Life on the edge of the electric car ecosystem: A desperate drive from charge to charge

If you just bought an electric car, you may be loath to admit it, but it’s true: Although you’re no longer a servant to Big Oil, you’ve signed up for another problem entirely—the urgent need to charge your car.

Sure, if you can design a driving routine around reliable charging sources, you may be able to get around your city—and even commute to work—with little disruption. But if your local charging-station infrastructure doesn’t play in your favor, you’ll begin to feel trapped within a gated community. Inside lies security. Outside lies risk. This is life on the fragmented edge of the electric-car ecosystem.

I’ve lived on that edge, having spent the past few months with two all-electric cars and one plug-in hybrid. Lacking a charging station at home or the workplace, I had two choices: Plug one of the loaner cars into my household electrical outlet overnight, or find publicly available charging stations as I tested the fleet vehicles throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

I quickly realized I was a have-not in this developing infrastructure. Last week was National Plug In Day, but I wasn’t celebrating any time I faced the prospect of running out of battery power on a dark road. More stations are vital to attracting more drivers to the electric-car ecosystem. Automakers and public and private entities continue to invest in charging stations, but the economics are challenging.

The basics of the electric-car lifestyle

For those of you new to electric cars, the charging experience works like this: You can plug your car into a standard, 120V AC outlet at home and charge most batteries from low to full in 10 to 12 hours. This is called a Level 1 charger. You can install a Level 2 charging station, which uses a 240V connection and generally takes 5 or more hours to charge a battery. Level 2 is also the most common kind of charging station installed at workplaces and shopping malls. The highest-end charging option—which is still pretty rare—is a Quick Charging or DC Fast station, which can charge a battery to full in 20 minutes to 1 hour.

Most charging stations are managed by a network company, which usually requires payment for using the station (unless it’s a subsidized station). The easiest way to pay is to join the network, so you can swipe a membership card at the station or use an app. If you don’t belong to the network, you should be able to pay either by phone or online.

Flouting charging-station etiquette

For my very first experience charging an electric car, I set out with a friend in the Toyota RAV4 EV to visit the town of Los Gatos, California, where public parking lots have a handful of charging stations.

What’s wrong with this picture? A completely nonpluggable Subaru Legacy sedan squatting at this charging station. The nerve!

We had to wander around the large lot to find the station. The available spot had a squatter—a completely unpluggable Subaru sedan. The nerve!

Charging-station etiquette is developing around who gets to use the spaces and for how long. Drivers leave notes, post “shame” photos on user forums, or unilaterally unplug a car so that they can charge.

“In your situation, there probably wasn’t enforcement,” said Mike Tinskey, global director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure for Ford, in a conversation with TechHive a few days after my encounter. “Not only is it required to have very clear rules and have it consistent with the signage, but it would be helpful to have reservations.”

My Toyota RAV4 EV, charging. Setting up the charge using a toll-free number was easy, but when the cable failed to reach my charge port, I had to turn the car around—during which time my charge authorization lapsed, and I had to call again.

We left the Subaru in a huff and found another station, where I called a toll-free number to pay (a flat fee of $2.50 per hour). The call was easy. I hung up and prepared to plug in my car, except ... the cable didn’t reach. I had to turn my car around. By the time I did that, the charging authorization had lapsed, and I had to make another call.

After that experience, I joined the Chargepoint station network and received a payment card to use at any of the company’s stations. I had a completely different car (the Nissan Leaf), and I used the Chargepoint app to show me available stations along my route. But the app often led me to stations on private property, where I’d be trespassing if I tried to charge. (The company does acknowledge that few private stations are appropriately designated as such in its database.) And once again, I found a station that looked free, except that a non-plug-in car was squatting in the station's spot.

I ended up driving home with a nervous eye on my rapidly diminishing range. My husband called me at one point and asked if I needed to be towed.

A week's time with a Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid proved the least stressful. This car’s drivetrain mostly depends on gasoline, but it uses batteries for low-speed driving, and the gas engine can recharge the battery. Even if I couldn’t find a charging station, I knew I could fall back on gas.

Driving the Ford Fusion Energi was the most secure plug-in experience I had, because I had the option of getting gas.

In San Francisco, public stations abound downtown—but they’re managed by parking garages, where you have to pay a high fee to park, and likely also a fee for electricity. During work hours, most of those stations are occupied by commuters, so I missed out on many stations because I couldn’t park soon enough. A smattering of other stations can be found at retail stores in the city, such as a certain Walgreens pharmacy I visited, but you can’t use the station unless you’re shopping there.

