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Life on the edge of the electric car ecosystem: A desperate drive from charge to charge

Melissa Riofrio | Oct. 10, 2013
You don't drive an electric car. It drives you, from charging station to charging station, as you plan your trips around maintaining the battery.

We had to wander around the large lot to find the station. The available spot had a squatter—a completely unpluggable Subaru sedan. The nerve!

Charging-station etiquette is developing around who gets to use the spaces and for how long. Drivers leave notes, post "shame" photos on user forums, or unilaterally unplug a car so that they can charge.

"In your situation, there probably wasn't enforcement," said Mike Tinskey, global director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure for Ford, in a conversation with TechHive a few days after my encounter. "Not only is it required to have very clear rules and have it consistent with the signage, but it would be helpful to have reservations."

We left the Subaru in a huff and found another station, where I called a toll-free number to pay (a flat fee of $2.50 per hour). The call was easy. I hung up and prepared to plug in my car, except ... the cable didn't reach. I had to turn my car around. By the time I did that, the charging authorization had lapsed, and I had to make another call.

After that experience, I joined the Chargepoint station network and received a payment card to use at any of the company's stations. I had a completely different car (the Nissan Leaf), and I used the Chargepoint app to show me available stations along my route. But the app often led me to stations on private property, where I'd be trespassing if I tried to charge. (The company does acknowledge that few private stations are appropriately designated as such in its database.) And once again, I found a station that looked free, except that a non-plug-in car was squatting in the station's spot.

I ended up driving home with a nervous eye on my rapidly diminishing range. My husband called me at one point and asked if I needed to be towed.

A week's time with a Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid proved the least stressful. This car's drivetrain mostly depends on gasoline, but it uses batteries for low-speed driving, and the gas engine can recharge the battery. Even if I couldn't find a charging station, I knew I could fall back on gas.

In San Francisco, public stations abound downtown—but they're managed by parking garages, where you have to pay a high fee to park, and likely also a fee for electricity. During work hours, most of those stations are occupied by commuters, so I missed out on many stations because I couldn't park soon enough. A smattering of other stations can be found at retail stores in the city, such as a certain Walgreens pharmacy I visited, but you can't use the station unless you're shopping there.


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