Most Americans Won’t Buy an Electric Car Unless They Get the ‘Gas Station Experience’

If the U.S. wants to win the electric car war, it needs to aggressively build out a charging network

A woman’s car being filled up at a petrol station in 1929.

If you’re the average American, there is one thing you are generally unworried about: finding gasoline. You live within a mile or two of one or more of the country’s 115,000 gas stations. You sleep soundly knowing that as sure as the sun comes up in the morning, even if your car is empty, you can whip into your neighborhood 24-hour gas station, pump your 15 or so gallons in three or four minutes, and be good for the next 400 to 450 miles.

So it has been since the 1880s if you happen to be from Germany, and in the United States since 1905, when the first American purpose-built fueling stop opened at 420 South Theresa Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri. Six years later, the first station arrived in Russia. That is, some five generations of the human race have grown up on the ubiquity and convenience of the carefree fuel-up. In a world where very little can be taken for granted, the full tank has been as near to an entitlement as anything there is.

This is a big problem for the electric car. Over the next three or four years, nearly every major automaker on the planet and not a few startups are releasing electric SUVs, pickups, sedans, vans, and more. And they, industry consultants, and research houses are forecasting that millions of these vehicles will be snapped up as part of a new age of EVs for the masses. But as things stand, these forecasts will be wrong — unless, that is, a dense, highly visible, and convenient network of charging stations materializes to replicate the soothing infrastructure that underpins the combustion economy. And not just any stations, but fast-charging stations. Meaning EV owners need to be able to get in and out in 15 minutes or so. “They want a gas station experience,” Mike Calise, an executive with Tritium, a maker of EV charging equipment, told me last week.

If you look at history, the relative paucity of charging stations should not be a problem — as of now, numbering around 25,000 across the United States, with more than a quarter of them in California. After all, there were some 300,000 gasoline-fueled cars on U.S. roads before that first St. Louis station was built, and people kept buying them anyway. At the start of World War I, just one in 13 American households had a car. By 1920, car ownership had soared to one in three households, and to three in four by the end of the decade. Of course, by then, the infrastructure had caught up, with the availability of some 100,000 gas stations.

Today, companies like Tritium and ChargePoint are building EV charging equipment and installing charging outlets as we speak. Tesla operates about 1,800 stations. But there are a couple levels of reasons why the EV age may evolve quite differently from combustion — and why auto companies and policymakers should be worried.

For starters, EVs are not entering a virgin market. When the Model T and the first Chevys were introduced, the choices were foot, horse, or a newfangled motor vehicle. Naturally, Americans and people around the world flocked to the convenience, relative cleanliness, and pure excitement of cars.

People (and I include myself) generally do not walk into a dealer’s showroom, calculate five years of gasoline savings, then subtract that from the sticker price.

Today, though, the choice is whether to swap one type of vehicle for another. If you are trying to figure out what happens next, you will rightly consider the comparative price. Next, you will consider convenience. People in the EV business argue that consumers are smart and understand that even if they pay more for an EV, they will save money in the long run since they won’t be buying gasoline. The same voices say that consumers also understand that they will do most of their charging at home, so they do not need ubiquitous gas stations.

The people making these arguments are correct as far as the niche green market and wealthy buyers wishing to make a fashion statement. But they don’t understand the mind of the mass consumer: People (and I include myself) generally do not walk into a dealer’s showroom, calculate five years of gasoline savings, then subtract that from the sticker price. They want the EV to cost around the same or less than a conventional car, and when they do, only then will they consider buying.

The second reason is that EVs are not a purely commercial question, but also a geopolitical one. U.S. companies are in a race with China and Europe for who will dominate a potentially massive EV industry. As with the evolution of smartphones, certain models will overshadow the market, and standardization will favor them. The countries where they are built will derive the economic benefit from this triumph in the form of GDP and tens of thousands of jobs.

In terms of charging, China is showing the way. In addition to private EV charging companies, Beijing requires that public utilities erect vehicle charging stations, says Marianne Kah, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Already, China has installed about 566,000 public charging stations across the country; in 2019, it was adding around 1,000 of them a day.

EVs may be coming, but the market appears to have gotten ahead of itself — the industry is in a frothy bubble.

Europe is just behind China. Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson committed the government to spending $1.7 billion by 2030 for building charging infrastructure and said the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles will be banned by 2030. In June, Germany began requiring that all gasoline stations also have EV charging.

In the big picture, EVs may be coming, but the market appears to have gotten ahead of itself — the industry is in a frothy bubble. The Wall Street Journal counts 11 EV startups alone, eight of which have already or are about to list on the public exchanges, and they have raised tens of billions of dollars, though almost none has any revenue. On top of that is Tesla, whose stock price rose about 6.5% yesterday and is up sixfold year to date.

So goes charging. In September, ChargePoint announced a reverse merger that is set to close by the end of the year. The share price of the SPAC holding company with which it is merging, Switchback Energy, spiked by 25% yesterday and has tripled since the deal was announced. Blink, which runs its own network of charging stations, has been public for two years. Its share price soared by 35% yesterday and is up 16-fold this year.

Pasquale Romano, CEO of ChargePoint, told me that he won’t generalize about the industry as a whole, but said, “I don’t think we are frothy. We are a real company.” Whether this is a quotidian bubble or a dangerous one is still to be determined. But the market is communicating what the rest of American industry hasn’t seemed to absorb: The country requires a massive buildup of EV charging capability. “If that’s not exciting for Americans, what is?” Romano said. The build-out, he said, “is making people excited about EVs.”

Calise, the executive from Tritium, said the build-out should begin like the Eisenhower-era highway system, with the construction of EV charging corridors. These would involve the construction of EV charging stations every 10 miles or so along the country’s main highways. From there, spokes can be filled in where people live and work, especially inner cities.

The problem is that they are expensive, requiring the government to get behind them, Calise said. President-elect Joe Biden is proposing that the federal government subsidize the construction of 500,000 charging stations. If Congress approves funding, charging will be accelerated. “You will start to see them at all the gas stations, convenience stores, hotels, ports, stadiums, fleet depots,” Calise said. “The pure gas station is going to be disrupted.”

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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