Build it & they will come: America's EV charging challenge

Posted by Lexie Briggs on Apr 8, 2013 4:11:00 PM

During a recent Model S test drive between Washington, D.C. and Boston, New York Times writer John Broder found himself relying on a decidedly un-advanced vehicle—a tow truck—to get him to his destination. His Model S had run out of juice just short of a supercharger.

While a cavalry of Model S owners, other journalists, and advanced vehicle fans have proven that the road trip is not only possible but “not that hard,” road tripping with vehicles electric is decidedly more challenging than driving a gas-powered engine. The electric vehicle charging infrastructure has been evolving and developing over the past few years.

What comes first?

Better Place HawaiiElectric vehicles pose a classic chicken-and-egg problem: it is difficult to drive them long distances without a well-developed charging infrastructure, and it is not cost-effective to build a charging infrastructure until there is sufficient demand for it. Better Place, an EV service company based in Australia, has seen Hawaii’s potential for electrification.

With gas prices regularly topping $4.30 a gallon, EVs make sense in Hawaii. But how about California, where Tesla is based?

In September, Tesla announced that it had partnered with SolarCity to provide free solar chargers across California. Earlier this year Tesla and Solar City installed two chargers on the East Coast, making the drive between Boston and D.C. possible in the first place. Tesla said it expects to install more chargers throughout the year.

Cracker Barrel EVMost of the middle of the country is a bit sparse when it comes to EV charging infrastructure—but not Tennessee. In a return to the days when Cracker Barrel Old Country Store locations had gas stations out front, the restaurant chain announced a partnership with ECOtality to provide Blink DC Fast Chargers to allow their Tennessee customers to “top off their tanks,” the company said in a press release. 

All told, ECOtality plans to have 1,300 charging stations in operation across Tennessee by the end of 2013. It’s no wonder, then, that Tennessee EV owners use public chargers more than anywhere else in the country, beating out San Francisco and L.A. for the top spot. “The core message is that the community involvement across multiple stakeholder groups ... was really the key to success in Knoxville,” says Stephanie Cox, Tennessee regional manager for ECOtality.

Meanwhile, services like PlugShare are working to fill in the gaps. PlugShare maps current open chargers, including superchargers and public chargers attached to car dealerships, and also allows users to sign up their house as a charging site. Other EV owners who subscribe to PlugShare could charge up at a private residence on their way.

Off the grid 

willistonEven with the combined effort of EV drivers everywhere, some places remain completely off-grid when it comes to charging stations. For example, if a Model S driver were to find herself in Williston, North Dakota in need of a charge, she would need to drive 228 miles southeast to Bismarck, North Dakota or 241 miles northeast to Virden, Manitoba. Either way, it’s pushing the limits of what the Model S is capable. (Click here to see the full-size map.)

Although road trips are possible in electric vehicles today, they require much more planning than a gas-fueled trip. With Tesla’s newly announced financing model, more consumers than ever are expected to make the switch to electric vehicles. The charging infrastructure is rapidly catching up, however, and the classic chicken-and-egg problem might just be on its way to an electrified solution.

Images courtesy of Better Place, Cracker Barrel, and PlugShare.