Can EV chargers act like gas stations? That won’t be easy

By David Ferris | 12/22/2021 07:13 AM EST

The Biden administration is calling traditional gas stations a model for building a network of electric vehicle charging stations. The problem is that an EV charger is in many ways nothing like a gas station, even though the comparison is shaping political debate over the infrastructure law.

A California charging station that, unlike most, resembles a gas station.

A California charging station that, unlike most, resembles a gas station. Automakers see the federal government's funding for EV charging stations as a way to force them into performing more like gas stations. Electrify America

Correction appended.

Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris visited an electric vehicle charging station in Maryland and laid out a vision for what the government’s $7.5 billion payout for charging infrastructure will create.

“Absolutely make it accessible for everyone and easy,” she said, “just like filling up your car with gas.”


That phrase — "just like filling up your car with gas" — is invoked by industry, government and advocates as a guiding light for the federal government’s record investment in EV charging that was included in the huge bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed last month.

The problem is that an EV charger is in many ways nothing like a gas station. But the comparison, apt or not, is already starting to shape the political debate over the rollout of federal money over the next few years, not to mention the features of the electric fueling network that drivers will use for the foreseeable future.

“The model is the gas station network,” said Joel Levin, the executive director of Plug In America, one of the country’s biggest EV advocacy groups.

Compelling reasons exist to draw a parallel. The visit to a gas station, while rarely the best part of anyone’s day, carries a ring of familiarity. Carmakers, charging companies and governments believe that people are far more likely will adopt EVs by the millions — and help stem the rise of global temperatures — if they don’t have to change their routines.

But the comparison glosses over the many ways that today’s charging network is neither accessible nor easy — and the ways that charging stations may simply be a different kind of beast.

Some groups “are really trying to apply the rationale of gas station fueling, and in a lot of ways, it’s not the same thing,” said Katherine Stainken, the director of EV policy at the Electrification Coalition, an advocacy group. “There has to be room for flexibility.”

The forum for this debate is a rulemaking by the Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, in consultation with the Department of Energy. These agencies are seeking comment on the rules that will govern what qualifies to receive the $7.5 billion. The timeline is, by the standards of government, lightning-fast: The first guidance will come in mid-February.

One influential group has already set a marker.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI), a group that includes nearly every traditional automaker that manufactures cars in the United States, laid out a road map this month.

“Despite the significant number of EVs coming to market, consumers are unlikely to buy a vehicle that cannot be conveniently fueled,” it said.

Here’s what it sees: The driver will pull up to a roomy fueling station that resembles today’s gas station. He’ll pull out his credit card and fire up a charging stall that has standardized pricing and is every bit as reliable as a gas pump is today, fill up for the next leg in 20 minutes or so, and be on his way.

Here is a tour of how those proposals don’t match with today’s reality.

1. Mystery pricing

Gasoline may cost more in California than it does in Oklahoma, but at least drivers are crystal-clear on what the price is. It’s right there on the sign, stated in terms of dollars per gallon.

EV charging stations don’t have that kind of consistency. Charging comes at wildly different prices depending on the state, the electric utility service area and the charging provider’s business model.

Industry hasn’t even agreed on the units. While many stations assess fees by the kilowatt-hour — the closest analogy to dollars per gallon — many charge a flat rate, while others charge by the minute.

The confusion reigns because historically, state utility regulators have forbidden charging stations from receiving payment for electricity. Doing so would mean the charging station is, technically speaking, an electric utility, and subject to the regulator’s heavy hand. Charging providers have evaded the difficulty by instead charging by the session or by the minute.

Those barriers to charging by the kilowatt-hour have now been struck down by state regulators in most parts of the country. Just 10 states, such as Georgia and Indiana, still have the barrier on the books. Nevertheless, charging companies in large swaths of the country haven’t updated their pricing schemes.

AAI and others are advocating that federal funding be contingent on making the move to per-kilowatt-hour pricing. But that will go only partway to creating clarity.

Gasoline is a commodity, with a price pegged to well-known benchmarks like Brent crude. Electricity, by contrast, comes at literally thousands of prices. Each of the country’s thousands of utilities establishes its own rates, often via complex, multi-tiered schedules that require a spreadsheet to decode.

“Having a uniform price would be great,” Levin said, while acknowledging that the fragmented design of America’s electricity system makes that next to impossible.

