No, drivers aren’t going to 'sit around and wait' for their EVs to charge

A new technology is always seen through the lens of the old, so there is usually a period of awkward transition, before people grasp the possibilities of a new medium—early movies were often filmed stage plays, and early web sites looked like low-budget magazines. 

Above: An EV charging. Photo: Ernest Ojeh / Unsplash

There’s also often a crop of early business ventures that sound logical to someone, but that soon fail because the need they’re designed to address no longer exists. Remember web “shopping malls” and “portals?” These seemed like good ideas to those who failed to understand that there was no such thing as physical location on the internet, and that web browsers allowed users to easily construct their own “portals.”

In the present early phase of the EV transition, many fail to understand that the gas station is a thing of the past. Some are hoping to build businesses on the idea that EV drivers are going to be making regular stops to refuel, and that they’re going to need to “sit around and wait” (that phrase gets tossed around a lot) for their cars to charge.

I don’t know exactly what the EV ecosystem of the future will look like, and neither does anyone else. I was deeply involved in the development of the web back in the 1990s, but I (and most others) failed to foresee how pervasive social networks would become, much less how profoundly they would affect society. Likewise, our relationship to our vehicles will surely evolve in ways that even the “experts” can’t imagine today. But one thing I’m pretty darn sure about is that consumers are not going to be sitting around looking for ways to pass the time while our cars charge.

The author of a recent piece in Forbes opines that the shift from pumping gas to transferring electrons is going to force convenience stores, many of which double as gas stations, to reinvent themselves, as drivers’ mentality changes from “grab and go” to “sit and wait.” Stores should install video booths and workstations, because drivers are going to be sitting around for “30 minutes to multiple hours” to charge.

Another article published in Medium presents a more moderate version of the same proposition—charging takes 15-30 minutes, so C-store owners should take advantage of the “captive audience.” We often hear similar ideas—one acquaintance of mine proposed that performance stages should be built at highway rest stops so drivers can listen to live music while they “sit for hours waiting to charge.”

Oil giant Shell apparently subscribes to this vision of a contemplative future, and is doing much more than writing about it—the company has opened “EV hubs” in London and Paris, with amenities such as rest rooms, coffee shops and “comfortable seating areas.”

Such emporia of repose may find their place in the brave new electric world, and if so, I’ll be happy to debate the issue with you as we sip coffee and browse the latest magazines. Of course, we’ll be reading those mags on our tablets, so before you invest in building a waiting room at your convenience store, you may want to consider that, just as computer screens and pieces of paper differ in critical ways, so do gas-burners and EVs.

For one thing, while all fossil fuel vehicles need to stop at public refueling stations on a regular basis, most EVs do not. Most charging takes place at home, and there are really only a few situations in which a typical EV driver needs to visit a public charger.

One of these is the road trip, an all-American experience that isn’t going away (and isn’t threatened by the rise of EVs, whatever the “they’re coming for your [fill in the blank]” crowd may say). We’ve written about many a Tesla Road Trip in this column, and while some of these stories include charging problems (solving them is half the fun), few if any involve “sitting around and waiting.” Modern highway charging stations can charge an EV from 20% to 80% in considerably less than half an hour, and there is every reason to believe that within a few years this time will be down to 10 minutes or less. Plenty of time to visit the bathroom and buy a soda, but not enough to start looking for a video booth to while away the empty hours.

Another much-discussed charging challenge is the Plight of the Drivewayless. What will people who don’t have driveways, and rely on on-street parking, do about charging their EVs? Oh, what will they do? If you pay a visit to Oslo or Amsterdam, you may get an inkling of a solution. These cities have block after block of medium-rise residential blocks, very few equipped with garages or driveways. They also have lots and lots of public chargers on the streets, and that’s where the local Drivewayless do their charging. They park, they plug in, and they go about their business. I doubt that many “sit around” waiting for their EVs to charge, any more than you or I sit around waiting for our phones to charge.

I don’t know what percentage of EV owners need to visit public refueling stations on a regular basis (and again, neither does anyone else at this stage), but it’s plainly far less than the 100% of gas vehicles that need to do so. Meanwhile, technology is steadily whittling down the wait time. Every year, vehicle ranges get longer, charging speeds get faster (a Spanish company is now supplying 400 kW chargers), and more public chargers get rolled out (a massive wave of new construction is about to hit the US). Once wireless charging becomes widespread, all bets are off.

Another way of looking at this issue is to consider that technology tends to find solutions to problems (assuming that there’s money to be made by doing so). If there’s one thing consumers (especially Americans) consider to be a problem, it’s waiting. The drivers of the future aren’t going to tamely sit around and wait to charge, be the video booths ever so comfortable. They want—No, we need—to grab and go, and EV technology is rapidly evolving to enable us to do so.