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An Electric Car Charger On Every Corner?

Electric car charges may never be as ubiquitous as gas stations, but they might not have to be.

Just as airplanes changed American’s driving habits, the all-electric car is changing how people think about driving.

Few people drive across the country, and for those who drive across a state where electric vehicles are popular — such as driving up and down California — there are enough chargers to make the trip for a driver who plans ahead and has time for charging stops of 20 minutes or more instead of the five minutes it can take to fill up a gas tank.

“I don’t want to drive across the country. It’s just too vast,” says Andy Kinard, president of Car Charging Group, which sells car chargers.

The major knock against electric vehicles is that they don’t have the range to drive too far and that there aren’t enough fast charging stations to allow trips longer than the typical commute of less than 40 miles a day.

How far can electric cars go?

Unless you live in the Netherlands and can easily drive the 100 miles across the country on one charge, you’ll have to map out where the charging stations are for your electric car. The Tesla has a range of 285 miles on a charge, though a New York Times reviewer had problems with the how far the car went on a charge, leading to controversy over how accurate the Times review was.

Gary Lieber, a Nissan Leaf owner, has heard the frustrations of Leaf owners being stuck for an hour or two while trying to charge their electric cars. Lieber is co-founder of the SF BayLEAFs, a group of electric car owners in the San Francisco Bay Area. He says he knows people who have driven from the Bay Area to Southern California using smartphone apps and an in-car navigation system to plot the course to the nearest Leaf charger, resulting in a few long charges.

“It’s still somewhat of a pioneer thing because there’s not a full-fledged charge network between San Francisco and Los Angeles,” Lieber says.

Not all chargers are created equal

In the 2006 film “Who Killed the Electric Car?” it was pointed out how difficult it was to find the right charger to fit various electric car models.

Tesla has its own fast chargers. Japanese manufacturers, such Mitsubishi and Nissan, use the CHAdeMO standard for chargers, which aren’t compatible with non-Japanese cars. American cars use SAE standards that all car makers are starting to agree on, so that argument is getting solved.

The problem remains with how fast an electric car can be charged. Since cars sit idle for 90 percent or so of their lifetime, charging a car overnight in a 110 volt outlet that’s already in a garage at home makes sense for commuters, Kinard says. The 220 volt chargers need specialized heads.

“The vast majority of charging should be done at work or at home, and hopefully off peak,” Kinard says.

But a Nissan Leaf driver, for example, who goes beyond the 75 miles it can go on a full charge, won’t want to sit around for seven hours while their car charges.

Nissan has 154 DC fast chargers in the United States, compared to 2,000 in the rest of the world, and has plans to add 500 in the U.S. in the next 18 months. But the 26 minutes they take to give a full charge will require changes to driving habits, Kinard says.

Lieber, the Bay Area Leaf owner, says he has what’s called a “level two” charger at home, allowing him to fully charge the car in four hours, or two to three times as fast as he would by using a regular outlet. The 10 DC quick chargers in the Bay Area and the 100 throughout the state are free to use for now, though eventually a per use fee will be charged, he says.

Other areas of the country where the fast chargers are easy to find are Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the “electric highway” from Oregon to Washington state, Lieber says.

Don’t expect chargers everywhere

Electric vehicles are popular in California, which is probably where charging companies will start doing the most business, says Dan Shanahan, director of sales and marketing at EVSE, which makes electric vehicle charging products, including ones designed for public locations.

Charging stations will become common up and down California in the next three to five years, Shanahan estimates. Until then, electric car drivers will have to plot out a trip like a stagecoach looked for water 150 years ago.

“You have to drive these cars like a milk truck. It’s a very predictable route,” Shanahan says.

Since gas stations already have electricity, can’t the fast chargers be installed there so drivers don’t have to search for charging stations on a phone application? Charging stations would be easier to find if they had a three-story high “Shell” sign next to the freeway.

That’s unlikely, Shanahan says, because most gas stations are independently owned and the small retailers can’t afford the thousands of dollars the fast chargers cost.

Smaller states with more rural areas are less likely to have fast chargers because there are fewer electric cars, Kinard says.

“It makes more sense in the city,” he says, where drivers can top off their electric car while at work.

Until an electric charge can be as quick as filling a car with gas, the charging stations will offer at least one benefit that gas drivers may not often consider: Slowing down and enjoying the refueling stop.

“Even with a DC fast charger, you have to sit there for 30 minutes to an hour,” Kinard says.

If a charging station had a picnic area, Internet access, store, restaurant, and other amenities, and became more of a place to relax instead of just quickly getting fuel and moving on, driving might become more of an enjoyable activity again.