ELECTRIC VEHICLES

What we learned on the Electric Road Trip

After two crazy months, we're done. The reporters of E&E News have completed the Electric Road Trip, an 8,000-mile journey in an electric car and an investigation into how electric transportation will change America. What did we learn?

By interviewing dozens of people, driving a total of six cars and gathering many streams of data, we have a mountain of perspective. We even drove 2,000 miles more than we first planned. Our reporters wrote postcards from gas stations in Houston, a bus factory in South Carolina, the damp curbsides of Seattle, and a futuristic charging station in California.

Virtually every major automaker has dedicated billions of dollars to developing electric models on various timelines. Meanwhile, America's patchwork of charging stations is growing and changing.

From our many miles of reporting, patterns emerge. Here we present the dominant themes.

The charging 'network' needs a lot of work

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The most common question we got was about the kinds of cars we were driving. But the essential, frustrating question that we confronted every day was: Where are we fueling?

This question sprang up everywhere because the charging stations could appear anywhere. Their locations seemed to follow no logic. Why does the Holiday Inn in downtown Columbus, Ohio, have a charging station, but not the Sheraton or the Marriott? Why is the charger we used in Eugene, Ore., a long walk from anyplace to stay or eat? Why does the impoverished agricultural hamlet of Huron, Calif., have almost as many chargers as the entire city of Memphis, Tenn.?

Experts talk about the need for a robust national EV charging system. What we found, however, didn't resemble the kinds of networks that Americans are most familiar with. Verizon built a national network of cellular service. The federal government built a network of interstate highways. In both examples, one entity spread a network far and wide.

With the exception of Tesla Inc.'s supercharging stations that are only for Teslas, and Volkswagen's Electrify America network of chargers, which is still skeletal, or regional networks like the one around Portland, Ore., today's charging stations are more of a crazy quilt.

Most fueling stations are where they are for the simple reason that somebody put them there. Charging infrastructure, like politics, is local.

We found new charging stations in downtown Detroit because the utility, DTE Energy Co., along with its partners, resolved to build them. The utility in Memphis has no such charging stations. We recharged at the Chevrolet dealership in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, because the dealer put a station there. The Honda and Lincoln dealers did not. We got a quick fill-up in tiny Hope, Ark., because Walmart has a station there. Most of the Walmarts in Little Rock do not.

Sometimes we could trace the charger directly to local advocates. In Bismarck, N.D., we charged in the parking lot of the Lignite Energy Council, a coal advocacy group that has become the state's leading cheerleader for electric cars. In Huron, in California's Central Valley, we learned that a dozen chargers were built in three adjoining apartment complexes — none of which had a single EV driver — because one activist, Ray León, made a proposal for EV charging stations at the same time that Electrify America was required to spend money on rural chargers as part of a legal settlement after VW's diesel emissions cheating scandal.

The lesson we drew is that the charging network of today is the result of local initiative and leadership. If those leaders change their minds, or if leaders in other places don't step up, the electric future will be a lot longer in coming.

It's possible that centrally planned networks will become the norm. General Motors Co. has said it is building a nationwide network of charging stations with the engineering firm Bechtel, and VW's Electrify America is required to keep investing in chargers until 2027. Regional efforts are coming into focus, like the one that the CEO of utility giant Xcel Energy told us about.

Still, the patchwork of charging stations that we encountered isn't the foundation on which an electric car revolution can easily be built. It is fragmented and haphazard, awaiting incentives to make it better.

The big trends in jobs and manufacturing

So what did we think about the electric cars we drove? The cars were great, but we have some big questions about what their manufacturing means for the future of the U.S. economy.

The models we drove for days on end — the Kia Niro, the Chevy Bolt and the Tesla Model 3 — ended up feeling surprisingly normal, though faster and more agile because of the electric motor's instant torque. "I got behind the wheel and was completely at home," said our reporter Mike Lee, who drove the Kia from Houston to Nashville.

Our takeaway is that the auto industry is capable of building a car that is as good or better to drive than one with an internal combustion engine. But what about the auto industry that makes those cars? How will electrification, the biggest change to auto manufacturing in a century, affect factories and manufacturing jobs? There, we found a picture that is both promising and threatening.

Let's start with the base material of any electric car: lithium, the critical mineral in its lithium-ion battery. On a visit to the California desert, we learned that a huge supply of lithium underlies the Salton Sea, one of the poorest areas in California. We reported how it could be the foundation for a new clean energy manufacturing hub.

Looking further up the supply chain, we saw signs of traumatic change.

Take the forging industry, which makes 107 parts in the traditional Chrysler Pacifica minivan. An EV has one-sixth the number of parts. The transition to electric transportation could spell doom for suppliers, we reported. It is a wave likely to hit small supply shops hardest. They lack the resources to buy their way into the electric vehicle supply chain, like the big, multinational suppliers are already doing.

Meanwhile, we found that the larger auto industry is being tugged into the orbit of Silicon Valley. The move to make cars electric, along with automated and shared, is making cars into smartphones on wheels — and the auto industry into the Valley's latest target for disruption.

