At first, people tend to see new technologies as updated versions of older ones. Just as early TV shows consisted of filmed radio shows or stage plays, and early websites resembled the pages of low-budget magazines, many in the mainstream media still believe that vehicle electrification will mean swapping gas pumps for charging stations.
This is why many naysayers focus on the fact that charging an EV still takes longer than gassing up a legacy vehicle, and it’s the main argument in favor of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. We’ve spent our lives stopping at gas stations and filling up every few days, and it’s understandable that most people can’t imagine not having to do that anymore.
In the future, increased battery capacity, wireless charging, and autonomous vehicles will make today’s obsession with charging infrastructure seem as quaint as turn-of-the-century angst about internet bandwidth seems today. Yes, EVs will still need to be charged, but they’ll probably do so off-camera, with little human intervention. One thing I can promise you we won’t be doing is standing around in parking lots waiting for our cars to charge, consuming overpriced sodas and chips and waxing nostalgic for the days of pumping gas, checking oil, and wiping windshields.
That frictionless future, however, is some years away. Public charging may turn out to be a transitional technology, but it will be an important one for the next decade, for three reasons.
Informed readers such as yourself know that suburban drivers do most of their charging at home in their garages or driveways, and seldom or never visit public chargers. However, millions of people around the world have no assigned parking spaces and thus no possibility of installing a home charger. These are modern urban dwellers who don’t need long ranges, and many of them would be highly likely to buy EVs if the charging issue could be solved. In fact, many of them may be forced to — several European cities are planning to ban or restrict gas/diesel vehicles in the next few years.
Public charging is also a necessity for making long road trips. This is a different application than daily charging, and requires much more powerful (and more expensive) DC fast chargers. For Tesla drivers, who have the benefit of the vast Supercharger network, this has never been much of a problem — the Tesla road trip has become a staple of the EV literature. Highway charging networks such as Electrify America and IONITY are rapidly rolling out charging stations to serve the less fortunate, and none too soon. A recent New York Times article trumpeted the tribulations of non-Tesla EV drivers who venture beyond commuting range.
The third reason for the importance of public charging infrastructure is simple public perception. Surveys of car buyers consistently find that a lack of “places to charge” is one of the top objections to buying an EV. It may or may not be logical, but it’s pretty much indisputable that, the more people get used to seeing public chargers around town, the more likely they will be to take the electric plunge.
So, who’s going to build all these charging stations, and who’s going to pay for them? Governments (federal, state, and local) have invested substantial sums, and continue to do so. Utilities, eager to encourage more demand for electricity, are emerging as major players. Tesla has of course made its worldwide charging network a centerpiece of its strategy (the company understood the need to nip the “where do I charge it?” objection in the bud). Some other automakers (BMW, Ford, Daimler, VW, and Hyundai, which have invested in the European charging network IONITY; and Porsche, which developed an ultra-fast DC charging system for its new Taycan), have taken major initiatives, while GM has said that it has no plans to invest in charging infrastructure.
What about private, for-profit charging networks? This is a new industry, and no one can say what the market will look like when it fully develops, but most observers of the charging scene expect that drivers will pay for highway fast charging (or maybe not — charging provider Volta recently opened a free DC fast charging location in Connecticut), and drivers who don’t have home chargers will pay for some sort of on-street charging solution (or perhaps the local utility will allow registered local residents to pay only for the electricity, just as some cities offer residents free or reduced-rate parking). However, “opportunity chargers” at restaurants and other businesses are mostly free, and are expected to remain so.
As Travis Hoium writes in a recent article in the Motley Fool, consumer-focused companies use free chargers as “loss leaders” to lure customers away from competing businesses, and to entice them to stay longer. Gas station chains, including BP and Shell, are experimenting with EV charging, but most people aren’t interested in hanging around a gas station for half an hour. Restaurants and retail stores are more likely to be successful at using free charging to lure customers.
McDonald’s has installed 55 charging stations in Sweden, and plans to deploy 168 fast chargers in the Netherlands. Ruby Tuesday, Cracker Barrel, Sonic, Buffalo Wild Wings, and many other restaurant chains are also testing the market. (“Oh, the irony” department: will the amount of pollution displaced by charging your EV be cancelled out by the emissions from the production of the cheap beef that fast food chains specialize in?) Coffee shops such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, which encourage customers to hang around for extended periods, seem like an excellent match for free public charging, as do big-box retailers such as Walmart and IKEA. All these brands already provide charging at some locations, and are expected to steadily expand their offerings. A blog post from network operator ChargePoint lists 9 common errands that you might be able to do while charging your EV.