An infrastructure for charging vehicles takes shape

In Photo: Kevin Walsh plugs his Nissan Leaf into its charging station in San Francisco in March 2011. Unless buyers can be reassured about the availability and speed of charging, the electricvehicle revolution may progress at the pace of a horse-drawn carriage rather than a Tesla. Better batteries with greater capacity are helping.

A new phrase entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013: “range anxiety,” or the fear an electric vehicle will run out of power before it reaches a charging station.

At the time, a Nissan LEAF, the world’s best-selling electric vehicle, could travel just over 12 miles between charges. A car with a full tank of fuel will travel between 404 and 497 miles between refills. A driver relying on batteries has to find a public charging station—a rare sight in 2013—or plug in at home to cover the same distance.

Range anxiety has not gone away as electric vehicles have advanced. But the problem now feels more solvable.

Many governments are pushing hard to replace the internal combustion engine with cleaner electric vehicles. This summer, both Britain and France said that by 2040, new cars completely reliant on gas or diesel will be illegal.

By 2050, half the cars on the road globally—a billion in total—will be battery-powered, according to the bank Morgan Stanley. Falling battery costs mean the total cost of electric vehicle ownership will soon be on par with that of cars reliant on internal combustion engines.

Surveys show, however, that car buyers’ worries about charging—where you can do it and how long it will take —remain a big impediment to going electric. Unless buyers can be reassured about the availability and speed of charging, the electric vehicle revolution may progress at the pace of a horse-drawn carriage rather than a Tesla.

Better batteries with greater capacity are helping. A range of 118 miles or more is now the norm. Nissan’s latest LEAF, unveiled September 6, will travel nearly 250 miles between charges. Tesla’s Model S, a luxury electric vehicle launched in 2012, has a range of more than 310 miles, as does its new Model 3, a cheaper car for the mass market.

As ownership of electric vehicles spreads, another reassuring fact is becoming clear: The amount of daily driving that people actually do, combined with an ability to charge at home, means public charging facilities are rarely needed. Four out of five Europeans drive fewer than 62 miles a day. The average daily distance a car covers in Britain, for example, is less than 25 miles. Americans cover around 44 miles a day.

So far, most electric vehicles have been bought by wealthier drivers, who usually have off-street parking with a socket to plug in to. More than 90% of charging is currently done at home, according to carmakers.

Charging times at home are hardly a difficulty: A standard residential electricity supply and a 3.5-kilowatt charger will fill a battery in a smaller car in about eight hours, perhaps while its owner sleeps. A special 7-kilowatt home charger can recharge a Tesla’s larger batteries in eight hours. A car with a smaller battery takes just four.

But mass adoption of electric vehicles will mean appealing to the millions of households without garages. Nor can people on long road trips rely on better batteries alone.

So far, the rate of increase in the number of public charging stations in developed countries has largely kept pace with the growth of electric vehicles, said Sean O’Flynn of the consulting firm Alix Partners. In the United States, the number of charging stations grew by more than a quarter, to almost 16,000, in 2016. But in most places, the system needs to expand to provide enough chargers of the right capacities in the right locations.

Manufacturers, governments and commercial charging firms are all investing. Tesla, for example, plans to expand its global network of 145-kilowatt “supercharger” stations to 10,000. These public facilities can replenish the firm’s larger batteries to 80%—charged in 40 minutes (for technical reasons, fast chargers cannot top up batteries completely). Several other manufacturers are also rolling out their own fast-charging networks, which are expensive but bring charging speeds down to the time it takes to use a conventional fuel pump. Nissan now has a global network of 4,000 fast chargers. Last year Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen and Ford also said they would together install a total of 400 public charging stations in Europe delivering 350-kilowatts, which will charge a small car to three-quarters full in 4 minutes and a big vehicle in 12 minutes.

City and national governments are working on slower roadside charging for drivers who cannot plug in at home. Officials in London recently announced plans for 1,500 new charging stations by 2020. Local authorities there are experimenting with providing low-cost curbside charging by enabling streetlights to double up as charging stations.

France, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway are among the countries that have launched initiatives to improve access to public charging. (The European Union is also mulling regulations that will require all new dwellings to have access to an electric vehicle charging station.)

China’s government, which is set on remaining the largest market for electric cars, has far bigger plans. This year alone it is installing 800,000 public charging stations, including 100,000 semi-public ones at workplaces and for taxis and commercial vehicles.

Companies that do nothing but provide charging services have their own plans to invest large sums as more electric vehicles hit the road.

Pat Romano of Chargepoint, based in California, which runs more charging stations worldwide than any other firm, sees workplace charging as another way of filling the gap. Romano said for a few thousand dollars spent on the equipment—plus the cost for electricity (about the same as the price of a cup of coffee a day)—employers can offer workers free charging in the office parking lot.

Commercial firms like Chargepoint may come to dominate charging away from home, if only because they are more focused on it than either manufacturers or governments.


© 2017 Economist Newspaper Ltd., London (September 9). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Image credits: Jim Wilson/The New York Times


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