Future Tense

Shock Therapy

How Obama can supercharge America’s market for electric cars.

ARP3645658A BMW i3 car is tested at the BMW.
Plug it in, plug it in: A BMW i3 is tested at the IAA international motor show in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sept. 11, 2013.

Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

As I steered a BMW i3 loaner into a Northwest Washington, D.C., parking garage, I glanced at the time: 30 minutes before drinks. The electric car’s battery was almost dead, but I could fix that—this garage had a high-power charging station. I pushed a button to unlatch the car’s charging port, jumped out, and gathered the hefty electrical cable. Then I reached for my credit card and looked for a swiper affixed to the charging box. Instead, I found a small decal explaining that I needed a membership to charge at an eVgo station. Translation: No matter how much I was willing to pay to charge at that moment—and I was willing to pay quite a bit—I couldn’t. Even if I had been a member, there were two separate plugs. The one that fit my i3 was not a fast charger (good for about 60 miles of charge per 30 minutes) but a level 2 charger (only good for 15 or 20 miles per 30 minutes).* I found myself thinking that this eVgo charger was an apt metaphor for the Obama administration’s policy on electric vehicles.

During the economic crisis, the Obama administration invested prodigiously in electric cars—but afterward it curtailed any support for public charging infrastructure. And that’s holding EVs back. So while California started the electric revolution, Washington is on the brink of ending it. Today American companies manufacture fewer EVs than automakers from Europe, China, or Japan, and U.S. EV sales have slipped from first to third in the world—behind Europe and China. Meanwhile, last month Russia’s prime minister decreed that every gas station in the country must install EV charging by November 2016.

America’s policy was not the result of thoughtful cost-cutting—we still spend abundantly on EVs. We just spend that money in the wrong places.

Starting in 2007, after California had already spent more than a decade promoting electric vehicles, Washington embraced EVs as the solution to skyrocketing oil prices, moribund American manufacturing, climate change, and dependence on foreign oil. It didn’t matter if you were a tree hugger, union leader, or national security buff: There was something to love about EVs.

The following year, John McCain toured the Chevy Volt design center and candidate Barack Obama called for 1 million plug-in electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015. As GM’s management stared into the abyss of bankruptcy, Congress and the Obama administration made the safe delivery of the Volt a virtual precondition for the company’s $50 billion bailout.

In 2009, during the stimulus, the administration went a bit crazy funding big, expensive EV startups and battery plants. Washington spent $2.5 billion on loans to Nissan, Fisker, and Tesla. It also sank almost $600 million funding battery-manufacturing plants for A123 (which has since gone bankrupt), Dow-Kokam (sold off by Dow in 2013), and LG Chem. Then there was the up-to-$7,500 consumer tax break for buying an electric car. Good for up to 200,000 units per manufacturer, that generous rebate will end up costing the U.S. government roughly $2 billion per automaker. Considering there are about 30 auto manufacturers doing business in the United States, that could get expensive. All this was supposed to lay the foundation for a new generation of clean, quiet electric vehicles on American roads.

After more than 100 years of investing in internal combustion engines—and trillions of dollars invested in the infrastructure for oil and gasoline—it made sense for government to invest in this transition to EVs.

But when I went to work as an adviser to the undersecretary of energy in 2012, it was immediately evident that a program to promote essential charging infrastructure was missing. There was a public-private partnership called the EV Project. But personally, I was mystified by its approach.

EV plugs come at three power levels. Level 1 is just a standard 120-volt electrical outlet. It’s dirt-cheap, and can give you 4 or 5 miles of range in an hour. Level 2 charging requires electrical equipment that is much more expensive and runs off the same outlet as a clothes dryer at 240 volts. It provides 10 or 20 miles of range an hour, depending on the car. Then there’s DC fast charging at 480 volts. It’s expensive but can fill an EV battery to 80 percent in 20 to 30 minutes—a huge advantage.

The EV Project spent $230 million giving away chargers—mostly to Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt owners, not public spaces. The vast majority of these were Level 2 chargers. For that amount of money, you could carpet major U.S. cities with Level 1 charging and still have money left over for fast chargers.  But the entire EV Project included only 107 fast chargers. Averaged out, the cost per charging unit installed was about $19,000—much, much higher than it should have been. Not all of that $230 million went to chargers—it was also spent on extensive analysis of the data—but the costs still seemed stratospheric.

Other than the EV Project, there was nothing going on. Republicans had decided they didn’t like EVs anymore, and the administration inexplicably determined that, henceforth, the private sector should take care of installing and running public EV charging stations.

Unfortunately, that idea demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the business model necessary to make public charging work.

