If I told you that the first EV startup failed in 1923, you’d think I’d made a typo. Turns out, electric vehicles have been trying to gain traction for over a hundred years. They’re facing the same problems now that they had before the first World War—competing with the gas-powered internal combustion engine (ICE) and improving battery life. Charging EVs was also pretty challenging.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: an upgraded battery pack for a Detroit Electric car would have cost $600—about $17,000 today. That’s the kind of money that makes even Lucid owners think twice.
Another problem was that the power grid as we know it didn’t exist, so these early EVs were confined to major cities. In fact, EV manufacturers put charging stations along the upscale shopping boulevards of major cities because wealthy women wanted to drive but also wanted to avoid hand-cranking the motor. Even Clara Ford (Mrs. Henry Ford) shunned a Ford in favor of an EV.
Ford and Thomas Edison also flirted with EVs in the early 1900s. The two built an EV prototype but decided to pursue the gasoline engine as those cars were cheaper to build and only cities had the infrastructure for charging EVs at scale. They figured a driver could fill up a couple of gas cans on their way out of town for fuel emergencies. And a hundred or so years ago, nobody was thinking a whole lot about carbon footprints and renewable energy—they were just getting incandescent lighting.
I thought I’d share this bit of history because I think it’s kind of fascinating that the technology for EVs has been around, albeit in a primitive form, for damn near 200 years (a Scot invented this motorized carriage that fizzled as the railway workers cautioned against the Devil Machine). And the challenges, honestly, haven’t changed a bit. How do you manufacture an EV at scale—and build out the infrastructure that’s a critical part of the equation?
I’m not going to waste a lot of space here talking about apps for finding stations. That info is on your nav screen and your phone. Instead, I’m taking the broad view—the hurdles that make charging stations a pain to build: cost, speed, and distance.
EVs Are Finally Scalable
Okay, let’s talk about manufacturing at scale. Before Elon Musk introduced Tesla to the one percent as a status symbol as much as an environmental boon, workaday engineers at Ford and GM had never given up on the idea of electric vehicles. They just weren’t a priority in a country where gasoline was cheap. Since, here in the US, you can buy gasoline on practically every corner and in the middle of nowhere, the appetite for furthering EV technology just wasn’t as sexy as a hydraulic platform to get into your Suburban.
Today, EVs for the masses are in the public spotlight. Manufacturers have stepped up with a lot of new models on the market. It’s fair to say that with the Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan Leaf coming in under $30,000 before rebates, there’s an EV for every budget.
So there’s that.
Charging EVs on a Road Trip
Now that pretty much everybody who wants one can have one (if you can’t afford it, borrow it, right?), there’s the matter of charging anxiety. Nobody wants to buy a car they can’t take on road trips, and there’s a range of anywhere between 100 miles (Mazda MX30) to 520 miles (Lucid Air Dream). As with gas-powered cars, your mileage may vary.
Unlike your Suburban or Camry, EVs use less energy in town than on the highway, mostly because they can recapture power when you decelerate by slowing down the motor instead of hitting the brakes (Note: my EV has the same feature but my mfg discouraged it because it really doesn’t work…and after testing, I agree). Another difference? Efficiency and range are not directly related. When you charge an EV, only about 85-90% of the energy actually makes it into the battery. So MPGe includes charging losses. Consumption is the energy the battery uses to run the car. No one told you that when buying, right?
That’s just one more bit of technical jargon to scare off a would-be EV consumer. How in the hell are you supposed to know how far you can go before the battery dies?
Well, it’s really not complicated. Just like with your trusty old gas guzzler, there’s a dashboard icon for that. In the case of most EVs, it’s a turtle. And just like every other auto on the road, there’s a little distance-to-dead calculator on the dash, too. So no worries there. But in truth, I do worry…the battery many times declines faster than the dashboard says it will (as Sammy Hagar said, “I can’t drive 65.”)
Charging Station Challenges
We’re so used to gas stations that masquerade as anything from a liquor store to a McDonald’s to a Walmart that we forget it was not always like this. Billions went into building this infrastructure—from oil drilling to pipelines to distributors to the stations themselves. Charging stations are a lot more of a challenge for investors. They require a large initial capital outlay for the individual ports, grid connection and management, a pay system, and enough charging slots. Let’s go through these points.
Investors want to put charging stations where the cars are. So it’s hard to find an adequate supply in rural parts of the country. Jigar Shah estimates that if a gas station has four ports that are pretty much continuously in use during high-demand periods, that’s costing the station owners $250,000 a year. When you consider that the convenience stores attached to the gas stations are where they really make their money, that’s a lot of lattes and Funyons to make up that quarter of a million in sunk costs.
