Petition Asks the Impossible: EV Quick Chargers Every 50 Miles

By · August 07, 2013

Highway at night

On July 23, Ryan Mackenzie, a 29-year-old EV enthusiast from San Antonio, started on an online petition on the official White House website calling on the Obama Administration to install EV Quick Charge stations every 50 miles along the nation’s highways.

In the first few days, the petition garnered about three or four signatures a day. But in August, the pace picked up—to 60 or more new signatures a day. With fewer than 600 names currently on the petition, the pace will need to dramatically accelerate to reach the goal of 100,000 names by August 22. That’s how many signatures are required by the deadline, to prompt a response from the Obama administration.

The idea is bold: by installing EV Quick Chargers every 50 miles or so, cars like the Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Spark EV become capable of covering hundreds of miles in a single day. While the vision of a gas-free utopian future sounds compelling, the concept is impractical and somewhat distracting from what could be done to assist EV drivers.

Nuts and Bolts

Let’s assume that there will be a charger every 50 miles—without a single gap along the entire Interstate network in the United States. We would have nearly 1,000 DC Quick Charging stations dotted on the landscape.

But as EV drivers in the Pacific Northwest or Europe will tell you, placing a string of single isolated Quick Chargers across vast distances are effective only when there isn’t a single problem along a route. If there’s only one Quick Charger every 50 miles, driving long-distance in an EV becomes a game of Russian roulette: one charger failure can add hours—or even days—to a trip. It’s too risky.

To be truly reliable, Quick Chargers would have to be grouped in multiples, increasing installation and maintenance costs. Charging sites might need to be closer than 50 miles, where demand is high or conditions are difficult (like steep mountain passes in winter).

The idea of electrifying Interstate Highways isn’t new: I-5—nicknamed the “electric highway”—already has enough Quick Charger locations along its length to make it possible to drive in a matter of days from the Canadian border, through Washington and Oregon, and into northern California. But electrifying the northern part of I-5—which passes through the relatively densely populated western cities of western Washington and Oregon—is completely different than electrifying remote parts of the Interstate network. Imagine trying to electrify I-80 in Utah, where there’s a gap of up to 80 miles between gas stations and barely anything in between. Which EV drivers would brave that trip, especially at night?

In short, it's not possible or practical to electrify every stretch of Interstate in the U.S. at the current time, with the current generation of charging stations and mainstream electric cars.

Tesla Is Exceptional

On the other hand, Tesla Motors is already working on its Supercharger network that follows Interstates across the U.S. It’s expected to be nationwide by 2015. Each Supercharger site, according to reports, costs Tesla between $100,000 and $175,000 to install, depending on the location and equipment. The funds come directly from car sales; and the Superchargers help sell more cars. Every Tesla customer gets free use of the Superchargers for the lifetime of ownership.

If Tesla can do it, why not the U.S. Government? In a word: range. Unlike the Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi i—which requires Quick Charging every 50 miles at freeway speeds, even the base-model 60 kWh Tesla Model S travels three times that distance at freeway speeds, meaning fewer supercharger stations are needed to cover the entire U.S. Interstate system.

One Day, But Not Yet

About 95 percent of all daily trips can be made in electric cars like the Nissan LEAF or Mitsubishi i—without a need for a Quick Charger. So, why build a network of rapid charge stations across the entire U.S., to enable today’s electric cars to do something that they were not designed to do?

That doesn’t mean to scrap the plan in its entirety. For example, how about providing Quick Chargers along major corridors between big cities, especially if all that is needed to get from city A to city B is one or two Quick Chargers along the way? The key is to be smart and strategic—not comprehensive.

By all means, sign the petition if you believe it will bring more attention to the need for more electric car charging infrastructure. But until electric cars can travel 150 or more miles after a 15 or 20 minute Quick Charge, a nationwide EV highway network doesn’t make sense.

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