Electric cars have a road trip problem, even for the secretary of energy
When Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm set out on a four-day electric-vehicle road trip this summer, she knew charging might be a challenge. But she probably didn't expect anyone to call the cops.
Granholm's trip through the southeast, from Charlotte, N.C., to Memphis, Tenn., was intended to draw attention to the billions of dollars the White House is pouring into green energy and clean cars. The administration's ambitious energy agenda, if successful, could significantly cut U.S. emissions and reshape Americans' lives in fundamental ways, including by putting many more people in electric vehicles.
On town hall stops along her road trip, Granholm made a passionate, optimistic case for this transition. She often put up a photo of New York City in 1900, full of horses and carriages, with a single car. Then another slide: "Thirteen years later, same street. All these cars. Can you spot the horse?"
One horse was in the frame.
"Things are happening fast. You are in the center of it. Imagine how big clean energy industries will be in 13 years," she told one audience in South Carolina. "How much stronger our economy is going to grow. How many good-paying jobs we're going to create — and where we are going to lead the world."
Going along for the ride
The auto industry, under immense pressure to tackle its contribution to climate change, is undertaking a remarkable switch to electric vehicles — but it's not necessarily going to be a smooth transition.
I rode along with Granholm during her trip, eager to see firsthand how the White House intends to promote a potentially transformative initiative to the public and what kind of issues it would encounter on the road.
Granholm is in many ways the perfect person to help pitch the United States' ambitious shift to EVs. As a two-term former governor of Michigan, she helped rescue the auto industry during the 2008 global financial crisis, and she's a longtime EV enthusiast. (Her family recently switched from the Chevy Bolt to the Ford Mustang Mach-E.)
That makes her uniquely well positioned to envision the future of the auto industry and to sell the dream of what that future could look like.
But between stops, Granholm's entourage at times had to grapple with the limitations of the present. Like when her caravan of EVs — including a luxury Cadillac Lyriq, a hefty Ford F-150 and an affordable Bolt electric utility vehicle — was planning to fast-charge in Grovetown, a suburb of Augusta, Georgia.
Her advance team realized there weren't going to be enough plugs to go around. One of the station's four chargers was broken, and others were occupied. So an Energy Department staffer tried parking a nonelectric vehicle by one of those working chargers to reserve a spot for the approaching secretary of energy.
That did not go down well: a regular gas-powered car blocking the only free spot for a charger?
In fact, a family that was boxed out — on a sweltering day, with a baby in the vehicle — was so upset they decided to get the authorities involved: They called the police.
The sheriff's office couldn't do anything. It's not illegal for a non-EV to claim a charging spot in Georgia. Energy Department staff scrambled to smooth over the situation, including sending other vehicles to slower chargers, until both the frustrated family and the secretary had room to charge.
Getting it together
John Ryan, a driver of an electric BMW, pulled up after everything was settled. It was his turn to wait.
"It's just par for the course," he shrugged. "They'll get it together at some point."
I drive an electric vehicle myself, and I've test-driven many more as NPR's auto reporter. I know how easy it can be to charge when everything goes well and how annoying it can be when things go poorly.
Riding along with Granholm, I came away with a major takeaway: EVs that aren't Teslas have a road trip problem, and the White House knows it's urgent to solve this issue.
Solving the road trip problem
The road trip has long loomed large in the American automotive imagination.
Road trips are a tiny fraction of the trips Americans take; drivers mostly commute or drive around town. And at home, charging an EV is much easier (not to mention cheaper) than fueling up with gasoline; you just plug in overnight, and you're good to go every morning.
On a practical basis, making sure everyone can charge at home would seem much more important than building road trip chargers. And this is a real concern for some drivers.
But for many drivers, it's not charging at home that worries them: It's what they'll do on the road.
According to the auto-data giant J.D. Power, worries about public chargers are the No. 1 reason why would-be EV buyers are reluctant to make the switch, even outranking concerns about high prices. And driver satisfaction with public chargers is getting worse, not better.
Tesla chargers are significantly better than the competition, and most of the electric vehicles in the U.S. are Teslas.
Tesla is opening up its exclusive network to more vehicles, which could transform the charging experience as soon as next year, but not all automakers have embraced Tesla's technology. And although Tesla dominates the EV market, the Biden administration wants every automaker to go electric quickly and every driver to have access to fast, reliable charging.
"Ultimately, we want to make it super-easy for people to travel long distances," Granholm told me.
