The road trip is a classic theme in U.S. popular culture and a staple of the summer vacation—a chance to recharge the batteries. For owners of electric vehicles (EVs), that’s not just a metaphor. Far from their usual home or work plug-in sites, they consult apps and map out routes that will get them to the next charging station down the road. The fear of running out of charge—range anxiety—has always been a barrier to EV adoption, especially in a country as big as the United States. But as longer-range electric vehicles come on the market and the charging infrastructure ramps up, that may be starting to change.
To be clear, most of the time EV owners charge their vehicles anxiety-free, in a home garage or a parking lot at work. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), about 75% of charging happens at home.
The challenge comes when drivers venture outside the comfort level of their vehicle’s range and need to figure out where to refuel and how to do so most efficiently. Charging a vehicle can take a lot more time than gassing up, depending on the type of equipment used.
Most publicly available EV charging outlets in the country are classified as Level 2, meaning they provide 10 to 20 miles of range per hour of charging, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). By contrast, fast-charging Level 3 outlets—labeled DC, for direct current—typically provide 60 to 80 miles of range in 20 minutes.
|Early Range Anxiety
Early adopters of internal combustion vehicles faced their own kind of range anxiety, before gas stations began to crop up around the country. According to the American Petroleum Institute (API), Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) opened the first “filling station” in Seattle, Washington, in 1907; it “included a hose that dispensed gasoline directly into the vehicle from an elevated tank.”
Once Henry Ford mass-produced the first Model T, in 1908, “many retail locations began selling gasoline at the curb,” API says. An account by ExxonMobil explains that “early gas pumps were deployed curbside in front of general stores, pharmacies, hardware shops and yes, even blacksmiths.” The first “drive-in” gas station opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1913.
These fast-charging sites have started to proliferate across the country, driven by a range of factors, including local and state funding, federal tax incentives, and big investments from automobile manufacturers and electric utilities. Breakthroughs in electric vehicles themselves are also accelerating the pace of change. Many new models in the works have bigger and better batteries and can travel much farther without needing a recharge.
“There’s a lot of technological advancement,” said Matthew Wade, CEO of a company in Baltimore, Maryland, called Electric Vehicle Institute (EVI). Now that more high-powered EVs are on the way, he said in an interview, there seems to be a consensus that, “OK, they’re coming, so let’s just go ahead and start building out the infrastructure that we need to support these future vehicles that are coming on line.”
The Chicken and the Egg
Which needs to comes first—more electric vehicles or more places to charge them—has been a longstanding conundrum in the EV industry. Tesla, by far the biggest EV automaker in the U.S. market, dealt with the issue by building its own infrastructure early on. Tesla owners have exclusive access to the company’s “Supercharger” stations around the country, or they can use an adapter to charge their vehicles elsewhere.
Owners of other types of EVs have a growing number of charging options, but availability varies widely from state to state. Maryland, for example, ranks high in the number of charging sites per capita, Wade said; neighboring Virginia still has much further to go.
Late last year, a team of reporters from E&E News—a media outlet that focuses on energy and the environment—took an 8,000-mile “Electric Road Trip” in six different electric cars across a wide swath of the country to assess the state of EV travel and the EV industry. They described a “crazy quilt” of baffling charging options that had sprung up seemingly at random:
“Why does the Holiday Inn in downtown Columbus, Ohio, have a charging station, but not the Sheraton or the Marriott? Why is the charger we used in Eugene, Ore., a long walk from anyplace to stay or eat? Why does the impoverished agricultural hamlet of Huron, Calif., have almost as many chargers as the entire city of Memphis, Tenn.?”
Some branded, publicly available networks of charging sites have developed in recent years. One major player is Electrify America, a company started by Volkswagen as part of a court settlement over its diesel emissions violations several years ago. Under the terms of a 2016 consent decree, Volkswagen agreed to make a $2 billion investment—$800 million of that in California—in U.S. charging infrastructure and promotion of zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) over a 10-year period, from 2017 to 2027.
In June of this year, Electrify America announced that it had completed its first cross-country route of charging sites, located an average of about 70 miles apart along Interstates 15 and 70, stretching for about 2,700 miles from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, California. A second, more southern coast-to-coast route is expected to be finished in September.
The company now has about 2,000 chargers at more than 450 sites in the country, and by the end of 2021, it expects to have 3,500 chargers at 800 sites, according to Wayne Killen, Director of Infrastructure Planning and Business Development for Electrify America. These are high-powered chargers with top speeds of up to 350 kW—beyond what any vehicles on the road right now can handle but not all that far off from what car manufacturers are working on, Killen said.
