Science and Technology

Electric Cars Still Face a Major Roadblock

June 28, 2019  • Ian Bogost

This article originally appeared on The Atlantic. 

I have an old Jeep that’s on its last legs. We’ve rebuilt the transmission and replaced most of the suspension, at a cost that far outstrips the hypothetical value of the car. It runs, but just. It burns oil like a refinery and gets terrible gas mileage to boot.

Replacing it with an electric car seems like a no-brainer. Used lease returns for the less expensive models, such as the Nissan Leaf or Fiat 500e, can be cheap—less than $10,000 in some cases—and come with less than 30,000 miles. But they pose other problems, largely related to the fact that electric vehicles (EVs) don’t operate like traditional cars. Many of the early models you can now buy used have ranges less than 90 miles a charge, for one. Some can’t use the fastest public chargers. The standard 110-volt outlet in my garage would take about 24 hours to fully charge one of these cars. I could add a 240-volt outlet, but my circuit box is full, so I’d need to spend a lot more money to add a subpanel. Used EVs tend to appear in the markets where they were first introduced, California especially. But with such a small range, you can’t drive one cross-country; it has to be shipped. That’s more money. The range is plenty for city driving, but what if my older daughter wants to take it to school? That would be impossible.

There really aren’t that many differences between an electric car and one with an internal combustion engine. It doesn’t have an engine or a gearbox, which gives it a lot more torque at low speeds. And it doesn’t use fuel, of course, but has a battery that needs to be charged. That’s about it. But those differences have an outsized impact on the electric-vehicle ecosystem. Drivers will have to acclimate to that ecosystem for EVs to become mass-market compatible, and the industry knows it, so it’s trying to get ahead of the problem.

When you buy a gas-fueled car, you operate it the same way every owner has for a century. It can drive for many hundreds of miles before refueling. If it needs gas, you go to a gas station—they’re everywhere. If you want to tour the great American road, you don’t even think of, let alone worry about, where you’ll be able to make a pit stop. None of that is true for electric vehicles; not yet, anyway.“When you make an EV purchase, you have to ask: ‘What’s the range, what’s the battery life, and is there a charging infrastructure at my home, at my work, or in between that will accommodate my lifestyle?’” Chris Womack, an executive vice president at the utility Southern Company, explained on Tuesday during a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. For most people, especially city dwellers, even EVs with a short range are enough to get them to work and back. Jonathan Levy, a vice president at the vehicle-charging-station company EVgo, pointed out that the average commute is about 30 miles a day. “Sipping on 110v is fine for many people,” Levy said, “supplementing at work and with fast-charging in public.”

But the average reality might not be enough to quell the concerns of potential EV consumers, who will have to wean themselves from the expectations of the internal-combustion era. Some of that change introduces more convenience: You can’t fuel up your car at home, but you can charge it there, even if it’s only via the slow drip of a standard electrical outlet. But away from home, not knowing where a charging point might be introduces new uncertainties to driving.

One of Womack’s co-workers drives an electric vehicle, and she can charge it at work. But one day her child got sick at day care. “It screwed up the whole day,” Womack said. The co-worker had to ask herself, “Do I have enough power to get to day care, to the doctor, back to day care, and back to work and then home?” Eventually, there might be a charging station at the day care and the doctor’s office. In Atlanta, where Southern Company is based, a 2017 ordinance requires 20 percent of parking spaces in new buildings to be EV-ready. But for now, the matter still requires a bit of calculation and nail-biting.

According to Cody Thacker, the head of electrification at Audi of America, about 80 to 90 percent of EV charging happens at home. But the fear of running out of charge—like the fear of running out of gas—can still drive consumer habits. And the rush to deliver electric vehicles and EV services has created some problems as it’s solved others. Not all vehicles can use the same charging apparatus, for example. Thacker calls this a “VHS/Betamax moment,” and hopes that standards will emerge as more manufacturers roll out more cars. Audi, for its part, is investing $36 billion in five new EV models over the next five years. And even if you can find a fast-charging station at work or at the grocery store, different companies sometimes operate those services. Imagine if you had to have two different accounts to get gas at a Shell station and a Chevron. That might standardize, too—earlier this month, two major EV-charging networks, ChargePoint and Electrify America, announced a plan to make their services interoperable. That’s good news, but it’s also bizarre that you can’t just swipe a credit card.

Now that the EV market is expanding beyond those who can afford Teslas, manufacturers are realizing that they can’t assume these challenges will resolve themselves on their own. That means an automaker like Audi has to press into new terrain, including advocating for open standards among charging services and helping consumers prepare for an EV future. On the latter front, the company has partnered with Amazon Home Services to make getting 240-volt circuits installed in garages easier. It’s a start, but not enough. “If the average American garage is not capable of EV charging, is ownership a reality?” Thacker asked. “We bear the responsibility to solve that.”

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