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PlugInsights Says More Fast Chargers Will Alleviate EV Range Anxiety

PlugInsights, a plug-in electric vehicle research firm, released their first report last week addressing the experiences, behaviors and opinions of drivers with regard to charging plug-in electric vehicles in the USA. The firm, part of Recargo Inc. - a leading provider of "chargefinder" smart phone apps - crunched the data after surveying over three thousand individuals, 91 percent of whom either own or lease a plug-in electric vehicle, with the remainder of respondents considering a move to an electric car.

The study collected information from geographically dispersed drivers of every commercially available plug-in vehicle available in the U.S. and the results were appropriately weighted to reflect the plug-in vehicle share in the U.S. population.

As PlugInsights' goal is to identify barriers to broad EV adoption, their inaugural report on vehicle charging goes a long way towards highlighting the pain points plug-in drivers experience while offering solutions to alleviate them. Here are some of the key findings of the study.

In order to account for the fact that not all electric vehicles are created equally, the report categorizes plug-ins as belonging to one of three main groups: mid-range battery only vehicles (BEVs) such as Nissan's LEAF; long range battery only vehicles, such as the Tesla Model S; and plug-in gasoline-hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) such as the Chevrolet Volt. These distinctions account for some variability in the results, but generally, the report found across the board the following patterns:

  • 81 percent of vehicle charging takes place at home

  • 8 percent of vehicle charging takes place at free public charging stations

  • 2 percent of vehicle charging takes place at public pay locations

  • 7 percent of vehicle charging takes place at work

The appeal of charging at home is obvious, but when you consider that for 90 percent of drivers, "at home," means a single family dwelling, you can see this becomes a limiting factor for EV adoption. The report details that whereas 22 percent of all American households are apartments, those who live in condos or apartments account for only 8 percent of plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) drivers. This illustrates the unsurprising fact that living in an apartment makes vehicle charging, and therefore owning a PEV, a difficult proposition.

So, what about using public facilities instead? Norman Hajjar, Managing Director of PlugInsights, told me it was, "kind of a shock," to find that public pay chargers constituted only 2 percent of charging locations used by drivers, and even when you add in free charging, public facilities only account for 10 percent of the charging pie in total. Why is this?

Rather than indicating that a lack of demand exists for public charging facilities, the report found that the quality, distribution and reliability of public charging stations explained the limited uptake in using them. For example, Hajjar told me that around a quarter of drivers surveyed found equipment failures at the rate of about one out of ten visits - or more - at public locations adding, "If you have to use that location to get home, it's mission critical."

But even assuming the chargers are working just fine, almost 100 percent of public charging stations these days are level 2 chargers, which take hours to achieve a full charge on most vehicles. This limits the utility of mid-range BEVs, like the Nissan LEAF; as Hajjar says, "You can't really use a level 2 charger to bridge to two distant points," adding that BEV drivers, "are on a leash, stuck within a comparatively small range around their homes."

Indeed, this appears to be the case. For drivers of mid-range BEV's, PlugInsights' report found that the longest trip taken on average was just 96 miles. Owners of long range BEVs managed 336 miles (effectively, Tesla owners, who can already visit a supercharger location), while PHEV drivers were the least constrained at 361 miles.

PlugInsights states the solution to overcome the BEV leash problem lies in greater deployment of level 3 fast chargers, which would allow a mid-range BEV to be fully recharged in as little as 30 minutes. The report says this would begin to approach the "pit-stop practicality" of gasoline stations, and 93 percent of those drivers who have used fast chargers agree that they are easy to use. That said, with only 306 of these in the country (CHAdeMO fast charges), and 98 Tesla Superchargers, clearly the infrastructure is not yet in place on a broad enough scale.

As such, range anxiety - which electric vehicle manufacturers would have you believe is more of a perceived, than real problem - does however remain a real issue for BEV drivers. The report details that 48 percent of mid-range BEV drivers have felt at serious risk of being stranded when their batteries ran low, and to eliminate their anxiety, the mean maximum range BEV drivers are looking for is 186 miles on a single charge.

So do BEVs only become truly useful when there are more long range BEVs like the Tesla Model S to choose from? That would be one solution, but Tesla's longer range capability stems from the use of larger batteries which are expensive and a big reason why Tesla's cars cost upwards of $70,000.

PlugInsights' Hajjar sees a better approach, explaining, "I am looking at it based on the cars we have in our hand right now. It seems like it's going to be tougher to re-engineer vehicles so that range is radically extended, when in fact, there is a solution at hand right now. If we can install level 3 infrastructure that would be useable, then the range problem goes away."

Image courtesy of PlugInsights

Phil Covington headshotPhil Covington

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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