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EV Expansion and the Hunt for a Charging Station

By Nithin Coca

Electric vehicles are not new. Tesla Motors burst onto the market in 2003, while the Nissan Leaf has been out since 2011. Still, today electric vehicle (EV) sales account for just under 2 percent of the market. Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region full of early EV adopters, seeing a Leaf or Tesla on the road is noteworthy.

Quite simply stated: Electric vehicles are still far from their promise to transform the automobile market. And the reason why is simple: EVs lack a comprehensive, complementary infrastructure on par with what exists for gasoline-powered cars.

To meet global fuel efficiency standards that governments, including the United States, have put in place, we need to grow the EV market share to 16 percent by 2020, according to the World Energy Council. That is a tall task, and innovation will be key if we are to meet this goal.

“The innovative role EVs can play in meeting these standards makes for a pragmatic step in closing the emissions gap by 2020,” said Christoph Frei, Secretary-General of the World Energy Council, in a press statement. “EVs and innovation in this area present a major growth opportunity not only for car manufacturers, but for the energy sector as a whole.”

And this is just one piece of a much larger picture. While the electricity sector is quickly going green, transportation is not. In order to meet global greenhouse gas reductions, we need to switch from dirty gasoline and diesel to electricity, ideally generated from renewable sources. EVs are one part of a critically important, global energy future.

So how do we built out this future and the infrastructure to power it? And can we do it fast enough? It took us decades to build out an infrastructure for old-fashioned, gasoline-powered vehicles. Building a vast, global network of pipelines, refineries, shippings ports and, of course, gas stations was a massive undertaking. And it created a situation where oil is so available, we rarely worry about how to fill up our tanks.

Electric cars, on the other hand, still rely on limited power stations in a limited numbers of cities. This puts the burden on car owners to know where charging stations are, and when to go them. Add this together with the limited range of many EVs, and for many consumers, EVs just don't seem worth the effort. That needs to change.

Point A to Point B: Expanding EV infrastructure

“We've got to do more in order to further the adoption of electric vehicles,” Brett Hauser, CEO of Greenlots, told TriplePundit. Greenlots is working to expand open charging systems and improve network management in the EV sector, which the company believes is crucial in expanding the market.

Hauser, and others, don't think it will take us decades to build a dense and consumer-friendly EV infrastructure, like it did for oil.

“Can we do it quicker? Absolutely. Electricity is all around us, in everything that we do,” Hauser tol us. “All we are looking for is the last-mile solution. In theory, every gas station could also be an electric vehicle fueling station.”

Today, many EV systems are not interoperable. Imagine, for example, that your car could only fill-up at Shell gas stations, but not ExxonMobil stations. That is the current status of the EV market, and that's one major challenge that Greenlots seeks to solve, Hauser said.

“If someone puts a charge station in the ground, they need to have the ability to have different software programs and services available on it – they should be able to switch,” Hauser said, noting that different automakers often use different plugs for their EVs. “Switching should not have to mean removing one station and put another one in.”

A plug for everyone: EV interoperability

For consumers, interoperability means simplicity. “As a driver, I want to be able to go to any charging station, regardless of which network it's on, and use it,” Hauser explains. He's optimistic that the private sector will eventually come together on this, pointing to similar initiatives that have succeeded in Europe, such as the open e-clearing platform.

When it comes to EV adoption, technology is just one piece of the puzzle. All the best EV designs in the world won't mean a thing if we don't solve interoperability and address consumer needs. The EV industry needs to focus on more than just building better cars and better infrastructure. They must also ensure the transition from gasoline-powered cars to EVs is as simple as possible for regular drivers. Because in the end, that is what will make the biggest difference.

“We have to make the experiences as easy as possible,” Hauser concluded. “Every time we throw up a barrier and make it more confusing, we have a dissatisfied customer. We have to continue to evolve and innovate.”

It won't be easy, and it will require coordination and cooperate from the dozens of companies working in the EV space, including both manufacturers and those working to set up charging systems. Innovation is not just coming up with the best idea. It is also figuring out how to take that idea to market and ensure it connects and works with the diverse range of vehicles, standards and tools that exist today.

The sooner we can build a system that reflects this, the sooner we'll see the day when EVs are as normal as hybrids, or even pick-up trucks, and electrical charging stations are as common as gas stations. Then, we can not only meet future fuel-efficiency standards, but indeed transform the transportation sector to one driven by clean, renewable energy.

Image credit: Felix Kramer via Wikimedia Commons

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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