Overcoming The Charging Factor

I don’t own an electric car, although I haven’t ruled out the idea that, at some point in the future, we might buy one rather than another gas guzzler. One reason we haven’t done it already is a lingering concern about the ease of charging up the car’s battery.

That shouldn’t be a problem in most cases, because a homeowner can install a charging unit that should keep the car charged to the point of being able to handle the standard, daily, in-town driving that is the bread-and-butter use of many American cars. No, the real question is: how do electric vehicles do on road trips? If, like me, you like driving long distances every once in a while, can you find charging stations that allow you to do so without significant hassle–which would defeat the basic concept of a carefree road trip?

Recently I’ve run across several articles that suggest that there are problems with long-distance driving in an electric car. One article on arstechnica.com made that point with the pungent headline “Electric cars are doomed if fast charger reliability doesn’t get better.” The Wall Street Journal published a story (behind the subscriber pay wall) with the descriptive headline “I Rented an Electric Car for a Four-Day Road Trip. I Spent More Time Charging It Than I Did Sleeping.” And Autoweek chipped in with a piece called “The EV Charging Industry Has A Maintenance Problem” that noted that while most electric vehicle owners love their cars, their anecdotal stories note that fast-charging stations are often operating at suboptimal capacity or are out of order altogether.

The arstechnica.com article gives one writer’s tale about the frustrations involved in driving cross-country in an electric vehicle. Electric vehicle owners seem to generally concede that such trips need careful planning, because fast-charging stations simply aren’t as ubiquitous as gas stations. But this article notes that, even with planning and use of apps to locate such stations along the intended route, a basic road trip from Washington, D.C. to upstate New York was replete with charging problems, in terms of simple delays, issues with getting a “fill ‘er up” charge, non-functional chargers, and other annoyances. And the writer also found that careful planning was thwarted because the electric-charging apps often don’t have accurate information about the actual, functional capability of fast-charging stations.

These kinds of stories are an alien concept for owners of gas-powered vehicles, who don’t have to consult apps or worry about finding functional gas pumps on a long-distance journey. You just hope in your car and go, confident that you can find an ample supply of gas stations wherever your journey might take you. And the apparently standard delays in charging an electric vehicle–the five- and ten-minute waits while the vehicle establishes communications with the charging unit–would drive many road-tripping drivers nuts.

This problem isn’t fatal for the electric vehicle industry, in my view. When cars first were used, there weren’t gas stations on every corner, and yet automobiles still gained a foothold, and as more and more families bought cars gas stations became available from sea to shining sea. The same will happen with electric cars . . . at some point, when some entrepreneur believes there is enough demand for charging stations to justify the investment needed to make reliable fast-charging stations a widespread, no-hassle experience.

Until then, however, it sounds like you might want to keep that gas guzzler around for those road trips.

The Demise Of The Internal Combustion Engine Is (Probably) Greatly Exaggerated

Volvo has announced that it plans to phase out production of automobiles powered by the internal combustion engine.  After 2019, all Volvo car models will be either fully electric or hybrids, and the company has set a goal of selling one million electric or hybrid cars by 2025.

This week, too, Tesla begins production of its electric-powered family car.  And, as the article linked above notes, all of the major car companies are looking ahead to the point where people are routinely buying electric vehicles, and to the “tipping point” at which some electric vehicles are actually cheaper than their conventionally powered competitors.

cq5dam-web-768-768Are we witnessing the end of the internal combustion engine — the hardy invention that, in some form or another, has powered personal transportation in America, and the world, for more than 100 years?

Not so fast!

There’s no doubt that electric cars, and especially hybrids, are gaining in popularity, but I think we’re still a long way off from the day when quietly purring electric vehicles dominate American streets.  For one thing, we don’t seem to have the infrastructure to support substantial use of electric cars, especially for long-distance trips — I haven’t noticed charging stations opening up on busy intersections to compete with those ever-present gas stations, at least not yet — and as the article notes, electric cars remain an expensive proposition.  And there’s also the fact that a substantial sliver of the American population, typically male, really likes the power and sound and thrumming feel of cars powered by internal combustion engines.  “Performance” cars seem to be extremely popular these days, as do grossly oversized and overpowered pickup trucks, and we’re still getting the annual stories about how cheap, or how expensive, gasoline is on the Fourth of July.  Those reports suggest that while we definitely seem to be inching toward a world of more electric-powered vehicles, we shouldn’t be shoveling dirt on the internal combustion engine just yet.

Statehouse Jolt

The other day I was walking past the Ohio Statehouse when I noticed a sign that I’d never noticed before — the green one, down there below the blue parking signs, that says “Electric Vehicle Charging Station.”

When I was a kid my mother often said “you learn something new every day,” and she was right.  I had no idea that the Ohio Statehouse had a charging station.

IMG_3391In fact, the Statehouse has six charging stations in its underground garage.  They were built and unveiled in 2011, at a total cost of $35,770.  No state funds were used; instead, the stations were built through grants from Clean Fuels Ohio and the U.S. Department of Energy and contributions from Honda of America, General Motors, Eaton Corporation, and Professional Supply, Inc.  Anyone using the stations pays 50 cents an hour for the electricity they draw, and the stations are supposed to be able to take an electric car battery from zero to full in six to eight hours.

I’m sure that there are electric cars in Columbus, but I don’t think there are very many.  I found myself wondering how often those six charging stations are used, and whether all six have ever been used at the same time.  I looked a report on the internet about usage of the stations, or how much has been paid for electricity, but I was unable to find anything.

Is the usage of the charging stations meeting the expectations that existed when they were announced, with some fanfare, three years ago?  I doubt it.  I wonder how many “green” initiatives end up not really panning out or producing the hoped-for results.  In the meantime, that little green sign looks kind of bent and lonely, doesn’t it?