Given the tremendous potential benefit of electric vehicle technology—that is, to provide the public with personal transportation that doesn’t involve oil—the federal government and others have sought to understand what’s holding electric vehicles back. Are they too expensive? Do consumers simply not understand them? Is it the lack of public charging stations? Are car dealerships simply not interested in selling them?
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has just released a report that seeks to answer these questions. The report is full of useful information about the current state of the EV market, and includes a comprehensive suite of policy recommendations. But the single most important recommendation and finding is this: Buying electric “fuel” from a public charging station should be as simple as filling a car at a gas station.
An issue of competing networks
The recommendation is not necessarily a comment on the number of charging stations currently available; while they are not as common as gas stations, there are tens of thousands of chargers nationwide. Rather, the recommendation speaks to the current, convoluted network of chargers—and access to them. Right now, the nascent electric vehicle market is experiencing a proliferation of types of vehicles, which is good for EV buyers, but also types of chargers and distinct charging networks, which is bad for EV drivers.
Drivers of gasoline cars take for granted that they can pull up to any gas station and know their car can be refueled, with their preferred method of payment accepted.
Drivers of gasoline cars take for granted that they can pull up to any gas station and know their car can be refueled, with their preferred method of payment accepted. Not so for drivers of electric vehicles. Depending on the kind of vehicle they purchased and their purchase contract, there may be no way for them to access any given charging station. Tesla vehicles are serviced by a proprietary charging network, and use a specific charging adapter/plug. DC fast chargers are not compatible with plug-in hybrids. Further complicating matters, some proprietary charging networks require a membership agreement to use, and are not necessarily available to a non-member, no matter how urgently they might need a charge.
Not all chargers are created equal
NAS groups plug-in vehicles into four categories. The first is long-range battery electric vehicles (BEVs), such as the Tesla Model S. The second is plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) with moderate electric range supplemented by gasoline backup, such as the Chevy Volt. The third is standard battery electric vehicles with roughly 100 miles of range, such as the Nissan LEAF, which NAS identifies as unsuitable for long journeys but more than adequate to meet the daily driving and commuting needs of most of the population. Finally, the fourth category includes plug-in hybrids with short electric ranges lower than the average American’s driving requirements (e.g., the Toyota Prius Plug-In), which NAS identifies as “essentially conventional hybrid vehicles.”
Home charging is seen as a virtual necessity with respect to all four types of vehicles, and workplace charging is almost always a helpful addition. For owners of both long- and mid-range electric vehicles (types 1 and 3), workplace charging increases consumer confidence and vehicle utility. For owners of mid and short-range PHEVs (types 2 and 4), it increases the number of electric miles they can reasonably travel, and thus the cost effectiveness of purchasing those cars.
In contrast to home and workplace chargers, which are almost indispensable, most kinds of fast chargers only benefit one or two of the four types of vehicle owners. For example, intra-city DC fast chargers only benefit the drivers of mid-range BEVs, since these chargers are not generally needed by owners of long-range BEVs, and plug-in hybrid vehicles are not equipped for fast charging. Meanwhile, the presence of interstate DC fast chargers is only applicable towards long-range BEVs, because mid-range BEVs are generally not capable of making such long trips in the first place. And again, both types of PHEVs are not equipped.
These findings contradict the belief that the solution to “range anxiety” is the proliferation of fast-charge stations.
The implications of this reality are significant. These findings contradict the widespread belief that the solution to “range anxiety” is the proliferation of fast-charge stations. Instead, it shows that fast chargers sometimes only benefit one of four types of vehicles—and possibly even less if they are part of a proprietary charging system.
Enabling the market
In NAS’s report, which covers the government’s role in supporting vehicle electrification, there’s abundant discussion about tax incentives, state-based zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandates, and similar proposals. In an era of hyper-partisanship, such policy measures are frequently controversial.
Without spending taxpayer dollars or imposing sales mandates, government can completely transform the EV ecosystem.
Nevertheless, without spending taxpayer dollars or imposing sales mandates, government can completely transform the EV ecosystem. It can do so by encouraging or requiring compatibility across platforms so that plug-in vehicles of all types can be “fueled” at any charging station, making it as easy and accessible as filling a conventional car with gas. As the report suggests, this common-sense measure could ultimately be a game changer for a young yet important industry.
The full suite of NAS’s policy recommendations are below:
- NAS identifies the large number of competing charging infrastructure providers as a legitimate obstacle for drivers of plug-in electric vehicles, and argues that access to public charging should be straightforward. The federal government and proactive states should use their incentives and regulatory powers to eliminate the proliferation of different plugs and communication protocols for DC fast chargers, and ensure all PEV drivers can charge their vehicles and pay at all public charging stations using a universally accepted payment method.
- The NAS recognizes that consumers are generally misinformed about electric vehicles, and while motorists typically turn to automotive dealerships for information about potential purchases, many vendors are ill-equipped to address consumer questions and concerns. NAS recommends that the federal government use its Ad Council program to provide accurate information about federal tax credits, the total cost of ownership, and functionality of electric vehicles.
- Regarding purchase incentives, the federal government should extend the tax credit beyond the current production limits, as manufacturers and consumers continue to learn more about the technology. This should only be reevaluated after five years have passed, to create clear and stable conditions for the marketplace. NAS also recommends that the federal government consider changing the incentive structure from a tax credit to a point-of-sale rebate to increase the appeal to consumers.
- More research is needed to support automotive batteries and the public charging sites that are needed to properly supplement home and workplace charging. NAS recommends the federal government provide stable funding for research for both.
- Plug-in vehicles should remain exempt from any special roadway or registration surcharges in the near to medium term at both the state and federal level.
- Local governments should actively encourage workplace charging and consider investments in public charging infrastructure.
- Increased EV adoption should accelerate in tandem with more electricity production from low-carbon sources.
- The federal government should fund a comprehensive review of the various non-financial state purchase incentives, such as free access to HOV lanes, to determine the impact of these policies on promoting plug-in vehicles.