​Chargers are the final roadblock to America’s electric car future

Rods and waders were already packed into the electric Jaguar I-Pace as it gorged a few more electrons from the wall of my New Jersey garage. A quick glance at a map of northeastern Pennsylvania revealed charging stations clinging to the Delaware River like so many spots on the brown trout I was hoping to catch.

A few days later, I pulled up to one of those chargers on the picturesque main street of Honesdale, only to realize it was a level 2 unit—one step above a standard outlet. It would take four hours before the car had enough juice to make the 100-mile trip home. Eleven miles down the road, it was the same story. And while that spot had a superfast Tesla charger, it was incompatible with the I-Pace. The nearest level 3 charger that would work was 58 miles away. So I gave up and settled in for a while.

Electric car-range anxiety revolves around a brutal equation: Remaining miles of battery life minus miles to destination equals hope (or despair). Making matters worse, the answer varies from one minute to the next, depending on terrain and speed. Desperate battery-powered travelers can be easy to spot: They are often sweaty (no air conditioning), driving slowly and—when going uphill—instinctively leaning forward in their seats.

Failing to note the difference between a level 2 charger and a harder-to-find level 3 charger is often the mistake of an electric vehicle rookie. Had I realized the distinction, I would never have considered a car such as the I-Pace (it was a loaner), or any of the dozens of Tesla rivals set to debut in coming years. For the future of electric vehicles in America, that’s a really big problem.

Before the pandemic struck, the auto industry had plans to spend at least $141 billion over the next few years to retool supply chains in a historic shift from internal combustion to battery-driven machines. The financial reasoning was clear: Roughly one-third of U.S. drivers say they may go electric the next time they buy a vehicle.

Dozens of new electric models have been planned, almost all of which will have a 200-mile charging range. Getting to 200 is a big deal: for years, the question of battery capacity chained the EV market to its crib. But while range anxiety will soon be banished from the showroom, it remains very much alive on the open road. Huge swaths of the U.S. are without charging stations, a reality that consultants such as McKinsey say may be the largest barrier to mass EV adoption in America.

On average, Americans drive only 37 miles a day, a distance easily covered by almost every EV on the market. Only 15 per cent of the miles logged by the average U.S. car come during trips that are 100 miles or longer.

Buying a vehicle in the U.S., however, has long meant purchasing the freedom to go anywhere you like. Nick Nigro, a former engineer and founder of EV research group Atlas Public Policy, said the limiting factor many see when they look at an electric vehicle is the risk of being stranded on the side of the road, even if it would rarely if ever be an issue.

“It that’s irrational, it doesn’t matter,” Nigro said. “Buying a vehicle is not rational.”

Speed is another problem: Of the 64,000 vehicle-charging plugs in the U.S., only about one in five can juice a dry machine in less than an hour, a Bloomberg News analysis of U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center figures shows.

Most plugs are essentially for shoppers or commuters, not long-distance travellers. When filtered for level 3 chargers, small EV deserts become big ones: All of North Dakota and most of Mississippi, West Virginia and Wyoming are just a few examples. Alabama, Montana, Nebraska and western Kansas are pretty parched for power, too.

A range of charging startups do promise thousands of new chargers, though timelines are hazy, and even the most ambitious plans will still skip much of the country. Thus the U.S., the world’s No. 2 auto market, is stuck in a microeconomic staring contest of sorts: Without chargers, rural drivers aren’t likely to go electric. And without enough buyers, automakers aren’t likely to ramp up production.

“It is the classic chicken-and-egg problem,” said Brian Collie, senior partner at Boston Consulting Group. “And this is something that is not going to be solved in the next year or two. It’s going to take a decade-plus to get what we really need.”

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, the world’s one-millionth public electric vehicle outlet will start powering cars, according to BloombergNEF; only eight per cent of those cords are in the U.S. The coronavirus has likely exacerbated the charging gap, thanks to deep economic uncertainty, unprecedented layoffs, production disruptions and low gasoline prices. Global EV sales are expected to fall 18 per cent, to about 1.7 million units this year, with an inordinate share of that swoon happening at U.S. dealerships.

Automakers, however, are largely staying on the sidelines, waiting for EVgo, ChargePoint and others to fill the gaps. General Motors has said it’s focused on a “zero-emission” future, yet it’s neither building charging stations nor buying any. Rather, it’s teamed up with Bechtel Group, a Virginia-based engineering company, to pitch outside investors to bankroll thousands of new chargers.

Meanwhile, last year saw huge declines in demand for older, more established EVs, including BMW’s i3 (-21%), the Chevrolet Bolt (-9%) and Nissan’s Leaf (-16%). Given the high cost of massive batteries, profit margins are still far fatter on gas-burning machines, which relegates these EVs to a niche business at best.

Of course, the anemic sales figures may have something to do with how few of these machines are being made.

There is, of course, a helpful proxy for figuring out what EV demand might look like in a more robust charging landscape. It’s a scrappy young company you may have heard of: Tesla.

The long-held narrative of mainstream auto executives (“We would make more electric vehicles if people actually wanted them”) has been flattened under a parade of Teslas, from the Model S and Model X to the popular Model 3. The automaker decided early on to build its own charger network, realizing there would be little financial incentive for the private sector to take a capital-intensive risk on a new market—one essentially created by a single company.

Shrewdly, Tesla made its charging club exclusive. The company’s fast outlets are proprietary and can’t be used by another brand’s vehicles (Adapters are available, so Teslas can use other charging systems.) In the U.S., there are slightly more Tesla charging outlets than there are on all other fast-charging networks combined.

Because Tesla CEO Elon Musk is more interested in selling vehicles than electricity at charging stations, his plugs are scattered more widely around the country. For example, Wyoming has 10 Tesla charging stations but only one fast-charging plug suitable for a Jaguar I-Pace. West Virginia is a little more balanced; it has eight Tesla stations and two fast-charging spots for other EVs.

Wood’s High Mountain Distillery bubbles up whiskey and gin in Salida, Colorado, about 140 miles southwest of Denver. When a regular customer asked for an EV charger so he could top off his vehicle on long trips, founder P.T. Wood installed one.

Wood, who is also mayor of the small town, was motivated by a trickle of EVs that regularly passed through. He applied for state grant money and installed six level 2 chargers at a cost of about $30,000 apiece. Virtually overnight, he said, Salida and the nearby Monarch Mountain ski resort were on the map for every Denver resident with a long-range EV.

“They have nothing better to do but walk around and spend money,” Wood explained. “So you can see the economic benefit.”

Small clusters of plugs such as those in Salida are popping up all over the country. In the past two years, the city of Healdsburg, California, 70 miles north of San Francisco, installed 12 level 2 chargers that are free to use after business hours.

At some point in the next 10 years, convenience stores and infrastructure investment funds will likely rush into the charging space. Utilities meanwhile have asked for permission to build an additional 245,000 plugs, some $3.3 billion in infrastructure that they can offset by raising rates on the electricity being piped into homes and businesses.

“You know Silicon Valley is fond of quips, and one of them is, ‘It goes slow until it goes fast,’” Romano said. “In this case, there is a lot of truth to that. It’s all going to flip very quickly.”

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.