Imagine a world where every Blockbuster Video has been converted into a shiny new Netflix Store. These wonders of technology allow customers to walk into a store and stream unlimited amounts of content, all for a fixed monthly rate.
It sounds ridiculous, right? There is no value in streaming from a fixed location. The beauty of streaming is that you can do it from anywhere with an internet connection.
Right now, the conversation about how to charge electric cars is sounding an awful lot like a Netflix Store. The popular narrative goes: Electric cars are great, but a lack of charging infrastructure is holding them back. All our charging problems will be solved if we can manage to replace those antiquated gas stations with gleaming high-powered charging stations.
What if that is all wrong? It’s easy to lock ourselves into the mindset of what’s familiar and plot the future based on the blueprint of our past—a mindset that will lead us toward inadequate solutions, like hypothetical Netflix stores. What we actually need is an approach that takes advantage of an EV’s strengths: most notably, its ability to charge anywhere and anytime. And it doesn’t have to be nearly as expensive as you might think.
It is commonly assumed that electric vehicles need specialized charging equipment. In a recent survey, 78 percent of people believed that they did not have charging access at their home. In fact, most people already do. There are three “types” of charging, and one of them can take place in nearly every house, without any modifications or new equipment.
The fastest charging occurs with Level 3 charging stations. These are the “gas stations” of the EV world. Level 3 chargers can recoup 100 miles of range in a matter of minutes. They are also, of course, the most expensive to install, at a minimum of $30,000 per charger. (For comparison, one gas pump costs around $20,000.) While you would never see one of these high-powered chargers in someone’s home, you might find a Level 2 charger. This type of charger, which costs a few hundred dollars to install, connects to a 240V “dryer outlet” and can gain 100 miles of range in just a few hours. This might not be ideal for a road trip, but it works great for a quick charge at home or a restaurant, or while you are out shopping. Lastly, we have the somewhat boring, often overlooked Level 1 charger. This type of charger, which is included free with most electric vehicles, plugs into a standard outlet and would take nearly 20 hours to regain those 100 miles of range. This might sound horrifically slow, but most drivers average fewer than 40 miles of driving per day, an amount that can easily be reclaimed with a Level 1 charger while you are working, hanging out at home, or sleeping.
Right now, it makes local news in many places when even a couple of chargers are installed or planned. But installation is likely to accelerate, especially when it comes to Level 3 chargers. Multiple car companies are actively planning to build out charging networks, and the federal government plans to spend $7.5 billion from the infrastructure bill on chargers. Unfortunately, most of these plans are focusing on emulating our current gas station–centric model, instead of focusing on an EV’s strengths.
Let’s go back to the Netflix Store analogy. The key point is that new technology—in this case ubiquitous high-speed internet—facilitates an experience that is altogether different from the one that preceded it. You can stream at home, at the doctor’s office, or at work. Electric vehicles are no different. The solution to the electric vehicle charging problem should fit current technology, not the technology of the prior century. Why should policymakers aim to copy gas stations when we can do so much better?
Now, I’m not against building more Level 3 chargers on America’s roadways; the more chargers, the merrier. But companies are already building them. It is quite easy to hop in a Tesla tomorrow and drive almost anywhere in the country. The car will have you stop at a Supercharger location every few hours, and the experience will be surprisingly similar to driving a gas car. (If you are driving with kids, the car will be ready to hit the road again before you are.) Other companies are following along, as each manufacturer has a vested interest in being able to advertise that their cars have this capability. Plus, Tesla is potentially opening its network to other companies soon. It’s only a matter of time before every new electric car can travel easily across the country.
What we really need is to get charging capability to the people who can’t currently charge on a daily basis—mostly, people who don’t live in houses. If you already live in a house, whether you rent or own, it is extremely likely that you currently have the ability to charge while you sleep; all you need is a safe and accessible power outlet. You can even choose to add a Level 2 charger, which will dramatically increase your charging speed. But in most cases, the standard outlet will add more than enough range each night. Many people will never take their car on a road trip, but everyone needs to drive around town.
So EV policy should focus on the population that can’t charge every night in a garage. Essentially, we need to make sure that people can charge almost anywhere: home, work, shopping. This type of charging doesn’t have to be fast, but it should be ubiquitous. “You can’t charge here?” should be the new “They really don’t have Wi-Fi?” EVs have the ability to charge anywhere, which means chargers should exist everywhere.
Where do we start? The initial focus should be on workplace parking lots and apartment complexes. Cars sit in these parking lots for long periods of time, which means slow and cheap Level 1 chargers are ideal. We should saturate these parking lots with power outlets that employees and residents can plug into.
Workplaces and apartment complexes are also ideal because the outlets can be used as an incentive. And the cost to the institution is minimal: It would cost an employer or property management company less than $8 per employee each week for electricity (assuming a 40-hour workweek at the average electricity cost and charge rate). It’s not zero, but it is quite small in contrast to other workplace incentives or building amenities.
This is also a space where government spending could make a profound impact. Some workplaces may be reluctant to add outlets to their parking lots, but federal or state subsidies could be just the push they need. And the comparatively cheap price of these outlets will allow the subsidies to go a long way.
Obviously, not every building has a parking lot. But this is an opportunity for cities to provide street-side charging systems in areas that lack parking lots and garages. Those who live in the area can street-park their car for the night, swipe a card to pay for the charging (like a standard parking meter), and let their car charge until the next morning. And, once again, there is no need to charge at an exceedingly high rate. There may be some regulatory hurdles to get through, but these are all solvable problems.
A truly ubiquitous charging infrastructure would involve chargers at restaurants, shopping centers, movie theaters, parks, and other areas where people congregate. These are the spots where people want to spend a couple hours, which lends itself to the middle-of-the-road Level 2 chargers. Charging while you watch a movie or play at the park is a much more enjoyable experience than driving to a charging-specific location (like a gas-powered car) and staying with the car while it charges.
In essence, we need to put the right chargers in the right places, and most chargers don’t need to be all that fast. We keep hearing that EVs will take off when charging one is as fast as filling up at a gas station. But we shouldn’t want that. Charging at gas stations is slow; 10 minutes to fill up gas wastes more time than charging for 10 hours while you sleep. We shouldn’t want to reduce the amount of time we spend charging; we should want to eliminate active charging entirely. And it might be the slowest chargers of all—your boring old power outlet—that allow us to do it.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.