While driving through the midwest for his yearly summer road trip, Brad Campbell noticed he was not the only electric vehicle driver at the charging stations along the way — far from it.
Campbell, a computer science professor who has made the more than 1,000-mile round trip from Virginia to Michigan nearly every year since 2018, said he never ran into other EV drivers at charging stations during his first few trips. But in recent years, charging alone has become a rare occurrence.
In fact, the 34-year-old has started avoiding some spots because they are too popular, such as a station by two highways just north of Pittsburgh that draws Walmart delivery drivers, travellers and local residents.
While there has been a noticeable uptick in EV drivers since the coronavirus pandemic, Campbell has not seen a proportional increase in the number of fast-charging stations, where drivers can replenish their car battery in roughly 30 minutes.
Road trips in an EV today are “definitely doable”, he said. But, “it would be way easier if there were more options”.
Driving thousands of miles across state lines is not a necessity for most electric vehicle drivers, but Campbell’s experience encapsulates the current state of EVs in the US: enough progress has been made that such trips are possible for a limited number of drivers, but reaching more mainstream adoption will require a dramatic expansion of public infrastructure.
If the rollout of EV charging ports fails to keep pace with the expected growth in sales of the vehicles, the resulting bottleneck could slow the future of EV adoption in the US and their role in reducing emissions in a rapidly warming world.
Over the past few years, EV sales have increased sharply in the US. While it took nearly eight years to hit 1mn in battery-powered vehicles sold, it took less than three years to cross the 2mn mark, and less than a year to go from 3mn to 4mn at the end of June.
EV charging infrastructure, on the other hand, has not grown as quickly. It will need to in order to meet demanding targets set by the Biden administration, which has called for half of all new passenger car sales to be zero-emission vehicles or those that do not emit exhaust by 2030.
Forecasts on the number of chargers needed to support the expected increase in EVs vary, but the White House has called for 500,000 public chargers, including at workplaces and along highways. Currently, there are nearly 150,000 public chargers in the US, according to the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center.
While chargers and EVs have developed in tandem in some states, places with higher EV adoption are “already playing catch-up”, said Ian McIlravey, an analyst at S&P Global Mobility. Over the next few years, the gap between EV chargers and EVs is “at risk of widening”, he said.
Bridging that gap will be a daunting task, as the industry grapples with issues ranging from charger unreliability to an uncertain business model, and in some places an insufficient electric grid. The nature of charging also means that station builders sometimes must consider building amenities such as restrooms and WiFi for drivers waiting for charges.
Unlike fuelling a gas-powered vehicle, fast-charging a depleted car battery can take between 20 minutes and an hour, according to the Department of Transportation. Slower charging ports, which deliver less power, can take between four and 10 hours, which is why they are often located at places such as hotels and private homes to facilitate overnight charging.
Electric vehicle charging companies have to be “willing to take a loss initially to develop the network and then hope the EVs show up”, said Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst at Guidehouse Insights. “It’s a classic chicken and egg problem.”
The growing need to provide more charging locations has pushed competing automakers to partner up and build infrastructure. An increasing number of companies, including Ford, GM and Volvo, are also adopting Tesla’s charging connector design, which will enable other carmakers to gain access to part of its extensive charging network. Tesla has pledged to open at least 7,500 of its chargers to all EVs by the end of 2024.
But one of the greatest challenges to expanding EV connectivity across the US will be rural areas and places with low levels of EV adoption, which make up large swaths of the country. Road-trippers aspiring to complete the “Grand Circle”, for instance, a classic route that passes by the Grand Canyon and other famous landmarks in the south-west, have to prepare for long stretches without a charger — as long as 200 miles in one part of the circuit.
Roadtripping across the grid
EV drivers who do not own a Tesla are at a greater disadvantage when driving through regions where charging is more sparse. Campbell, the professor who drove to Michigan, said he began planning a trip to Kentucky but eventually scrapped his plans after realising he couldn’t “reasonably” drive through West Virginia.
Tesla’s fast-charging ports at Supercharger stations make up more than 60 per cent of all fast-charging ports in the US, according to official data.
Patchy EV charging access is something the Biden administration is hoping to ameliorate with the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program, which aims to build at least one fast-charging station every 50 miles near designated highways stretching from the west coast to the north-eastern tip of the US.
In 2021 as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the federal government allocated $5bn in funding to help states build, maintain and operate chargers in the NEVI network. An additional $2.5bn in grants is available in part to support rural charging and improve EV charging access.
Previously, there was not dedicated federal funding to build EV charging along the designated highways, which hindered progress, said Nick Nigro, founder of Atlas Public Policy, calling the NEVI funding a “great downpayment” on national infrastructure. However, hitting 495,000 chargers by 2030 will require $39bn of investment, per Atlas.
Every state — even those with few EV owners — has applied for NEVI funding. But the NEVI initiative has hit some resistance in Wyoming, which in its funding proposal criticised NEVI requirements to build stations every 50 miles, citing among other issues the challenge of operating isolated stations in sparsely populated places.
In West Virginia, where about half of the population lives in rural areas, remote places may need utility upgrades and enhanced cell coverage. In North Dakota, which borders Canada, cold winters and hot summers can affect battery range. There, local EV adoption is also extremely low at less than 1 per cent of total vehicle registrations, according S&P Global Mobility.
Still, there are already some glimpses today of what a future of fully functional EV charging might look like.
Anshul Gupta, 56, who drove up the west coast from California to Washington in a rented Tesla last month, said he did not have to change course or lose time waiting for his car to charge, thanks to well-placed Tesla charging stations that were fast, reliable and near restaurants.
During a 2021 road trip to Niagara Falls, Gupta, who owns an electric Hyundai Kona, was forced to plan his whole journey around the availability and locations of charging stations. This time it was “completely the other way around”.
“Nothing changed because I was driving an EV,” said Gupta, a policy analyst at non-profit New Yorkers for Clean Power. “That was the goal I had set out to test.”