But as she knows, long-distance travel in non-Tesla EVs is not always "super-easy" today.
Problem 1: Planning is cumbersome
The secretary's trip had been painstakingly mapped out ahead of time to allow for charging. We stopped at hotels with slower "Level 2" plugs for overnight charging and then paused at superfast chargers between cities.
That required upfront work that a gas-powered road trip simply doesn't require. My car can hypothetically locate a nearby charger on the road — as with many EVs, that feature is built into an app on the car's infotainment screen — so I shouldn't have to plan ahead. But in reality, I use multiple apps to find chargers, read reviews to make sure they work and plot out convenient locations for a 30-minute pit stop (a charger by a restaurant, for instance, instead of one located at a car dealership).
At a stop in South Carolina, Granholm told audiences she recognized the importance of making chargers easy to find on apps.
For chargers to qualify for new federal money, the energy secretary explained, "they have to be every 50 miles and within 1 mile off the charging corridor, and they have to be app enabled. So you have to be able to see with your phone, is this charger available so that I can go use it, right?"
Problem 2: Not enough chargers
One reason road trips take so much planning: Some parts of the U.S., including much of the southeast, simply don't have many high-speed chargers, also called DC fast chargers.
I happen to live on the edge of a charging desert. In my Virginia hometown, there are no DC fast chargers except for a Tesla Supercharger station, which I can't use ... yet. That's not a problem, since I charge at home. Much more problematic is that if I want to drive through West Virginia, I can access only 11 fast chargers in the entire state. That's actually progress; three weeks ago, there were only eight.
Where chargers are in short supply, drivers sometimes have to wait — like Granholm's team did in Grovetown, Georgia. The experience could get even worse as the number of electric vehicles on the road increases in coming years.
"Clearly, we need more high-speed chargers, particularly in the South," Granholm told me at the end of her trip.
She emphasized the $7.5 billion investment that the Biden administration is making in building more public chargers — money that's currently being distributed to states.
"By the end of this year, I think we'll start to see [those chargers] popping up along the charging corridors," she said.
Problem 3: Not fast enough
There was another DC charging station about a 10-minute drive from that stop in Grovetown. But that station's chargers were nowhere near as fast. In fact, aside from chargers reserved for Teslas and one charging station just for Rivians, it was more than an hour's drive to the next actually-fast fast charger.
And that brings us to the next problem with America's fast charger network: It's too slow.
When DC fast chargers were first built, 50 kilowatts (a measure of charging speed) was considered speedy. Times have changed. Many newer vehicles can charge at least three times faster than that. But those older chargers remain on roads, making up a sizable chunk of the country's fast-charging infrastructure.
That doesn't matter much for cheaper vehicles that can't charge very fast anyway, like my Bolt. But for newer, faster-charging vehicles, especially big ones with giant batteries, it could be the difference between waiting 20 minutes to charge — or waiting an hour.
This problem is easing over time. Most new chargers are on the faster end of the spectrum, and the federal incentives are available only for chargers that are 150 kilowatts or faster.
Problem 4: Not reliable enough
Of course, having a superfast charger doesn't do you any good if the dang thing doesn't work.
On the secretary's road trip, that stop in Grovetown included a charger with a dead black screen. At another stop in Tennessee, the Chevy Bolt that I was riding in charged at one-third the rate it should have. Electrify America says that's not an isolated problem; a faulty component has caused a number of chargers to be "derated" while the company works on a fix.
Companies like Electrify America — funded by Volkswagen as part of its penalty for the Dieselgate scandal — are among the private players that have helped build out America's current charging infrastructure. But reliability is proving to be an issue.
J.D. Power found that when non-Tesla drivers pull up at a charging station, they leave without charging 20% of the time, because the chargers were either all busy or not functioning.
The federal government has responded with a new requirement: Highway chargers that get federal funds will have to prove they're operational at least 97% of the time.
The good news: Charging can be great
Despite overcrowding, broken chargers and slow speeds, charging on the road worked most of the time for Granholm's team.
"I think two days in, I would totally buy an EV," an Energy Department staffer who was driving an EV for the first time mused halfway through the trip. "Like, it would be pretty easy to do a road trip. You have to stop for lunch anyway, so you stop, charge, keep going."
Road trip charging can be cheap too. Granholm's 770-mile trip cost one of the Energy Department's drivers just $35 total, less than half of what gasoline would have run in a similar vehicle.