The electric-car infrastructure has little mercy for people living on its fringe. Forrest North, chief operating officer of Recargo (a software and services company focused on electric cars), told TechHive recently, “You wouldn’t get an electric car if you really needed to rely on the public infrastructure.” In his earlier conversation with TechHive, Ford’s Tinskey said, “Most people will have a charge station at their home and workplace. The public charge station will augment that.”

The experiences of Nissan Leaf owners in the San Francisco Bay Area echo my own. Tim Jacobsen, for instance, has easy access: “I can charge for free at my workplace via Chargepoint,” he says. “At home, I mostly use the trickle charger [for a standard AC outlet] that my Leaf came with, or I can plug into my 240-volt dryer outlet for faster charging.”

But driving beyond known resources is another matter: “The biggest adjustments [come with] trip planning when driving long distances across the bay,” says Jacobsen. He belongs to two charging-station networks—Chargepoint and Blink—so he can replenish his battery on longer trips. “It’s almost impossible to do without them.”

Russ Atkinson, a retiree, drives around town in his Leaf and charges it on a standard outlet: “At night when I take out the garbage, I plug in the car,” he says. Atkinson’s experiments with longer trips have not been so simple: “I’ve made a few long trips to see how much quick charging enabled range extension,” says Atkinson, “but the results were discouraging due to QC stations not working or [being] out of the way.” Atkinson couldn’t get far—at least, not very quickly. “It took me six hours to get to Santa Rosa from Los Altos once. So now I don’t take the Leaf anywhere that requires a public charge, just out and back from home.”

“I was surprised by the amount of changes I had to make,” says Leaf owner Mustafa Kamal. “The projected distance on the car was always an issue, there was a constant need to keep the car charged at all times.” Kamal loved his Leaf’s environmental creds, but the inconveniences rankled nonetheless. “I could not heat up the car while driving in cold months because the stupid heater took so much power.”

The DC Fast stations that could solve everything

Level 3 charging stations could change many of these stories for the better. That’s why Tesla is building its own nationwide infrastructure of these puppies. Discussions about QC stations's availability and cost come up frequently on the SF Bay Area Nissan Leaf Owners Facebook page, with stories of drivers waiting impatiently for their turn to charge—or groaning when a station is offline. I tried to use a DC Fast station at a local mall, but a Prius was squatting in the space. When it finally left, I still couldn’t charge, because the station was out of my network, and no one answered the toll-free number posted on the station.

This is the DC Fast station I tried—and failed—to use at a local mall.

Not all infrastructure players want DC Fast stations as much as the drivers do. In a recent interview with TechHive, Richard Lowenthal, cofounder and chief technical officer of the Chargepoint station network, readily conceded that DC Fast is popular. His company is more interested in building out Level 2 stations, however, because they make more money for the retail businesses that host them. In short, the people who run shopping malls, movie theaters, and drugstores want you to linger as you charge—and Level 3 chargers simply work too quickly.

“EV [electric vehicle] drivers stay in stores three times longer than a normal person,” Lowenthal said. “So they hang around and maybe buy a sweater or groceries.”

Faster, electric car, charge, charge, charge!

It’s hardly news that consumer behavior can be manipulated for profit. In the case of electric-car charging, however, throttling the buildout of DC Fast stations could slow the adoption of these vehicles—bad news for any station on any network. “Infrastructure is important, particularly at this time when EVs are a new technology,” says Julia Pyper, a reporter for ClimateWire. “People need to know they can get from point A to point B, even if they charge primarily at home.”

The business model going forward is changing, too, as the public money that fueled early efforts dries up. “Once the government funding goes away, work starts to be tightened,” says Alastair Hayfield of IHS. Hayfield notes that a charging station costs about $20,000 just for hardware, installation, and maintenance. “A local authority may not have a fund to cover that, a local retail outlet may not have the funds.” That leaves companies such as Tesla and Nissan to invest on behalf of their electric-car customers, or companies like Chargepoint (which is transitioning from public to private funding) to build for-profit networks.

Electric cars have a small but enthusiastic user base, and the technology is already changing how we drive. But neither the movement nor the cars themselves can get far without more infrastructure investment. Even if you’re an electric-car owner with ready access to charging opportunities, in the end you’re not driving the car wherever you want, as you can with a traditional, gas-powered vehicle. It’s the car that’s driving you, from charge to charge.

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