Sober Heads Argue Against a Rush to Fast EV Charging, but It’s Coming Anyway

Automakers and governments see a strategic and geopolitical necessity

According to one prevailing view of the future, the combustion-rooted landscape to which we have become accustomed over the last century — gasoline stations always at hand if we need them, grouped in threes and fours on some urban corners — will go the way of the buggy whip. Instead, when people are in electric vehicles and running low on juice, this outlook predicts, they won’t scan the horizon for a service station, but will already have charged up at home or work. Of course, if they absolutely must plug in, sockets delivering 20 or so miles of charge in an hour will be virtually everywhere.

That’s not what many automakers and utilities see coming. Citing surveys and their own instincts, they say most people won’t make the shift to EVs at all unless they first see visible, conveniently located fast-charging stations that will pump out a hundred or more miles in a half-hour or less. In other words, the future is more or less a gas station experience.

This conviction-filled debate has so far been fairly affable, even though one side or the other seems to be by definition at risk of overspending billions of dollars in capital investment. Either way, the public looks unlikely to be the loser: We aren’t likely to know who is right until the middle of the decade, and perhaps longer — but by then, whoever prevails, there will be sufficient charging infrastructure for the needs of those who want an EV.

J.D. Power, the market research firm, has data supporting the “roll out fast-charging now” advocates. Stewart Stropp, the firm’s senior director of automotive retail, told me that, in a survey of people intending to buy a new vehicle in the next 12 months, just two of every 10 were contemplating an EV. Of those not considering one, their top reason was charging station availability. Mark Boyadjis, global technology lead for automotive at IHS Markit, described a 2019 survey by his firm with similar results: The top reason people chose not to buy an EV or plug-in hybrid — at 40% — was the time required to charge.

Such data is on the mind of companies like VW, which is in the top rank of automakers most determined to sell EVs. For VW, EVs are an existential question: They are how it intends to recover from its 2014 Dieselgate debacle, and fast-charging is a major part of VW’s religious-like electric fervor: It is building 17,000 fast-charging points in China by 2025, 18,000 in Europe, and 3,500 in the U.S.

One thing that irritates VW is what happens at the charging infrastructure that’s already in place in China. At VW’s Power Day event last week, Xu Peng, the automaker’s director of technological strategy in China, said that Beijing has helped to finance the deployment of some 800,000 charging points across the country — a highly impressive number on paper, compared with about 100,000 in the U.S. Only, almost a third of the Chinese chargers are defective, Xu said, either broken or outdated. Another third can’t be used because they are routinely blocked by people parking their combustion vehicles in the spots. By his calculation, China in effect has only about 300,000 places where EV owners can charge up, some 80% of them delivering electricity at a slow 20 miles of range per hour. As for home charging, VW and most other auto companies provide a home charging box, but many of them are quickly out of service for maintenance and other reasons. “Understandably this creates frustration among customers with a knock-on effect on potential new buyers,” Xu said.

Hence, VW feels its Chinese-based fast-charging infrastructure, which includes a blocking mechanism to keep interlopers from occupying them, is a basic necessity, not an addition to a healthy system.

The other automakers appear to feel the same way: GM is giving away home chargers with the purchase of a vehicle and meanwhile is partnered with EVgo, which has more than 800 fast-charging stations in 34 states. Tesla has built more than 2,000 fast-charging stations around the world with more than 20,000 charging points, most of them in the U.S. Rivian says it’s installing 3,500 fast-chargers at 600 sites across the country by 2023.

Utilities are also building out EV infrastructure. Earlier this month, six Midwest utilities formed what they called the Electric Highway Coalition, with a pledge to build out a fast-charging network across 17 states. Kate Staples, Dominion’s manager of electrification in Virginia, told me that the utility is installing four fast-charging stations this year and providing rebates of up to $108,000 for the construction of 30 more stations by others. “We have received interest from localities, fueling centers, and retail locations, including shopping centers with restaurants,” Staples said in an email.

All this fast-charging matches human behavior as we know it: People are obsessed with convenience, and that means fast service; Amazon, one of the most successful businesses of all time, has after all built much of its retail empire on a reputation for fast service and delivery. But a separate group of observers and analysts suggest this is old thinking: When sufficient numbers of EVs are out there, they argue, people will adapt to a new world in which they are no longer tethered to the gasoline tank buried under asphalt at their corner service station. Instead, they will “fill up” at home, or really anywhere they go, as long as the restaurant, retailer, mall, or doctor’s office has installed EV charging.

“It’s a different fueling model,” said Boyadjis, of IHS Markit. “You don’t drive to your fuel. You fuel where you park. It’s just going to take some learning. You put the charging where they are parking. That’s where we see investment going. Where am I going to be for one to four hours? That’s where I want my charging.”

Tom Wendt, a partner at Bain, the consulting firm, who specializes in tech and the auto industry, suggested that those considering jumping into a charging business should think carefully first. There needs to be a business case for deploying fast chargers, which he said cost $50,000 to $80,000 each. As of now, the business looks very much like a gas station model — to make it work, owners will have to sell other stuff like mobile advertising, coffee, and sandwiches. “You’re not getting to a business case just selling electrons for the next five or 10 years,” he said. The economics are there if you are talking slower-charging, what is known as Level 2, he said. “You can easily build a business case for L2 charging in front of Whole Foods,” Wendt said.

Whether they want one or not, Americans, Europeans, and Chinese are getting the skeleton and some of the flesh on the bones of a fast-charging network. This is because companies and governments see EVs not only as a business but a strategic asset — automakers sense that if they are going to finish on top, they need to make their capital investments now; the Biden Administration, the European Union, and the Chinese regime all see EVs as a geopolitical instrument — a way to occupy the commanding heights of the future economy. Unlike combustion, which formed largely like a primordial force of its own a little over a century ago, EV companies and the countries where they are located are seeking themselves to steer the advantages of this new industry their way.

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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