That said, the number of stations has more than quintupled since 2009, with over 47,000 stations and 120,000 ports across the US today (Pew Research, October 2022).
Location, Location, Location
One place you can always find a charging station is at an airport. I’m not exactly sure why, but they’re popping up in hourly and daily lots all over the country. It’s true that people like the idea of charging EVs before they leave the airport and that there’s already a substantial power grid on site. I just can’t see airport chargers powering a lot of EVs compared to something like a Sheetz. Even in Wyoming, where the legislature wants to ban selling EVs, there are a couple of dozen stations.
Anyway, stations charging EVs are all over the US—mostly in California, Texas, New York, Colorado, and the Southeast. There are stations in every state, although, in the upper Midwest, they are admittedly few and far between. There are a few states I’d avoid in an EV. Montana has a several-hundred-mile stretch between stations. Mountainous states like Nevada, New Mexico, and Idaho also might not have them spread out enough to give you a lot of confidence in getting from point to point.
Here’s the real rub for many EV wannabes—how long does it take to fully charge an EV? Mike Tinskey, Ford’s EV guru, says a lithium-ion battery that hasn’t overheated can charge in 15 minutes, as opposed to the eight required to fill up a tank of gas. Tesla, of course, has developed its own Supercharger just for Teslas. But owners can get an adapter so they can power up with the hoi polloi if necessary. And if you’ve waited for gas at Costco lately, a few minutes spent waiting while charging EVs should really not be a deal breaker…but it actually is a deal breaker…it sucks…more on this in a different post.
A friend of mine lives in Miami and has a daughter in DC. He thought it would be cost-effective to buy a Tesla for road trips (they have another kid in college in NC) and leave the Denali at home. So far, so good. He really likes having to stop along the way to charge the car. He has a walk and a snack, and he kills time reading the paper while they wait. On the other hand, his wife is not a fan of hanging out at I-95 travel plazas and isn’t enticed by the shopping. She just wants to get to the kids. So there’s that dynamic to consider, too.
Case Studies for Scaling Stations
Simon is a high-end shopping center management company looking to bring customers back post-pandemic. Charging EVs might just be the way to do it. They’ve taken a page from the 1900s Detroit playbook and partnered with Electrify America to install charging stations at their shopping centers—Malls, Mills, and Premium Outlets. Since they announced this in 2011, Simon has expanded providers and now works with EVgo and Tesla. So if you’re riding the Neiman Marcus trail, find Simon so you can shop while you charge. Now, Simon has 1,148 ports at 125 shopping centers in 26 states.
Pilot Travel Center and GM
EVgo has also partnered with GM and Pilot Travel Center to install stations fifty miles apart on US highways. The plan is to build around 2000 charging ports at 500 Pilot or Flying J travel plazas, with the first going online this year. EVgo is implementing high-powered DC chargers that can go up to 350 kW. GM and Pilot chose EVgo because they are the turnkey go-to for rapid charge infrastructure. EVgo and GM are also partnering to build another 3,250 fast chargers in more cities and suburbs by the end of 2025.
BP and Hertz
BP Pulse—BP’s EV charger division—and Hertz have gotten together to build a charging network at Hertz rental locations. Hertz has bet the farm on EVs in their fleet—they’ve ordered over 335,000 from Tesla, GM, and Polestar and are set to receive them by 2027. So they must be thinking of not throwing customers in jail anymore.
BP Pulse has already put stations at Hertz spots at 25 of their busiest airports, servicing existing Hertz EVs. This deal just expands the network. The game plan is to have 3,000 chargers up and running by the end of this year.
Hertz will make the stations available to anybody at the airport—Ubers, shuttles, and the general public.
Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) was one of the first airports to put charging stations onsite. SemaConnect initially built eight Level 2 (240 VAC) EV stations in the parking garages way back in 2011. Ten years later, they added a couple more stations to the daily lot’s rooftop. Also, in what I think was a stroke of genius, they added four more fast-charge stations to the cell lot. For those of you who need an incentive to fly out of BWI, this could be it.
The 2021 Infrastructure Bill has earmarked $5 billion for building stations for charging EVs along highways nationwide. That’s about 75,000 miles of road. …Now if they can just get to the potholes.
In conclusion, I have range anxiety…and while I love my EV, this is an issue that is ripe for entrepreneurs (with a lot of cash) to tackle…if you want to take part, let me know, I know a few diamonds.