Questioning The Fundamentals Of Fueling To Enable A New Electric Vehicle Ecosystem

Across sectors, human behavior evolves in parallel with the latest and greatest technology that is transforming a given market. Personal transportation is a result of that disruption. In an effort to dispel skepticism, advocates went to great lengths to prove that automobiles could provide reliable transportation – including a 1,000-mile race at the turn of the 20th century. Communities soon turned away from horse-drawn carriages and embraced the internal combustion engine as improvements in automotive manufacturing made personal vehicles easier to produce and cheaper to buy. Today, we’re seeing early signs of a similar mentality shift as advancements in electric vehicle (EV) technologies make EVs easier to produce, cheaper to buy, higher performing and better for our global health.

The Risks of Adapting from Gas to Grid

EVs present fundamentally different benefits and limitations from traditional transportation systems, particularly in terms of the fueling experience. Current charging infrastructure is pushing early EV adopters to adapt their perceptions of fueling up in a number of ways:

  • “Topping off,” or refueling in smaller increments vs. completely depleting and recharging the EV battery due to time constraints.
  • Charging overnight at home vs. charging at third-party, specialized vendors (i.e., gas stations).
  • Combining the parking and charging experiences with EV-specific parking spots equipped with charging stations. It’s common to find EV drivers spot squatting after they’ve finished charging – drivers wait willingly while their car fuels up on gas, but the same patience can’t be expected when it takes hours to charge an EV.

These methods of adaptation ultimately serve as stopgaps. It’s clear that the future of electrified transportation rests on building a truly scalable ecosystem that addresses the charging problem at its core and prevents individual decision-making from derailing EV deployment.

Proposing a Path Forward

If technology adoption is the primary objective, we should zoom in on the limiting resource. As more drivers without access to home chargers purchase EVs, 56 percent of charging is expected to take place outside of the home by 2030. This stat begs a number of questions:

Why not just increase the number of public charging spots so every car can have the time needed to park and charge? While this might be physically possible – dedicating up to 10 percent of all parking spots to EVs seems reasonable as our world becomes increasingly electrified – the infrastructure investment would be astronomical given the time-intensive and costly construction that would be incurred by public and private entities serving the 4 million EVs and counting that have been sold globally.

 Electricity cost range for host site to deliver one mile of charge via DCFC (Source: RMI )

Electricity cost range for host site to deliver one mile of charge via DCFC (Source: RMI )

Why not develop a large network of DC fast chargers that can potentially imitate the gas-fueling experience? Whereas an internal combustion engine takes approximately 5 minutes to fuel, adding 450 miles of vehicle range, EVs can take 2.5 hours to add the same range using a typical Level 2 Charger with 7.2kW of output. To mimic gas fueling times, charging speeds would need to reach 700kW. The aging electric grid would struggle to handle this influx of unpredictable energy demand, requiring costly utility infrastructure upgrades to combat voltage instabilities, distribution losses and overloading transformers. A report from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) identified that deploying DC fast chargers in urban environments can almost double the cost of refueling a traditional vehicle and varies widely across jurisdictions. Level 1 and 2 chargers remain a significantly cheaper option and are expected to provide 80 percent of the energy consumed by EVs through 2030.

Why not rely on short-term parking spots equipped with EV chargers? When charging is tied to a parking spot, human psychology gets in the way of strategic growth. Incentives can be instituted to shift driver behavior. One tactic is to develop regulations that result in ticketing. Signs for “4-Hour Parking” or “Parking Only While Charging” are designed to create turnover in designated spots, but proper enforcement of these types of rules is challenging.

Getting Realistic About Options

There are more challenges involved with incumbent charging solutions than meets the eye. We’ll need to address the root of the problem in order to scale EV adoption.

Are fixed charging stations really the answer? Somewhere along the supply chain, someone will bear the financial brunt of fixed EV charging investment. Installing single public chargers pushes automakers, utilities, governments or businesses to pick up a tab of approximately $12,000 on behalf of the drivers – with limited ways to earn revenue from the charging services. For a gas station owner, fully charging just eight to ten EVs each day rather than refueling 200 cars with gas is a hard business case to sell given their return on investment.

Should a parking spot even be the same as a fueling spot? If charging technology can be moved to any parked car in the lot, system owners can reduce the logistical and operational headaches associated with infrastructure investment and can easily upgrade their chargers to meet changing EV requirements. Higher charging utilization will enable new business models for system owners to recoup the cost of their charging stations. For example, if charging demand is seasonal in certain regions, mobile chargers can be shared between sites with complementary demands.

Driving the Collaborative EV Ecosystem

To build an EV ecosystem that won’t break the grid or the bank, private and public entities should collaborate with technology innovators to better meet driver expectations. This holistic approach to the new EV ecosystem includes creating EV access points at workplaces, gas stations, retail locations and public spaces, as well as charging at home when needed.

Across the country, we’re seeing cities and states commit to deploying EV infrastructure, including recent bipartisan support for A.B. 2127 in California. By approaching legislation through the lens of the ecosystem mentality, lawmakers can help avoid the pitfalls of low charger utilization and the logistical nightmare of rotating vehicles from fixed charging stations. These new regulations can shape the way we configure our built environment to incorporate EV charging and incentivize private businesses to offer charging services that improve employee peace of mind or encourage customers to spend more time shopping.

Envision a charging experience where drivers are no longer vying for limited charging spots – a key consideration when purchasing these vehicles in the first place. On the supply side, charging station owners would be able to recover their investment by employing new business models and increasing charger utilization. Options centered around flexibility like mobile EV charging and wireless charging will be part of a paradigm shift that deploys scalable EV charging access points to complement existing charging infrastructure. With more charging access, drivers will become comfortable with switching to an EV and becoming a part of a cleaner, sustainable transportation future.

Article by Arcady Sosinov, originally published in Smart & Resilient Cities.

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