Electric vehicle sales have been disappointing. Renault-Nissan, which makes the best-selling Leaf, says the battery-only market is traveling four or five years behind expectations. Although BMW and VW released models recently, pure-play EVs (i.e. those without backup gasoline tanks) haven’t really gotten out of parking mode.
The reason? Relatively expensive cars, batteries with limited range, and, especially, a lack of workable charging infrastructure. At the moment, most public charging stations are Level 2, which give only 10 to 20 miles extra range per hour of charging time. That’s not convenient if you want to drive from Boston to Tulsa.
Even people who’ve bought EVs aren’t using them for long distances, according to a new survey of 3,700 plug-in owners. Most see their EVs as runarounds, not something to take across state-line: Among respondents, the average longest trip was only 93 miles, and that includes owners of “long-range” (186 miles-plus) vehicles, like the Tesla Model S. “They never stray too far from home because it’s just not practical to stop at a slow Level 2 charging station and plug in for 4+ hours, mid journey,” says the report from PlugInsights, a new research firm. “Until fast chargers can bridge the gap between distant points, the appeal of these vehicles to a broader audience will be limited.”
Fast charging stations recharge batteries to an 80% level within 20 to 30 minutes. But there are only 405 of them in the U.S at the moment, compared to 12,000 level 2 locations. Tesla is building out its “supercharger” network, but other manufacturers haven’t committed in the same way.
“Bottom line: the state of the public charging infrastructure is as important to the value and utility of BEV automakers’ end-product as any engineering feature their vehicles may have,” says the report, suggesting other EV-makers need to follow Tesla’s lead.
More than four-fifths of charging (81%) takes place at home, according to the survey. Though 80% of drivers have used public stations in the last six months, 17% of respondents said they’d never used a public charging station. In an email, PlugInsights’s managing director Norman Hajjar wrote that many EV owners are “bugged” by crowding at stations, and by pricing. A large minority has encountered damaged equipment, which has turned them off.
Analysts have said things could get worse for EVs if the market doesn’t pick up soon. That’s because alternatives like hydrogen-powered cars are coming on the market, and EVs are set to lose their priority-status in terms of getting government incentives.
“If the incentives dry up, or become less attractive, it could slow progress, unless something else emerges to spur adoption,” Haijar says. “That ‘something else’ in our minds is a charging infrastructure that increases the value of the vehicle.”