5 Biggest Problems With Electric Vehicle Charging

electric vehicle charging signage in Bulgaria
If signs like these were on every highway, there’s be far fewer problems with electric vehicle charging. | Dimitar Dilkoff/Getty Images

Know where the nearest gas station is? Of course you do. So does your phone (i.e., Google). If you’re on a road trip and need to fill up your tank, no problem: You’ll see signs every few miles for upcoming rest stops, all of which have gas stations. Same goes when you’re driving a rental in a foreign country. The phrase “I can’t get gas” is rarely (if ever) uttered in modern civilization.

But how about a charge for your electric car? Houston — let’s get Detroit, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn on the radio, too — now we have a problem. There are many reasons that electric vehicles have not taken off yet in America, but this issue is at the heart of every one.

After all, considering most U.S. drivers don’t crack 50 miles in a day of driving, range anxiety is more charge anxiety than anything else. If there were a charging station near your job and you could leave home and work with 80 miles of range every day, there’d be a lot more EV drivers.

Here’s the thing: there are many more chargers than people know about. They don’t get the fancy, state-sponsored signs our friends operating gas stations do, but they’re there if you look hard enough. For the situation to change, we would have to see stuff like this change. Then you’d have more people feeling comfortable buying a plug-in. (Credit President Obama for giving it a shot with his massive EV initiative.)

Here are the five lingering EV charging problems that have to be fixed.

1. The information gap

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 21: Go Ultra Low Volkswagen e-Golf on charge on a London driveway on July 21, 2015 in London, England. Ultra-low emission vehicles such as this can cost as little as 2p per mile to run and some electric cars and vans have a range of up to 700 miles. (Photo by Miles Willis/Getty Images for Go Ultra Low)
Know how easy it is to plug in at home? Most drivers don’t.  | Miles Willis/Getty Images

There is nothing complicated about opening the door to your gas tank and inserting the nozzle. Plugging in an EV is not terribly complicated, either, but the devil is in the details. For example, you could go to four different public chargers and get four different charging speeds in the same day. One plug could give you three miles an hour; another could give you 13 miles an hour; a third could give you 27 miles an hour; and a fourth could give you 180 miles in 30 minutes.

No matter what happens at a gas station, you know it only takes five minutes to fill up your tank once you get going. Charging takes some planning. Again, it’s not rocket science, but you have to know the specifics of the car you are driving and be aware of a station’s capability when you’re in public. You also have to know a charger is there in the first place.

The same hold for home chargers. You can install a Level 2 charger in your home that can recharge your battery in four hours, and the cost is reasonable ($500 to $600 in most cases). Most people don’t have the time or inclination to figure these things out, and there isn’t much public outreach in place to change the situation.

2. Not enough fast chargers

DC Fast Charging station with BMW i3 and VW e-golf plugged in
Fast-charging an EV along the highway is hard as of 2016. | Source: BMW

It’s quite difficult to fast-charge your car in many U.S. cities, even when money is no object. You have to drive through strange neighborhoods and try to locate chargers in vast parking lots where GPS is known to drop out of service. The bottom line is there aren’t nearly enough places to recharge an EV at a respectable speed.

On highway, the situation is worse. Initiatives to build fast chargers along major highways are just getting started, so this problem could be addressed in the coming years. Unfortunately, if you wanted to charge your car on a road trip between East Coast cities, the options in fast charging are few and far between. Even California struggles with this issue.

3. Too many maps, too many apps

Source: Blink
The need for multiple apps is one of the biggest problems with electric vehicle charging. | Source: Blink

Let’s say you know the ins and outs of your EV’s onboard charger and hit the road armed with a charging account and the relevant app installed on your phone. In theory, you should have no problem plugging in and paying with a tap of your phone. But the station you want appears on one app but not on the other (usually, because of competing business interests).

So you might need two or three apps just to know where a charging station is, and once you get there you might not be able to use it because it’s operated by a provider with whom you haven’t opened an account. Can’t we all just get along here (in the spirit of Tesla and its open-sourced patents)? We can’t imagine a gas station being hidden on any map. Or, put another way: an declining tide sinks all ships. 

4. Price gouging

Tesla Supercharger
Tesla may be pricey, but charging station providers who consider EVs a luxury item are off the mark. | Source: Tesla

Perhaps due to the popularity of Tesla (whose Superchargers are free to most users, incidentally), some charging station providers consider EVs a luxury item and haven’t been shy about charging high rates. As a result, EV drivers could end up paying $20 or more to get 40 miles of range. This type of price gouging usually renders a station unusable to drivers who bought a humble EV with the expectation of spending less on fueling.

A quick check of public charging apps suggests the most expensive chargers remain unused, which defeats the purpose of installing a plug in the first place. Maybe the wave of affordable long-range EVs will force station operators to come to their senses. Electricity is not a fabulous luxury item, so it shouldn’t be priced that way. Of course, more government-operated chargers in public places at reasonable prices wouldn’t hurt, either.

5. You might get ICE’d

Source: John White
Two cases of ICE’ing for the price of one. | Source: John White

Have you ever been “ICE’d“? It’s like being “iced” by an opposing coach who calls a timeout when you’re about kick a field goal or shoot a foul shot with the game on the line, only it’s worse. Here, the reference is to a gas-powered (internal-combustion engine) car owner who (like Janice in accounting) doesn’t give a damn about your cute little electric car problems and parks her F-150 in the spot where you hoped to charge.

We grant there are many people who mistakenly ICE a plug-in driver, but we feel the Janice-in-accounting syndrome dominates the field. The only solutions — to cite or tow the car in question — may sound harsh, but you just can’t teach some people good manners. In this case, the “stick” approach is the only corrective method worth using. We shudder to think what would happen if someone blocked the entrance to a gas station with a shiny new Prius.

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