Compounding the difficulty is that, as Jonathan Levy, the chief commercial officer of charging network EVgo, puts it, “most Americans don’t speak kilowatt or kilowatt-hour.” The fluency with which Americans understand gasoline prices, gained through exposure through lifetimes, hasn’t yet happened with kilowatts.

What is clear is that today’s murk will only make unhappiness.

“Customers need to understand what they’re paying for,” said Ben Prochazka, the executive director of the Electrification Coalition, “and these days, it is not that easy to understand.”

2. Broken too often

Unlike gas stations, which almost always have at least one working pump, charging stations have a reliability problem. Earlier this year, Plug In America did a survey of over 3,500 EV drivers and found that 54 percent said they had had problems with public chargers, most often finding them broken.

Groups like AAI are asking for the government to create an uptime requirement as a condition for funding. Another coalition of companies and governments earlier this year made a similar request, seeking a baseline for stations to be 99 percent operational.

No place in the United States, even the electric vehicle nirvana of California, has an uptime requirement for EVs. But more and more EV advocates would like to see it.

“I like this one,” said Mike Nicholas, an EV researcher with the International Council on Clean Transportation, “because so many of them are broken right now."

3. How fast is ‘fast’?

Everyone agrees that today’s direct-current fast chargers aren’t nearly fast enough. But how fast they should be — or more specifically, how much speed is worth paying for — is up for debate.

Most "fast" direct-current chargers available today — the kind available for highway road trips — operate at a power level of 50 kW, which provide about 3 miles of range per minute. That’s a trickle compared with the 254 miles of range per minute that a U.S. gas pump can maximally deliver to an average-fuel-economy car.

So how fast should charging stations funded by the U.S. government be?

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation has a straightforward answer: 350 kW. That is the maximum currently available at any U.S. charging station, delivering about 20 miles of range per minute. The power delivery is so prodigious that the station requires a heavy, liquid-cooled cable that can be a struggle to plug in.

There is one caveat: The vehicle that can accept that deluge of electrons does not yet exist.

The Lucid Air, a luxury sedan that debuted just a few months ago, gets in the neighborhood of the automakers’ 350-kW goal with a charging maximum of 300 kW. Then things go downhill: The electric Porsche Taycan charges at 270 kW, while Tesla’s hottest model, the Model S Plaid sedan, charges at 250 kW. More affordable models, like the most deluxe version of the Ford Mustang Mach-E, are far below that, at 150 kW.

This lack of current models does not deter the auto industry. By spending to create 350-kW stations, it said, it “can help future-proof for new vehicle and charging technologies.”

There’s also another logic at work. The auto industry doesn’t necessarily see each car charging at that high rate. The 350 kW could be shared among the cars at a plaza. It would be as if, when you visited a gas station, your nozzle delivered more slowly because another driver was also fueling.

But even delivering at that rate creates sticker shock. According to a 2019 study by RMI, the hardware for a 350-kW charger costs up to $150,000, while that for a 150-kW charger topped out at $100,000. Building higher-powered chargers would mean that federal dollars would buy less of them.

That expense would be magnified in far-flung rural areas, where the chargers are needed most. Building the charger is one thing; upgrading the high-voltage distribution lines across miles of forest or farmland to get that power to the charging station would drive prices up still further, said Nicholas.

That kind of price tag means that others in the EV space aren’t necessarily on board.

“It takes a lot of juice to do that,” said Levin of the 350-kW goal. “While that would be nice to have, I wouldn’t want that to slow down the rollout.”

4. The standard that sticks it to Tesla

Another, seemingly uncontroversial, proviso that unites most EV advocates is that charging stations funded by Uncle Sam should have a standardized plug and be accessible to all drivers.

Things have been moving in that direction anyway, as nearly every automaker has recently coalesced around a single fast-charging standard that goes by the abbreviation CCS.

But that consensus leaves one huge player in the cold: Tesla Inc.

Since Tesla started building its Supercharger network a decade ago, it has been a walled garden. Tesla uses a special plug that fits only in Teslas, and the stations for the most part only serve Tesla vehicles. This exclusivity has been a selling point, assuring Tesla drivers that when they go for a quick charge, they will not have to suffer interloping Audi e-trons and Chevrolet Bolts.

But the language of the infrastructure bill spelled out that charging stations receiving federal funds must be accessible to all. If Tesla wants to tap federal funding for Superchargers, it will have to let everyone in.

AAI, whose roster does not include Tesla, piled on its its comments, asserting that government-funded equipment “should not limit use to a single vehicle manufacturer or proprietary technology.” (“The way it’s written, it’s obviously a poke at Tesla," Levin remarked.)

