I’ve been thinking about getting an electric vehicle now that they look decent and their range is longer than most people commute, round-trip for an entire work week. But, I was shocked to discover how difficult charging an EV would be.
Car Manufacturers Make EVs to Meet Tougher Regulations
Many American car makers have at least one electric vehicle in their line-up. You probably know and many despise the Toyota Prius. But, that’s not an electric vehicle. It doesn’t plug into anything despite its hybrid moniker. EVs are either full electric, like Tesla’s range, or plug-in hybrids such as the Chevy Volt. Models differ in how they use internal combustion to complement electric drive motors, but they all enable errands via the electron and long road trips sustained with unleaded fill-ups
Most EVs were introduced in the last few years, in response to Obama-era fuel economy standards, but a few are older and entering 2nd or 3rd generations of their designs. The aforementioned Volt went from bulky and slow with a tiny battery to sleek and sporty with a 53-mile electric range. Car companies have either bolted batteries onto existing platforms, like with the e-Golf, or built new platforms to maximize the space efficiencies of electric layouts. These batteries, especially with new models, are large, but the drivetrains on electric vehicles are much smaller. So, designers of EV-first cars can move a bunch of stuff around in the cabin. More room for your Costco haul!
You Can Drive an EV Hundreds of Miles on a Single Charge
In the eyes of most auto industry folks, GM solved the old problem when they introduced the all-electric Bolt in 2017. With 238 miles of range, the Bolt gave you at least a full week of commutes, the era of “range anxiety” was over. Until that point, petrol heads—enthusiasts and regular commuters—weren’t buying EVs because they feared normal usage easily pushed to the 0% battery level. “50 miles is fine for my round-trip commute, but what if I have errands to run? What if Sally gets sick at her school across town?”
Tesla has been producing cars for years that reach 200, 300, and soon even 600 miles of range. But, those are luxury cars! Musk’s outfit says the new Model 3 is affordable, but they’ve been focusing first on producing the higher of that model’s two trim levels. GM brought the electrons for you, a cross-town commuter who follows the whimsy of the moment, at an affordable price. You can price out a base model 2019 Bolt right now for $30K after federal tax credit. The 2018 Leaf starts at the same sticker. $30K is the bar, maybe $40K after options. Get there and give me a call, Elon.
Charging an EV Takes a Long Time
Drivers may fear range less, but they still complain as if they are touring vagabonds. “What about vacations and trips home for the Holidays?” Fair point, highway cruisers. Car makers have been getting longer-lasting EVs by sticking larger batteries in them. The other way to meet our need to travel long distances is to charge the batteries faster. That’s the hard part.
There are three levels of charging right now and only two are that useful. Level I is a regular household outlet, 120 Volt AC, and charges your EV slower than molasses in January. Everyone has one of these, but they’re of almost no use. Level II charging is 240 Volt AC plug—most of you know this as a dryer outlet. These connections charge an EV in six or more hours, best for an overnight fill-up. Many people have access to this speed charging already and it’s approx $1,500 to have it put into a garage. Level II charging is the current backbone of everyday EV use.
Level III charging and levels beyond are the future of the electric vehicle. Level III, also called “DC Fast Charging” juices your car up within an hour or two with 480 Volt direct current. The Bolt I keep mentioning gives you 90 miles in 30 minutes. That’s doesn’t shake out to 180 miles per hour of charge—there are diminishing returns to charging time—but stick with me. For comparison, Level II bolsters the Bolt with 25 miles per charge hour and Level I—that old white extension cord you hope doesn’t spark while it’s powering your Christmas tree—gives 4 miles per hour.
Electric Vehicle Makers Overlook City Residents
EVs will only be successful as mass-market, affordable vehicles if charge times lower to meet the 5-minute refill times we get now from regular cars at the corner gas station. The thing is, many of the EV champions—car makers especially—have invested in a single-family home vision in EV use. They think they’ve come so far, calming range anxiety and providing overnight re-charge, but their vision is built on the assumption that most Americans live in homes with off-street parking.
That presumption that EV owners have driveways and garages, or at the very least places to charge at the office, cripples EV adoption in cities. In metro areas like DC, lots of people live in apartments, condos, and other non-house structures. Many of us in the city don’t have off-street parking or houses, or walls we can paint without landlord approval. If you live in the concrete jungle with an EV, you’ll have to compete for the public charging stations. That’s going to be a problem.
DC Has Few Charging Stations and Virtually None in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods
I pulled up PlugShare, a popular EV charging point locator, to check my options in DC. Unless I planned out where I live, park, and drive based on owning an EV, my life would get very frustrating. You start zoomed out, with lots of overlapping dots insinuating plentiful charge point distribution. Then, you zoom in and focus on your immediate vicinity. You click on specific waypoints for details on each location. The options are slim, randomly located, and come with add-on costs.
I reviewed my options and here are the big takeaways: When I pictured a typical week owning an EV, I imagined having to make random stops to grab an hour of charging. Look up your neck of the woods and enjoy the thought of having to pay for the parking space, in addition to the electricity you’re using to fill up the battery. Life in DC with an electric vehicle would be like parking on the street near your group house without a resident permit. You’ll spend your late nights and early mornings finding a new spot to leave your car. Except now, you can’t drive to the parking ticket hearing because your car’s battery is low.
Here are the biggest problems with electric vehicle charging in DC:
- Charging stations cluster in business and commercial districts, with very few in residential areas.
- Many of the new mixed-use developments have charging stations, but you have to pay for parking in the public garages.
- There are no charging stations in Wards 7 and 8 of DC.
The sad reality of electric vehicle infrastructure, like so much of DC’s infrastructure, is that the EV charging stations are only in the prosperous areas. If you leave East of the Anacostia, you can’t own an EV unless you work across the river and your office building has a charging station. You can’t really own an EV if you live in a residential part of the DC area. As much as you read about mixed-use development districts, they make up very little of the land mass in our city.
Governments Need to Act for Electric Vehicles to be Useful
Electric vehicles need to get cheaper, they need to have higher capacity batteries, and they need to charge quicker for their ownership to be a reasonable investment for most DC commuters. Local governments need to push harder and faster because current charging options are spread between many companies that operate private networks and require an entire folder of smartphone apps to use. This is a race to see whether electric cars can overcome the insufficient charging network or the charging network can expand to make insufficient EVs capable for normal use. Right now, neither option looks close to reality.