Other visits also turned our heads. For example, in Georgia we were surprised by the scale and vision of SK Innovation, which is building a $1.7 billion battery manufacturing plant outside of Atlanta to supply automakers in the U.S. Southeast.

It is, strangely, a manufacturing story in which America is something of a bystander. The plant is being built by a South Korean conglomerate to supply mostly European and Asian automakers that have factories in the Southeast. Still, it is concrete evidence that other countries, at least, see a growing demand for electric cars in the United States.

A more traditional American story seemed to be ripening in Normal, Ill. We reported how Rivian, a new domestic electric truck maker, swooped in and bought a shuttered Mitsubishi plant weeks before it was to be demolished, giving the entire city a sense of hope. But we also told the story of how that same hope has drained from Mishawaka, Ind., where the Chinese automaker SF Motors put its EV manufacturing plan on ice.

In sum, we learned that as EVs start to become a manufacturing reality, they will create an auto supply chain very different than the one we know today.

Don't compare a battery to a gas tank

Our blog posts are full of ways in which we compared batteries to gas tanks, and gas stations to charging stations. But when we actually tried to drive an electric car over long distances like a gas-powered one, we ran into trouble.

The worst was the near-disaster en route from Minneapolis to Fergus Falls, Minn. Excited to be at the outset of a journey, we drove too fast, drained the battery, and instead of arriving comfortably, almost ended up stranded on the shoulder of Interstate 94 in the rain.

Many drivers have had a close call with the gas tank near empty, but this was different.

Driving a gas-powered car too fast has few consequences, as long as you avoid the highway patrol. You stop at a gas station sooner. The stop takes five minutes. You probably spend more on gas.

Do the same in an EV, and the consequences are greater. Charging stations are infrequent, upping your odds of being stranded. The stop will take you half an hour, if you're lucky to find a fast-charging station. (In this case, we limped into Fergus Falls with 2% battery remaining, and while the battery took three hours at a slow charger, we found refuge in a brewery.)

Despite these drawbacks, we don't conclude that electric cars are inferior to their gas counterparts. The reason? We kept meeting scientists and engineers who were working on innovations that could drastically tilt the playing field.

We stopped at two national laboratories where, the battery researchers kept reminding us, their mission is to make batteries cheap enough to compete with gas-powered counterparts. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, we met Burak Ozpineci, whose team is exploring the possibilities of embedding wireless chargers in roads. This could mean never needing to stop to fuel at all. "You never have to plug in anything. You just drive," he said.

And at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., we arrived the very week its scientists announced a discovery that explains why lithium-ion batteries degrade.

Such breakthroughs are unlikely in the century-old practice of gas fueling. Chevron probably won't start beaming gasoline into the car without a nozzle. The size of gas tank you have today will probably not, in the future, carry you dozens or hundreds of miles farther than it does now. But such strides are real possibilities in the young business of electric cars.

Our guess is that, a few years from now, comparing a charging station to a gas station will be a quaint analogy.

So is America ready for electric vehicles?

One thing that surprised us on the Electric Road Trip was how curious people were. As political reporters, we expected to find people, especially in red states, who met the idea of EVs with hostility or saw them as a threat to their way of life. But instead, we found that minds were open.

We met Adam Nelson, a Ford dealer in Dickinson, N.D., who sells almost entirely big F-250 and F-350 trucks. He was mulling an offer from Ford to sell all-electric vehicles. "I've been thinking about this a lot recently," he said.

We met with workers at Volkswagen's manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and told them about how electric cars could erase manufacturing jobs because their simpler assemblies require fewer hands. One worker was enthusiastic anyway.

"I think it'll take off," said Keri Menendez. "So I'm excited. I'm looking forward to it."

We spoke to an auto dealer in Montana who thought EVs would never conquer America's rugged rural spaces, and another who considered them a threat to his service business. But these views were the exception.

What we were left with, after 8,000 miles and almost two months behind the wheels of electric cars, was a collective sense that their spread is inevitable.

True, the charging network is a fragment of what it needs to be. The cars are too expensive, and the batteries don't take you far enough. It takes too long to recharge when you get there. But after zipping through traffic in these vehicles, and examining nearly every facet of the future EV ecosystem, none of us looked back on the experience and said, "Nah, not gonna happen."

I keep coming back to the experience of driving across North Dakota.

It's the hardest state to cross because it has almost no charging stations, and so we conserved battery life by driving at 53 mph. The legal limit was 75 mph, and gas-powered trucks thundered past all the time.

But eventually, creeping along under the wide skies, we made it to the Montana state line. In the same way, we conclude that electric vehicles will achieve wide acceptance. They may come more slowly than many want, and not everywhere at once, and with some bone-jarring dislocations in the economy, and most importantly, not soon enough to stave off many of the harms of climate change.

But they're coming.

Twitter: @DavidFerris Email: dferris@eenews.net

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