“We are definitely building for the future,” he said in an interview. “That gives car companies the confidence to build that technology in, and not just get by with 50 kW DC fast charging, which for many years was the high-water mark.”
Electrify America is hardly alone in the charging industry. Other big brand names include ChargePoint, which claims to have the world’s largest network of EV charging stations, and Greenlots, which is now owned by Shell. EVgo has been around for a decade and claims to have the largest public fast-charging network in the United States—“and the first to be powered by 100% renewable energy.”
EVgo and General Motors (GM) just announced that they are teaming up to build more than 2,700 fast-charging stations over five years, tripling EVgo’s network of fast chargers. The focus of this new partnership will be on adding charging infrastructure in big cities, where many residents don’t have a garage where they can charge an electric vehicle. GM plans to bring at least 20 EV models to market by 2023, EVgo noted in a press release.
Even though electric vehicles still make up a tiny fraction of the cars sold in the United States—under 2% in 2019—it’s important to build “pre-awareness” by having plenty of visible charging infrastructure in place, according to Electrify America’s Killen. People need to have the confidence that “if I take this leap, there are going to be no anxieties,” he said. “Not only is it a great vehicle, but I know where I’m going to refuel it.”
The website of the DOE Alternative Fuels Data Center shows that the United States has 26,418 publicly available charging locations, and 3,899 of these (about 15%) have DC fast-charging capability. Wade, of EVI, cautioned that the database relies on voluntary data submission and therefore probably doesn’t capture everything; however, he believes the numbers for the more visible fast-charging sites are fairly reliable.
Here are a few of the trends seen in the EV charging infrastructure in the United States:
- This is not your grandfather’s gas station: Most EV charging sites would never be mistaken for a traditional gas station with a row of pumps and a canopy overhead. Charging stations range from nondescript boxes to eye-catching towers. One company, Volta, sells flashing ads on its charging stations—and provides the charge for free. One exception to the gas-station look is RS Automotive in Takoma Park, Maryland, which last year became the first known case of a U.S. gas station ditching gasoline altogether and going all-electric. It removed the gas tanks underneath but kept the station’s outside structure. Wade, whose company is a partner in that venture, said that in general, aside from some “odd-looking data” associated with the pandemic, usage has been going up. “It really comes down to the more EVs on the road, the better that station will do,” he said.
- Make time to stop and shop: The time needed to charge an EV varies widely, but in all cases, it is still far longer than it takes to refuel an internal combustion vehicle. That simple fact has led to a logical partnership between vehicle charging and retail. Mall parking lots and downtown shopping areas are prime places to find charging stations. One of Electrify America’s “site hosts” is Walmart, which has many locations across the country that are not only right off freeway ramps but are open 24/7, have clean bathrooms, and sell “almost anything anyone would need to buy on a road trip,” Killen pointed out. His company’s distinctive, glowing-green chargers can also be found at more unexpected places—such as the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, or the Firefly Grill, a destination restaurant in Effingham, Illinois.
- There’s an app for that: Charging networks have their own apps to encourage repeat use by offering member rewards and discounts. When he hits the road in his Nissan Leaf, Wade uses PlugShare, a free app that allows EV drivers to share reviews about all locations and plan their trips around just the right charging stations. “If I want to have a picnic with my wife, I’ll look for the one near a park,” he explained.
- The way to ease range anxiety is to own an EV: In a survey of more than 1,000 EV owners conducted late last year, AAA found that 77% of those who had been worried about range before they bought their cars said they were no longer concerned or less concerned about the issue, and 96% said they would buy or lease another EV the next time they were looking to get a new car. Previous AAA research had found that the top two reasons cited by consumers for not driving electric vehicles were a lack of enough places to charge (58%) and the fear that they would run out of charge while driving (57%).
- Sometimes you have to slow down: David Ferris, who was part of the E&E News team that traveled around the country in electric vehicles last year, told National Public Radio that he found this kind of road trip required “a different mindset.”
“I travel a lot more slowly. That's a part of a battery-conservation thing. And when you stop, you need to stop for longer. And when you make those stops, you might stop [at] a place that you didn't expect,” he said. “I think it's possible that because electric vehicles take longer to fuel, they could change the pace of travel, make it more relaxed with longer stops. And I think that's an intriguing option. That's the part of travelling along in an electric car I've really enjoyed.”