I’m a big fan of technology. An early adopter. So my interest in electric vehicles is hardly indicative of their mass market potential or whether the EV industry will overcome its huge hurdles to sales success. And not just one hurdle, but two: range and charge time. Why do I separate them? Well, if an EV’s range were short, but charging fast (say 5 minutes), then no problem. Or if an EV’s range were long (say 300 miles), but charging slow, again, fine. But most upcoming EVs suffer from both short range and slow charging, a potentially fatal combination from a sales perspective. EVs may provide a great ride, but without solving these two problems, they will remain a niche product.
For example, a Nissan Leaf has a range of roughly 100 miles and requires about 8 hours of charging (with a Level 2 charger – we’ll get into that later). That’s fine for the average commute, but what happens if you live in San Francisco and have a meeting in San Jose with a round trip of 94 miles? Are EVs destined to be merely second or third cars for a few drivers?
Range distance cannot be easily extended, at least in purely electric vehicles. Battery capacity or efficiency has only been improving slowly over the course of years and still cannot be counted on as short-term improvement. Adding more batteries to EVs isn’t feasible as they are very expensive (for example, a Tesla has a 300-mile range but costs over $100,000). Battery-swapping arrangements — imagine pulling up to a swapping station and quickly exchanging dead batteries for fresh ones — may never become viable. That leaves plug-in hybrids as the leading compromise solution, with extended range achieved by adding the complexity of a gas engine. Hybrids are fine at this point and obviously quite marketable, but the industry clearly hopes to achieve market success with 100% electrics.
Lacking good solutions for electric range, the EV industry is instead focused on improving charge time and charging convenience. This approach is receiving massive attention from the private and public sectors, which are working together to launch subsidized networks of high-voltage charging stations. First, a primer on charging times, equipment costs and terminology, again using the Nissan Leaf as an example:
- Level 1: A regular 120-volt home plug. No special equipment. Charge time of 22 hours.
- Level 2: 240 volts, similar to that used by an electric clothes drier. Charge time of 8 hours. $2,000 to $3,000 for charger and installation
- Level 3: 480 volts, direct-current. Charge time of only 30 minutes. $15,000+ for charger.
Level 1 charging is easy but nearly worthless for any sort of regular-use vehicle. Level 3 is great but cost prohibitive. Will Level 2 chargers hit the sweet spot? They’re fast enough to charge an EV overnight or at work, or to top off while shopping. Are they cheap enough for a massive roll-out to office buildings, shopping malls and home garages? While charging in home garages or even driveways (chargers are waterproof) sounds like the obvious choice, less than 1 in 5 cars in America are parked in a private garage making home charging an unlikely option for the majority of cars parked on residential streets or in apartment building garages. That’s why industry research forecasts that metropolitan areas will need at least 1.5 public chargers (office buildings, shopping malls, etc.) for every one electric vehicle to provide a charging network that can blanket the region geographically as well as become the security blanket that overcomes range anxiety.
The public and private sectors clearly agree and are placing big bets on public networks of Level 2 (and some Level 3) chargers. Private capital has rushed into companies like Coulomb, ECOtality and AeroVironment who manufacture and install chargers. Governments at the federal, state and local levels are doing their part with tax breaks, streamlined permits and major public-private projects. Every month new initiatives are announced by cities (Houston, Phoenix and Seattle come to mind) and companies, from national chains like Best Buy to the surprising move by Cracker Barrel to install Level 3 chargers at its Tennessee restaurants. If EV sales and charging networks present a classic chicken-before-the-egg dilemma, electric vehicle stakeholders are clearly betting big on launching charging networks first, before EVs become mainstream.