More people than ever are buying electric vehicles. There are about 2 million electric vehicles on the road in the United States, up six times since 2016, but the number of electric vehicles is still only a very small slice of the more than 280 million vehicles in use. Some factors, such as upfront cost and battery life, are largely managed manufacturing and innovation challenges within companies. But another source of consumer resistance opens up a complex set of issues that will need to be addressed at the macro level – the availability of charging stations and an electricity grid capable of handling them.
Currently, cars and trucks combine to produce about a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions. In order to achieve net-zero emissions goals in the coming decades, consumers are going to need to buy lots of electric vehicles, and they’re going to need lots of places to charge them. The Department of Energy is actively tracking the total number of public charging stations (the total number of charging ports is higher) in the country, a number that now stands at 55,000. If that sounds like a lot, consider that there are nearly three times as many gas stations. Also, keep in mind that while EV charging times vary widely, they are significantly slower than gassing, so congestion is a significant issue at charging stations.
According to a recent McKinsey & Company report, approximately 20 times more charging stations will be needed than are currently available, up to 1.2 million public charging stations.
Where competition has played an important role in electric vehicle innovation, public and private cooperation will help drive the development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The Biden administration recently announced new standards for electric vehicle charging in line with its goal to install 500,000 more charging stations by 2030, and the $7.5 billion set aside by the bipartisan law on infrastructure represents the government’s first investment in electric vehicle chargers. The minimum standards will help set the foundation for states to build charging station projects that are accessible to all drivers, regardless of location, EV brand, or charging company.
“Public funding is particularly important for highway corridor pricing given the difficult business case as the market for electric vehicles continues to grow,” a GM spokesperson said.
The infrastructure doesn’t have the appeal of splashy new vehicle deployments like the Chevy Silverado EV or Ford’s F-150 Lightning electric pickup, and as the GM spokesperson explained, there’s a continued need for cross-industry collaboration and policy support to streamline permits, proactively engage electric utilities, accelerate grid deployment and interconnection times, and remove other barriers to infrastructure deployment by suspense.
“It really requires an ‘all on deck’ approach,” he said.
Part of the lack of charging infrastructure has to do with the nature of EV purchases so far. Tesla accounts for 80% of the electric vehicle market in the United States. With an entry-level Tesla costing around $50,000 and 80% of Tesla owners charging from home, the development of public charging stations has not kept pace with future needs.
But there are signs that this is changing.
Tesla, which had used its own proprietary technology for its Supercharger network, is moving away from this model. Last July, Tesla CEO Elon Musk noted in a tweet that Tesla had created its own network because none existed. “We created our own connector because there was no standard at the time and Tesla was just a manufacturer of long-range electric cars. That said, we are opening our supercharger network to all other electric vehicles. »
According to GM, the number of chargers, while significant, is only part of the story.
“We believe the focus should be on creating an all-encompassing charging ecosystem that enables convenient, reliable, and affordable charging access for everyone, and that’s what we’re trying to do with Ultium Charge 360,” said the GM spokesperson. This includes expanding access at home (including multi-family dwellings), at work, and in strategic public places, as well as for additional use cases like fleets. “It also means getting the right chargers in the right places to meet customer needs and build trust now and in the future,” he said.
At the Future of the Car conference in May, Musk said Tesla would add CCS connectors to its network of Superchargers: “It’s a little trickier in the US because we have a different connector than the rest of the industry, but we will add the rest of the industry connector as an option to Superchargers in the US,” Musk said. The Combined Charger System (CCS) is standard across Europe, and the addition of the Tesla Adapter gives Tesla owners access to more charging options, while allowing non-Tesla owners to access the Supercharger network.
In April, Musk — whose relationship with the Biden administration and the Democratic Party has been strained — met with Biden officials and GM CEO Mary Barra to discuss electric vehicle charging infrastructure. . The Department for Transport described the event in cooperative terms: “A broad consensus that charging stations and vehicles should be interoperable and provide a seamless user experience, no matter what car you’re driving or driving. ‘place where you charge your electric vehicle,’ read a DoT statement.
