By Lawrence Ulrich
There are people across America who would buy an electric car tomorrow — if only they had someplace to plug it in. Forget oft-cited “range anxiety,” many experts say: The real deal-killer, especially for city and apartment dwellers, is a dearth of chargers where they park their cars.
Call it the Great Disconnect. In townhomes, apartments and condos, in dense cities and still-snug suburbs, plenty of people, worried about climate change, would make for a potentially receptive audience for E.V.s. But without a garage, they often feel locked out of the game.
Jonathan Spira lives in the Bay Club in Bayside, Queens, with its 1,100 condominiums in two towers. Mr. Spira, an author and editorial director, has been eyeing a Jaguar I-Pace, an electric sport utility vehicle. But he has realized that buying one is a nonstarter.
“I live in a charger desert,” he said. The nearest electric oasis is a Nissan dealership two miles away. He said it wasn’t practical to drop a car at a station, make his way home by other means, then fetch it when the battery was full, with perfect timing to avoid hogging the charger space.
“It’s ridiculous,” Mr. Spira said. “I can’t go miles from my home and then do nothing for several hours.”
He said residents had lobbied building management and the condo board to install chargers in Bay Club, whose below-ground and outdoor lots offer more than 1,300 parking spaces. But discussions get hung up over where to install chargers, how to pay for electricity or which residents will benefit.
“It’s so frustrating,” he said.
Chris Nelder, manager of the E.V. grid integration group at the Rocky Mountain Institute, said that despite a coming wave of electric cars to challenge Tesla — from Ford Motor, General Motors, Volkswagen and more — governments, regulators and utilities aren’t doing enough.
“The fact is, about 40 percent of Americans don’t live in single-family homes where you could have a personal charger,” Mr. Nelder said. “There’s no doubt the cars are coming, so we should stop waffling and start building some charging infrastructure.”
He added, “Unless there’s a charger at work or your apartment, or damn close to it, it’s not practical to buy an E.V.”
The near-novelty status of electric autos in New York City bears that out.
According to IHS Markit, nearly 2.4 million cars were registered in the five boroughs as of Jan. 1. Just 5,801 of those were E.V.s, in a city of 8.6 million people.
Ted Cannis, global director of electrification for Ford, said those numbers, and the untapped market they represent, were constantly on his mind as Ford prepared models like the Mustang Mach-E and an electric version of the F-150 pickup, America’s perennially best-selling vehicle.
“It’s not just a New York problem but a global, urban problem,” Mr. Cannis said. “Exciting vehicles will help, but local policy matters a lot.”
Ford is investing $11.5 billion to deliver 40 electrified models by 2022, one of several automakers looking to make a transition from fossil fuels. The urgency is underscored by climate change and changing winds. But the coronavirus now threatens to blunt that huge E.V. wave, pushing back its arrival and draining money and momentum from start-ups. Just as important, battered consumers may be less likely to buy a new car, let alone take a flier on an E.V. that costs substantially more than conventional models.
Pandemic aside, London and roughly 20 major cities plan to bar internal-combustion cars from downtowns. Britain is among governments calling for banning sales of fossil-fueled cars, including gas-electric hybrids, as early as 2035.
That raises another potential disconnect. Studies project up to 21 million annual sales of E.V.s and plug-in hybrids by 2030, a tenfold increase from today. Purely battery-powered cars found about 1.6 million buyers last year, a tiny drop in a 90.3-million-auto global sales bucket. E.V. sales actually fell in the United States and China, despite Tesla’s big year.
Many industry experts argue that, short of a Marshall Plan-type investment in infrastructure, government decrees to wean tens of millions of drivers off gas nozzles and onto plugs — among the greatest energy revolutions in history — are unrealistic.
“The U.K. cannot approach a blanket ban on petrol, diesel and hybrid cars without a network that supports such a seismic transition,” said Sean Kemple, director of sales for Close Brothers Motor Finance, which works with about 8,000 auto dealers in Britain. That goes for America as well, he said.
“When you’ve got a Brooklyn, London, Manchester, where there’s not a lot of room left to build, you need creative solutions,” Mr. Kemple said.
