the EV-curious, and makes it more likely that they’ll take the plunge and go electric.
According to a recent article in Vox, there are currently around 43,000 public charging stations in the US (including both Level 2 and DC fast chargers), and about 115,000 gas stations (in more EV-friendly Britain, charging stations already outnumbered gas stations in 2019). President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan envisions building 500,000 new public charging stations by 2030. That’s over ten times the current number, and meanwhile, state governments, utilities and private firms have numerous projects underway that will add tens of thousands more.
Above: President Biden discusses plans to build out EV charging infrastructure (Source: Forbes Breaking News)
Of course, Tesla owners have long enjoyed their own exclusive solution, which by most accounts is the gold standard of public charging. Obviously, the Supercharger network as such isn’t part of the administration’s infrastructure plan—any government dollars doled out will be for universal chargers that can work with all EV brands. “It’s been incredibly important for Tesla to have done that buildout, but we’re thinking about this investment as chargers that can support any vehicle,” a Biden administration official told Vox. “It’s very clear it needs to be accessible for any driver of an EV.”
Some cracks may be appearing in the wall of Tesla’s garden. The California carmaker sometimes co-locates Superchargers with other charging networks’ stations, and some networks, including EVgo, have been wooing Tesla drivers by offering Tesla-style connectors as an option. Elon Musk has said several times that his company would consider opening up the Supercharger network to other EV makes, and a rumor just surfaced that the company is discussing doing so in the European market.
Although public charging is the focus of most mainstream media articles about EVs, home and workplace charging is arguably much more important, so it’s a good thing that the administration’s plan also includes tax credits for individuals and businesses to install private chargers. “You have to have a mix of home charging, workplace, and public,” the administration official told Vox.
“Home charging is the most important; that’s where the highest number of charging [stations] will be needed,” Scott Hardman, a researcher at the University of California Davis, told Vox. “It’s the cheapest; it’s the most convenient.”
There is a prickly problem with home charging—many people, particularly in urban areas, don’t have a garage, driveway, or any dedicated parking spot at all. This is not so much of an issue in the suburban sprawl of the US, but in places like China, the UK, and Holland, all of which currently have high rates of EV adoption, substantial numbers of drivers face this situation, and it could prove to be a bottleneck.
In London, an estimated 78% of households have no private parking spaces, and the UK plans to end sales of ICE vehicles by 2030. With the support of local councils, several companies are testing innovative solutions, including chargers in lampposts, charging posts that pop up from the street, and strategically-placed charging hubs in urban and highway locations.
Fast chargers in city centers and Level 2 destination chargers are helpful, but neither represents a viable option for everyday charging. Convenience demands that drivers have a place to charge where they park overnight. The plight of the urban drivewayless, many of whom are lower-income drivers, is a looming roadblock, and so far we’ve seen no simple solution, other than the obvious, and expensive, one of simply rolling out millions of chargers on city streets.
“Everyone parks their car somewhere at night—that’s where we need to get the charging to,” Hardman told Vox. “We have to be careful it’s not just the privileged households that get the lower running costs.”
We don’t know yet what the optimal charging solution will be in the electric, autonomous, connected automotive future—but I for one am quite sure it’s not going to look anything like a gas station.