To Be Successful, Electric Cars Need Intercity Fast Charging: Opinion Page 2

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2016 Nissan Leaf SL fast-charging at NRG evGo Freedom Station, Hudson Valley, NY, Dec 2015
2016 Nissan Leaf SL fast-charging at NRG evGo Freedom Station, Hudson Valley, NY, Dec 2015

2016 Nissan Leaf SL fast-charging at NRG evGo Freedom Station, Hudson Valley, NY, Dec 2015

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For example, if you live in an apartment or condo complex that has no charging stations, but your city has conveniently located fast chargers, you could charge your electric car once or twice a week.

For people like you, a long-distance electric car and local fast charging then makes a lot of sense, at least for local driving.

However, long-distance travel still won't be practical with these cars, with one exception. Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has promised that the upcoming $35,000 Tesla 3 will have access to the Supercharger network that Tesla developed for its fleet of very expensive Model S cars.

That Supercharger network has proven to be very reliable and, by the end of 2016, should allow Tesla owners a means for practical intercity travel to almost any destination in North America.

Unfortunately for those anxiously looking forward to the day when they can drive home a new $35,000 Tesla Model 3, there remain two concerns.

2012 Tesla Model S beta vehicle, Fremont, CA, October 2011

2012 Tesla Model S beta vehicle, Fremont, CA, October 2011

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First, regardless of its other achievements, Tesla has not done well in delivering new models on time.

The Model S was released about 18 months later than initially promised, and the Model X is still not being mass produced, despite the fact that Tesla originally targeted its release for early 2014.

Given this track record, consumers may be justifiably wary of Tesla's announcement that it will begin full production of the Model 3 "sometime" in 2018.

Second, even if the Model 3 is released on time, it is not clear today that the Supercharger network—which has been a rousing success with Model S owners—will be able to handle the increased stress that high volumes of the Model 3 will surely place on the system.

Musk has said he hopes Tesla will be building 500,000 cars a year by 2020. With some users in California already complaining about long wait times at Supercharger stations, the network could be overwhelmed by the increased demand.   

By way of contrast, the 2017 Chevy Bolt EV will almost certainly arrive on time at dealer showrooms in 2017. But unlike Tesla, General Motors has expressed no interest in building out a fast-charging infrastructure.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

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Nissan has devoted some resources to this, but the results have not been entirely satisfactory. The fast chargers Nissan has funded are largely located at Nissan dealerships.

Typically, these CHAdeMO fast chargers are only available during business hours, which means that nighttime or weekend travelers are out of luck.

Also, car dealerships tend to be located within or near major population centers. One look at the Tesla Supercharger map reveals that intercity travel requires fast chargers along major highways, sometimes way off the beaten path.

So if the car companies are not going to provide the needed charging infrastructure--and assuming that governments do not get involved in any large-scale way-- then the task is left to private industry.

Unfortunately, it remains unclear if a business model exists for developing and maintaining a national charging infrastructure at a profit. And for the most part, the commercial chargers that exist today are—much like the Nissan-supported chargers—concentrated around city centers.

Absent major government support, only one proven model remains for the development and maintenance of a national fast charger network that supports intercity travel on the U.S. Interstate highway system.

Tesla Supercharger network, North American coverage - March 2015

Tesla Supercharger network, North American coverage - March 2015

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That, of course, is the Tesla model. Tesla supports the Supercharger network by building its cost into the price of their cars. This has the two-fold effect of making the cars more attractive and acting as a conspicuous marketing tool, both of which boost sales.

And since the Supercharging is already paid for, Tesla does not have to build into its Superchargers a point-of-sale mechanism, which reduces maintenance problems.

There remains no current indication that either Nissan or General Motors is interested in developing a national network of fast chargers.

Unless this changes, those who might be interested in purchasing an affordable pure electric car are left with Tesla alone--and they must wait through an unpredictable Model 3 development process.

2016 Chevrolet Volt, Catskill Mountains, NY, Dec 2015

2016 Chevrolet Volt, Catskill Mountains, NY, Dec 2015

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For those who are not inclined to wait, plug-in hybrid vehicles—including the 2016 Chevy Volt—are looking increasingly attractive.

With 53 miles of pure electric travel plus the unlimited range that gasoline provides, plug-in hybrids with substantial electric-only range may be the best bet for green travel.

Tom Huffman is an electric car enthusiast and Nissan Leaf owner with a background in academia. He was a philosophy professor for several years before making the transition into the tech world. He now owns and operates a small software company selling video calibration software to pros and home theater enthusiasts.

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