On a more basic level, Granholm's team was ultimately able to charge in every town it stopped at. There was no risk of being stranded, which was the fear of very early adopters of EVs, back before public chargers were available.
And if you have a garage, a driveway or EV chargers at your workplace, day-to-day charging is even easier. Personally, I plug my Bolt into a standard outlet when I'm home and into a Level 2 charger at NPR's headquarters when I'm in Washington, D.C. I don't sit around and wait for it to charge; I just go about my life. And when I'm ready to go, so is the car.
That's not "just as easy" as filling up a gas-powered car. It's significantly easier.
Tesla's super Superchargers
And then, of course, there are the Tesla chargers, which simply work better than the other chargers out there.
J.D. Power has found that Tesla drivers successfully charge at 96% of the Superchargers they visit.
Tesla invested in chargers as a way to sell cars, building fast, reliable charging stations where people would want them, regardless of whether the chargers could individually be profitable.
Tesla also defied the rest of the auto industry in using its own charging technology rather than the carefully negotiated industrywide standard.
Opening up the walled garden
The strategy paid off. For years, Tesla kept its network of Superchargers as a walled garden. Tesla drivers raved about them, but no one else could use them.
That started to change this year when Tesla struck a deal with the White House to open some chargers to the general public. And the walled garden blew wide open after Ford announced it was adopting Tesla's charging technology. Future Fords will come with the Tesla-style plug, and starting in January, existing-Ford owners can buy an adapter and plug in.
The idea was born — where else? — on a road trip.
Ford CEO Jim Farley recently told NPR he was driving with his kids on a family vacation, past a huge, conveniently located Tesla Supercharger station. His kids wondered why Farley, who was driving a Mustang Mach-E, couldn't just stop there to charge.
Farley explained that they couldn't because those were Tesla chargers.
When he explained why they couldn't charge there, his kids were blunt, as he recalled to NPR in an interview in August: "'Well, that's stupid. They have, like, a lot of free open spots there.'"
And the idea for the Tesla deal was born.
Other private sector solutions
Ford's announcement kicked off an astonishing shift. In the weeks after, General Motors, Rivian, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan all announced that they too were adopting Tesla's technology. This means that as soon as next year, the EV road trip experience could be dramatically different for non-Tesla drivers.
And then, in a separate surprise move this summer, seven legacy automakers — BMW, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis (formerly known as Fiat Chrysler) — announced they were banding together in a joint venture to launch a new, as-yet-unnamed, charging network.
They plan to build 30,000 superfast 350-kilowatt chargers — even bigger and faster than the Supercharger network.
Meanwhile, existing companies like ChargePoint are clearly feeling pressure to fix their unreliable and underperforming chargers. ChargePoint just announced it's spending millions of dollars on a new operations center and other programs meant to "deliver near-100% charging reliability."
The road to the future
Those private-led efforts — as well as the muscle and money provided by the government — could prove a game changer.
"The private sector has stepped up," Granholm told me toward the end of her road trip. The response to federal incentives has been, as she put it, "a blockbuster."
Granholm has long been an energetic and optimistic pitchwoman for the electric vehicle future, even before her current position.
On her road trip this summer, she made the case again and again that switching to green energy and clean cars will save money, create jobs and promote national security, on top of being a crucial component in the plan to fight climate change.
"If you're not persuaded by climate change or you think it's not happening, well, you should be persuaded by lowering the costs," she told me.
And as Granholm knows, the cars themselves can be persuasive. Stop me if you've heard this from an EV driver before — but a quiet, speedy vehicle that never needs an oil change is just plain nice to drive, charging headaches and all.
Or ask Holmesetta Green. I met her when she was sitting on a curb in the back corner of a Walmart parking lot, parked right next to Granholm, waiting for her Volkswagen ID.4 to charge.
Green, a 79-year-old retired teacher, frequently makes the six-hour drive from her home in Louisville, Ky., to her hometown in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
It was hot that day. Hot hot. "You ever fried an egg on a sidewalk?" Green asked me. She wished out loud for a charging station in a park, with a bench in the shade.
I asked her how she likes her SUV. And her answer summed up the anxieties and the hopes of both the Biden administration and the auto industry at large.
"It's not enough chargers over on the major highways," she said. And charging is "kind of slow."
"Other than that, I wouldn't take $100,000 for this car," she said, smiling ear to ear. "We love it. We love the electric."
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