Public charging was not going to be profitable as a stand-alone product. Electricity as a fuel is cheap—much cheaper than gasoline. But charging stations are relatively expensive, and most EV charging is done at home. My younger brother drives his Ford C-Max Energi 100 electric miles a week. Every night he charges at home from a standard wall socket. The electricity is so cheap, he “cannot tell the difference” in his utility bill. But installing a Level 2 EV charger would cost about $1,500—and more for a commercial user.

That said, public charging stations are incredibly important. They give people the peace of mind that they won’t find themselves stranded without fuel. DC fast chargers are especially critical—because they can fill your battery with a meaningful amount of juice within 15 or 20 minutes.

Later this fall the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions will be releasing a study on business models for public charging infrastructure. Dan Welch, an EV analyst at the center, says, “The math is difficult for privately funded charging station operators.” That’s been clear for some time.

But for some reason, the Obama administration took a remarkably hands-off approach to charging infrastructure. As a result America has three incompatible fast-charger standards (Tesla, CHAdeMO, and SAE) and a dozen subscription-based services that generally let you charge only if you are a member. If these subscription-based chargers were all over the place, this would be less of a problem. Unfortunately, they’re not. According to data from the U.S. Department of Energy, there are only about 2,565 fast chargers in the entire United States. Japan has more than twice that number packed into a landmass roughly the size of California—with one dominant standard. The situation has gotten so bad that frustrated automakers like Nissan, BMW, and Tesla are installing their own charging stations.

The good news is that the Obama administration could get America back on track with just a small reallocation of federal budgets toward EV charging infrastructure—and fast chargers in particular. Paltry investments in EV charging could be transformative. BMW sells a DC fast charger that costs only $6,458—less than the tax break for a single EV. The unit still needs to be installed and maintained (which isn’t cheap), but it provides a public refueling option for hundreds or thousands of EV drivers. For about $30 million, America could literally give 5,000 of these chargers to businesses, malls, convenience stores, and municipalities every single year. That would increase America’s number of fast chargers by 200 percent in the first year.

This isn’t a lot of money. The DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has a 2016 budget request of $2.7 billion—with $444 million dedicated to vehicle technologies. So why not carve out a slice for fast chargers?

Another option would be to eliminate the tax credit for EVs over $50,000 and redirect those funds toward charging infrastructure. That would require help from Congress but would certainly pay dividends. In 2014 the tax cuts for Teslas alone were worth over $125 million—that’s a lot of fast chargers. And no one buying a $119,000 Tesla P90D needs a $7,500 tax break. Working with cities to update building codes could make it simple and cheap to install these chargers. And a few strategic modifications to utility rate structures would complete the equation.

What makes this failure more frustrating is that all the other pieces are there: Automakers have built some really great electric cars. For instance, the Tesla P85D was so good, it “broke” the Consumer Reports’ ratings system. The BMW i3, which I was driving, is the perfect urban vehicle. Because of its unique carbon fiber architecture, it’s as small as a compact car, with the spacious feel of a full-size sedan or crossover—and the zip of a BMW. This year Nissan is rolling out a new Leaf with longer range, and there’s huge buzz surrounding the 2016 Chevy Volt.

But it’s still shockingly hard to charge in America. The day before my eVgo incident, I drove to a party in Maryland and tried to find a charger on the way back. After much searching, I finally found one in a Mercedes dealership, hidden next to a small tree. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a fast charger. Still, I plugged in and sat—hoping to gain a few electric miles. After 15 minutes the security guard rapped on my window and asked me to leave. I had gained approximately 1 mile.

Later I hunted for a charger a few blocks from the White House. Finding one was virtually impossible. In Virginia the closest fast charger was so far that getting there and back would have drained my entire battery. Instead, I spent the weekend limping along on the i3’s range extender—a small internal combustion engine meant for just such circumstances. With only 50 miles of nonelectric range, I was constantly on the lookout for my next hit of oil.

But that’s pretty much the state of EVs in America today. Most neighborhoods are a few wall sockets and fast chargers away from a convenient, reliable, environmentally friendly transportation alternative to oil. But we’re not there yet.

The Obama administration already saved GM, it raised fuel economy standards and implemented the first greenhouse gas emission standards for automobiles. Charging—especially fast charging—is the missing link. With a tiny bit of effort, and funding that amounts to a rounding error in the overall scheme of EV subsidies, Obama could supercharge the next generation of American automobiles. He should do it.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

*Correction, Sept. 16, 2015: This article originally misstated that an electric-vehicle charging station in Northwest Washington, D.C., could give the author’s BMW i3 about 60 miles of juice in a half-hour. That station had a fast charger that could give 60 miles in 30 minutes, but the fast charger was not compatible with the BMW i3. The station’s level 2 charger, which could give 15 or 20 miles, was compatible with the BMW i3. (Return.)