Tesla is making moves in that direction. This summer, it told officials in Norway that it would start making its stations in that country available to other automakers starting next year. No such announcement has yet been forthcoming in Tesla’s much larger home market in the United States.

5. Resistance to credit cards

Those who don’t have occasion to use charging stations might be surprised to learn that, unlike gas stations, many don’t accept payment with the swipe or tap of a credit card.

Whether that option is required in the future is another contested area in which the government may force a change.

The big charging networks, such as Blink and Greenlots, often built their stations without credit card readers and steered drivers toward paying on the network’s proprietary card. The credit card “conflicts with their business model to keep customers just on their network,” Stainken said.

As the number of EV drivers has grown, so has the number of stations that offer a credit card option — or at least a bare-bones version of one.

"It’s kind of all over the map,” said Levin, noting that many allowing credit card payment, but not by inserting a card; instead, the driver must call an 800 number and read the card data over the phone. “That’s not a very user-friendly experience,” he said.

California has started requiring charging stations to offer credit card payment, while the federal infrastructure bill is unclear. It reads that stations should have “open access to payment methods … that shall not be limited by membership to a particular payment provider.” It does not mention credit cards specifically.

Pressure to make credit cards universal is building, with AAI and others supporting the change.

“The credit card creates the greatest likelihood that everyone could use a charger,” Prochazka said.

6. Open 24/7?

The automakers also requested that, in order to qualify for federal largesse, charging stations be required to be open all the time.

“Just as drivers of gasoline-powered vehicles have access to refueling stations 24 hours a day, the same must be true for EV drivers,” AAI said.

In reality, that may hold charging stations to a higher standard than the gas station. “There are plenty of gas stations that are not open in the middle of the night,” Levin pointed out.

On one hand, charging plazas are easier to operate around the clock because they don’t have human attendants. On the other, many charging stations today are inaccessible in a way that gas stations aren’t — they’re in parking garages that are locked at night and sometimes on weekends.

That point was made in a filing by the Parking Authority of Baltimore City. It operates charging stations at nine of its 14 parking garages, some of which are closed at night.

The 24/7 rule “can be extremely limiting and lock out sites well-suited for fast chargers and unintentionally undermine equitable deployment of stations,” the authority said, suggesting that the feds approve funding for locations that are open at least 250 days a year, eight hours a day.

7. The space is too small

Go to nearly any charging station in the country, and they look more or less the same: a standard parking space, which the driver enters by driving forward and exits by driving backward. The charging pedestal is located at the hood, or maybe to the side.

That won’t cut it as bigger electric vehicles like the Ford F-150 Lightning pickup start to come out next year, says AAI. The key difference?

“The option there to be pulling a trailer or a boat,” said Dan Bowerson, AAI’s director of energy and environment.

That feature, often called pull-through, means a driver would be able to do what in gas stations has been possible forever: driving in forward, fueling, and then departing forward. It seems simple, but requires a rethinking of a charging station’s layout. “It would take up more space,” Nicholas pointed out.

That could be a challenge in an industry where part of the pitch to charging hosts is that the station takes up a minimal amount of precious parking real estate.

Only a handful of the newest charging stations are designed for pull-through.

“I don’t know if that would be on the top of my list,” said Levin of Plug In America, adding that it’s hard to say because the issue is so new.

8. They’re hard to locate

One request of the automakers is that the Federal Highway Administration put regular, standardized signs on freeways that direct drivers to charging stations, just like roadside gas pump logos do now. That may come to pass, as the agency is due to issue such regulations soon.

But the emphasis on freeway signage ignores another point: Once you’re off the freeway, it is usually difficult to figure out where the charging station actually is.

Unlike gas stations, which draw attention to themselves with a lit sign that can be several stories tall, charging stations are often isolated on the margin of a Walmart parking lot, or the deck of a parking garage.

“I have that experience of driving a round a parking lot looking for the charging station, but you can’t find it because it’s not signed,” Levin said.

It is unclear whether the federal government in its new EV charging rules will create guidance for signs beyond federal highways. But there’s a wide consensus that today’s secret stations need to be a lot easier to see.

“We think EV signage should be equivalent to gas station signage,” Levin said, “and that it should be uniform and something that people should recognize.”

Correction: A prior version of this story contained an error. Charging provider ChargePoint has credit card readers at its stations.