Solutions include mandates and incentives for businesses, builders and renovators to set aside or prewire a percentage of electric parking spaces, as in E.V. hotbeds like Palo Alto, Calif. Curbside charging is technically feasible, daunting in practice. City-friendly ideas run from valet charging to Volkswagen’s prototype mobile charging robot, a less cute R2D2 that can cruise parking lots, communicate with cars and fill those that need juice.
“More and more cars are arriving in parking lots and need to charge,” said Bill Loewenthal, a senior vice president at ChargePoint, whose 111,000 charging spots make it the world’s largest open network. “Commercial real estate owners are starting to understand that.”
For now, most of New York’s “public” chargers are in commercial garages, where daily users can pay $40 or more for two hours of parking, on top of the price of electricity. With most E.V.s requiring eight hours or more to refill on Level 2 chargers — still the dominant form for home and public units — that’s a recipe for personal bankruptcy.
Elon Musk continues to expand his nationwide Supercharger network. But those DC fast chargers are designed mainly to encourage long-distance electric travel, not for everyday charging. Superchargers still aren’t compatible with non-Tesla models, though Mr. Musk has said he would consider sharing the network if rival automakers shared costs.
For owners of other E.V.s, charging companies are building networks, often in public partnerships. Electrify America plans to have 800 locations with 3,500 chargers open or in development by December 2021. In October, it completed the last of six quick-charge stations that span the 570-mile New York Thruway. That is in addition to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s $250 million plan to speed E.V. adoption through 2025, including charging hubs at Kennedy Airport and five cities beyond New York.
Like Tesla, Electrify America has concentrated on a highway network and is now turning to urban areas. Still, “Manhattan is one of those major question marks of being able to penetrate and provide charging services,” said Mike Moran, an Electrify America spokesman.
It’s also not clear that charging companies are building a viable business without subsidies. In a green irony, Electrify America owes its existence to an unprecedented environmental penance: The Volkswagen subsidiary, and the $2 billion it is spending through 2027, was born from VW’s court settlement over its diesel-emissions cheating scandal. VW now plans to spend $66 billion on electric and digital tech through 2024, surpassing any global rival.
Obstacles abound. According to a Rocky Mountain Institute study, station installers face daunting “soft costs,” including permitting delays, balkanized regulations and outdated utility models. The fastest DC-charging hardware costs a sobering $100,000 to $150,000, but that station can cost $1 million after siting, permits and construction. An aging electric grid faces bottlenecks and re-engineering for an onslaught of car owners.
ChargePoint — whose investors include Daimler and BMW — has recruited businesses to invest in chargers as a perk for customers, employees or tenants, and to project a green image. The Whole Foods store in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood has four parking spaces with ChargePoint plugs. Those prime spaces are often full, with other E.V. drivers waiting to pounce.
As with Level 2 stations nationwide — and because no one grocery shops for eight hours — customers use these for “opportunity charging,” adding a few miles while they peruse the kale. In my own testing, including Whole Foods hookups, I’ve never met a New Yorker who relies exclusively on public charging.
At the Whole Foods lot, a plugged-in Stefano Lessis said that he loved his energy-efficient Tesla Model 3, but that he didn’t have to hunt for chargers.
“I have a house, so it’s easy for me,” said Mr. Lessis, who lives in Bay Ridge. “But if I lived in an apartment, I’d be constantly worried about charging the car or where I’m going to leave it.”
John Voelcker, the former editor of Green Car Reports, said that if E.V.s weren’t a viable city option, “that’s OK for now, because that still leaves 60 percent of the country.”
Mr. Voelcker said DC fast charging could eventually open E.V. ownership more widely. The Porsche Taycan sedan is the new electric quick-draw champion. In my own test, the Porsche could replenish its battery to 80 percent full in 20 minutes flat — but only with the mighty 350-kilowatt chargers that are in their infancy in America and elsewhere.
“Once there are mass-market E.V.s that can charge at the same speed as the Taycan, you could charge once a week and not worry about it,” Mr. Voelcker said.
That leaves another technical hurdle. Most manufacturers, including Porsche, recommend that owners not rely exclusively on quick charging, because the heat it generates can degrade battery life — one reason DC units automatically slow as batteries cross the 80 percent threshold. For time-pressed Americans, even that 20-minute stop would require more patience than a three-minute squirt of gasoline.
“Will we reach gasoline-like refueling timing?” Mr. Moran asked. “We don’t know, but we’re working hard to make it as close as we can.”