More electric car charging stations needed to juice EV sales: Is Biden’s 500,000 proposal on target?

If the recent gas shortages tied to the Colonial Pipeline’s cyberattack have taught us anything, it’s how quickly things can go haywire when we fear our access to fuel has been lost.

So, anyone who’s ever run low on gas without knowing whether there’s a gas station nearby knows what it’s like to drive an electric car that’s low on battery power. After all, do you know where your closest charging station is?

That condition – known as range anxiety – could soon be eradicated, as President Joe Biden is proposing a massive investment in electric car charging stations that would make it much easier to “fill up” on electricity.

Without more chargers, the popularity of electric vehicles – which have been welcomed as a way to help mitigate climate change but represent only about 1 in 50 vehicles sold in 2020 – may remain limited.

While automakers like General Motors, Honda and Volvo say they’re aiming to phase out gas engines in the next 10 to 20 years, a lack of public electric car charging stations is widely viewed as a threat to those plans.

Adding local charging stations is the No. 1 factor that would drive more Americans to buy EVs, according to a February survey of car owners by car-buying site CarGurus. Some 65% of respondents said additional stations would help convince them to take the plunge.

Biden’s proposal calls for 500,000 new charging stations, a more than 10-fold increase of the current number that would go a long way toward easing the concerns of Americans who aren’t ready to embrace electric cars. Each station typically offers several to a dozen or more plugs.

Drivers like Brittany Idleburg say that more stations will speed up America’s transition from gas cars to electric vehicles.

The Atlanta-based blogger bought a Tesla Model S electric sedan in 2017 and enjoys using the automaker’s more than 25,000 global Tesla-only Supercharger ports, but she acknowledged that more stations open to the public will go a long way.

“I was really excited when I heard what Biden’s plan was,” Idleburg said. “Tesla is nice, but it is necessary to have others. You’ve got to have the cars coming out and you’ve got to have the stations being built almost simultaneously.”

Still, even EV proponents caution that the proposed investment – part of Biden’s broader infrastructure proposal – is currently lacking in details and could go awry if it’s not strategically designed to ensure ease of use and well-placed locations.

“The EV market is growing – it’s growing very rapidly,” said Aaron Fisher, CEO of EVPassport, a hardware-software maker that allows drivers to charge their vehicles without signing up for an account. “But if you solve these problems, it could be growing even faster.”

To be sure, about 80% of electric vehicle charging currently takes place at home, at work or a combination of the two, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

But only about 4 in 10 Americans have garages, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at car-buying site Autotrader. And even for them, having a garage isn’t necessarily enough.

“Some of those so-called garages are sheds,” Krebs said. “I have a 1946 garage – I’d have to upgrade wiring to get a charger into mine. So yes, a lot of people will charge at home – but not everybody.”

When Idleburg and her husband moved to Atlanta, they specifically sought out an apartment complex where they could have an electric vehicle.

“I moved here because they had charging stations,” she said. “We bought our spot so we can always charge.”

Motorists know that “98% of the time, I’ll be charging at home, but that one time that I get stranded and there’s not a charging station is a big, big deal,” said Madison Gross, director of consumer insights for CarGurus. “It might be unlikely to happen, but the pain, if it does happen, is quite substantial.”

Automakers say that more stations will bring more EVs.

Mercedes-Benz CEO Ola Källenius endorsed Biden’s proposal, saying that his company could accelerate plans to eliminate carbon emissions from its vehicles by 2040 if infrastructure makes EVs more doable for the average consumer.

“We need a wide network of public charging infrastructure so that you have the same convenience factor ultimately that we have been used to for a hundred-years-plus on the combustion side,” Källenius told reporters on a recent conference call.

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