Would you willingly spend 30 minutes in a deserted parking lot at 11:30 p.m.? Advise your child or loved one to do it?
Probably not, but electric vehicle owners frequently face that prospect when they need to charge a vehicle away from home.
It’s not uncommon for smartphone apps to send drivers to “public” EV chargers in the back lot of a closed car dealership, an empty corner of a big-box store parking lot, or otherwise tucked out of sight.
“These are less than natural places for people to want to stop on a long drive,” said Gabe Shenhar, Consumer Reports associate director of automotive testing.
Early in the current wave of EV adoption, one charger was in such a daunting spot that some women involved in the project called it “the rape charger” because the location felt so unsafe. The charger was eventually moved, but that spotlights problems that continue today:
- EV chargers are frequently in neglected, backlot spaces to save money connecting them to the main utility lines.
- As with many projects, women don’t have enough input on where the chargers should go.
“Visibility and safety are the table stakes,” EV advocate Chelsea Sexton said. “Nobody’s going to use a charger that doesn’t feel safe. Lighting, amenities, restrooms, things to do while you wait are important.”
Important, but rare.
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There are several reasons why that is. Most EV owners do the majority of charging overnight at home. That means many public chargers don’t get a lot of use. It’s hard to make them profitable if they’re used only a few hours a day, but it’s also hard to convince drivers to buy more EVs if they can’t find convenient, safe public charging when they need it, especially on long highway drives.
Planning a long drive on interstate highways recently, I found multiple instances where the only DC fast chargers available were in the lots of dealers that would certainly be deserted, and possibly closed, when I reached them at night.
“Grid-tied chargers are generally placed as close as possible to available power to reduce the cost of extending circuits” with trenches and wiring, said Desmond Wheatley, CEO of Beam Global, which makes solar power chargers that can be put anywhere. “Hence, many chargers are found at the back of the supermarket where the dumpsters are and where the power comes into the building.
“Early adopters of EVs will put up with this but mass consumers will not.”
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Superchargers, the network of proprietary DC fast chargers Tesla built for its customers, “tend to be in busy, well-lit areas,” Shenhar said. Other chargers, most operated by companies that get income solely from the electricity they sell, “tend to be in strip malls that are OK in the day, less so at night,” he said. “They’re not well lit, empty, have few services available. Women expressed concerns about safety.”
This issue will only grow as more EVs hit the road.
“While the majority of charging will occur at homes and places of business, there must also be reliable options for public charging,” Nicole Antakli, Charge Enterprises chief business officer, said. “Every consumer must feel comfortable when charging their vehicle; this should include the ease of the charging hardware mechanics connecting to the vehicle, payment accessibility, exceptional visibility, effective lighting and surveillance of the chargers.”
Volta Charging places advertising-supported chargers in highly visible places in front of destinations for shopping, entertainment and dining. Its thousands of chargers across the U.S. are recognizable because they’re smack in front of popular businesses and have video screens and speakers selling high-end services and goods.
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“It’s a triple win,” said Quin Garcia, managing director of Autotech Ventures, an investor in Volta. “It’s free to the customer, the advertisers get exposure, and the business gets an amenity smack in front of their door.” Volta can afford to run high-voltage lines to its street-side chargers because it gets advertising revenue on top of what they make from selling electricity.
Charging companies and automakers both have a role to play in ensuring charging is easy and secure.
General Motors has an opportunity to make a major impact with the 40,000 public chargers it’s promised to install across the U.S., and thousands more at its dealers. GM’s recently announced $750 million program to expand public, work and home charging will succeed only if the stations are easy to find and people are comfortable using them, day or night.