Over the next ten years, Ford plans to increase its spending on electric vehicles by up to $20 billion. Its BlueOval charging network is the largest public charging network in North America, with nearly 20,000 charging stations with more than 60,000 outlets. Speaking of the rapid acceleration of its EV plans, Ford CEO Jim Farley said at a recent EV launch event, “It’s something no one would have believed a while ago. barely two years from us. »
According to the Institute for Environmental and Energy Studies. There are significant parts of rural America where one could drive for a while without seeing an EV charging station, while gas stations dot the landscape at regular intervals. GM and Ford will have to play an important role in this essential effort to combat “charging deserts”.
GM, through its Dealer Community Charging Program, will distribute up to 10 charging stations to its electric vehicle dealerships. This will add some 40,000 stations, spread evenly across the country, especially in underserved areas. This will help put many consumers in the charging range: nearly 90% of Americans live within 10 miles of a GM dealership. As part of a $750 million initiative, these stations can be distributed at the discretion of GM dealers in their communities.
“We want to give customers the right tools and access to charging where and when they need it,” GM Chairman Mark Reuss said in a statement last October about his goals, “while working with our dealer network to accelerate the expansion of accessible charging in underserved, rural and urban areas.
GM expects most charging to be done at home, which is convenient for most customers. McKinsey estimates the United States will need 28 million home chargers by 2030. GM’s Ultium smart chargers, which will be available later this year, will give customers and businesses the ability to pass the cost on to payments rental and vehicle loans.
It also places charging in public places where customers already spend time slots from 30 minutes to a few hours — like grocery stores and gyms — to enable more convenient public charging. One example is GM’s collaboration with EVgo to install 3,250 DC fast chargers in major metropolitan areas by the end of 2025.
As difficult as the question of charging deserts is the question of urban infrastructure, where even willing buyers – many of whom are also apartment dwellers – can have significant difficulty finding convenient and reliable charging stations. In urban settings or in the case of urban fleets, a big problem is the lack of garages or other facilities where individual charging stations could be deployed. According to Yury Dvorkin, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and member of the C2SMART Tier 1 Transport Center at NYU Tandon, a key solution is public charging infrastructure, which must be high-powered (to ensure high charging power and therefore a charging speed) and multi-station (to ensure that many electric vehicles can be charged at the same time).
“If you can buy an electric vehicle relatively cheaply (if you get all the tax incentives and benefits), the purchase price is affordable for a lot of people living in urban America and the real limit to the adoption is actually access to public charging infrastructure. “, said Dvorkin.
Major automakers are calling for an extension of these government incentives for electric vehicle purchases. Meanwhile, the recent infrastructure funding is a “significant step forward” for electric vehicle infrastructure, Dvorkin said, but more as an openness to further R&D than a cure-all.
There are many “techno-economic challenges,” Dvorkin said, to be solved beyond the direct control of automakers. The main ones are permit restrictions and, more essentially, power grid limitations. “Authorization is always a challenge and it can take months before an EV charging station is approved,” he said. “And it is necessary to ensure that the network is able to supply electricity to the charging stations of electric vehicles; this requires the development of tools to decide where EV charging infrastructure should be deployed in order to meet consumer demand and power grid limitations. »
The actions of traditional automakers like GM and Ford underscore the cultural change embedded in the transition to electric vehicles and can spur a shift in national automotive culture. Although later in the game than Tesla, the big automakers represent fundamental notions of the automobile that have long been woven into the American imagination: freedom, possibility, escape – none of which work very well if you can’t keep your charged battery. As GM and Ford accelerate the pace of their EV manufacturing and Tesla expands access to its EV charging infrastructure, the broader imagination can evolve with them, with charging more readily available along the way. .
“It’s Ford Motor Company…the Model-T. This is what we do. We are not a new start-up,” Farley recently told CNBC.
–By Trevor Laurence Jockims, special for CNBC.com