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The urban charging dilemma has not been solved
Posted on April 26, 2020 by Charles Morris
One of the greatest joys of driving electric is the ease of charging—plug in your car when you get home, and the next time you need it, it’s charged up and ready for more fun. At least, that’s the fat fuzzy peach of a life that we lucky suburban dwellers, take for granted when we go out to our driveways each day. For people who live in multi-unit dwellings (townhouses, apartment buildings), reality is not so rosy—many of them don’t have the option of installing their own chargers.
Above: Finding electric vehicle charging options on city streets can often be quite a challenge (Source: Project Centre)
Things are gradually looking up for these folks: a growing number of apartment complexes are installing EV chargers, and various states and municipalities are updating laws and building codes to make it easier for tenants to get chargers installed. Companies like EVmatch are developing solutions that help landlords and employers provide charging to tenants and employees.
However, there many souls who are still out of luck, as they lack not only driveways or garages, but any assigned parking spaces at all. In cities from New York to London to Beijing, many car owners have to take whatever parking they can find on the street each day, and regular charging options for them are few or non-existent.
This dilemma has been discussed in the EV press for some time, and it’s starting to make its way into the mainstream media. A recent article in the New York Times describes the “charging deserts” that have replaced range anxiety as the main deal-killer that dissuades city slickers from going electric.
The tragedy is that many of these driveway-deprived urban dwellers would otherwise be perfect candidates for going electric—affluent, tech-savvy consumers who typically drive shorter distances than suburban drivers.
Above: Tesla has been expanding its "Urban" Supercharger initiative in cities like Chicago, Hartford, and NYC to address the issue (Source: Tesla)
Chris Nelder of the Rocky Mountain Institute told the Times that about 40 percent of Americans “don’t live in single-family homes where you could have a personal charger. Unless there’s a charger at work or your apartment, or damn close to it, it’s not practical to buy an EV.”
The lack of charging options is surely one reason that EVs are still rare birds in New York City. According to IHS Markit, out of 2.4 million cars registered in the five boroughs, only 5,800 of those were EVs—not even one lousy percent already!
This is not just a “gee, that’s too bad” problem—it’s an issue that many cities are going to be forced to deal with before long. Around 20 major cities, including London and Amsterdam, plan to more or less ban ICE vehicle from city centers within the next decade or two. Will local governments be able to force drivers to go electric when they have no viable way to charge?
The UK government is currently talking about banning sales of legacy vehicles as early as 2035. “The UK cannot approach a blanket ban on petrol, diesel and hybrid cars without a network that supports such a seismic transition,” Sean Kemple, Director of Sales for Close Brothers Motor Finance, told the Times. And that applies to the US as well. “When you’ve got a Brooklyn, London, Manchester, where there’s not a lot of room left to build, you need creative solutions,” says Kemple.
Above: Companies like char.gy and Ubitricity are retrofitting street lights with electric vehicle charge points (YouTube: business.london)
Public chargers are proliferating by the day. Tesla drivers have the Supercharger network, which is broadening its reach from highway locations to urban locations. Electrify America in the US and IONITY in Europe are following the same path. More charging options will be helpful, but neither fast chargers in city centers nor Level 2 chargers at grocery stores represent a viable option for everyday charging. People aren’t going to buy EVs unless they’re convenient, and convenience demands that they have a place to charge where they park overnight.
In London, where an estimated 78% of households have no private parking spaces, planners are keenly aware of the problem, and several companies are working on solutions. A startup called char.gy builds chargers that can be installed in lamp posts, and it aims to install 1,150 on-street charge points across the capital by the end of 2020. Another UK startup, Urban Electric, makes a retractable pop-up charging station, and it just completed a successful trial in Oxford.
New York City is further behind. Most public chargers are in commercial garages, where parking costs a fortune, and charging may cost extra if it is available at all. “Manhattan is one of those major question marks of being able to penetrate and provide charging services,” said Electrify America’s Mike Moran.
John Voelcker, a longtime writer on EV topics, told the Times that larger battery capacities and faster charging speeds will eventually make the problem more manageable. Tesla’s new V3 Supercharger can charge at 250 kW, adding up to 75 miles of range in a mere 5 minutes. “Once there are mass-market EVs that can charge [at high speeds], you could charge once a week and not worry about it,” Mr. Voelcker said.
Someday, Level 5 autonomy may render the problem moot—a self-driving car could make its way to the nearest charger on its own during the wee hours. But that sort of solution is still some way off. If cities are serious about banning vehicles without plugs, the inescapable conclusion is that almost every parking spot in the city is going to have to be a charging spot.