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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.

Not all infrastructure players want DC Fast stations as much as the drivers do. In a recent interview with TechHive, Richard Lowenthal, cofounder and chief technical officer of the Chargepoint station network, readily conceded that DC Fast is popular. His company is more interested in building out Level 2 stations, however, because they make more money for the retail businesses that host them. In short, the people who run shopping malls, movie theaters, and drugstores want you to linger as you charge—and Level 3 chargers simply work too quickly.

"EV [electric vehicle] drivers stay in stores three times longer than a normal person," Lowenthal said. "So they hang around and maybe buy a sweater or groceries."

Faster, electric car, charge, charge, charge!
It's hardly news that consumer behavior can be manipulated for profit. In the case of electric-car charging, however, throttling the buildout of DC Fast stations could slow the adoption of these vehicles—bad news for any station on any network. "Infrastructure is important, particularly at this time when EVs are a new technology," says Julia Pyper, a reporter for ClimateWire. "People need to know they can get from point A to point B, even if they charge primarily at home."

The business model going forward is changing, too, as the public money that fueled early efforts dries up. "Once the government funding goes away, work starts to be tightened," says Alastair Hayfield of IHS. Hayfield notes that a charging station costs about $20,000 just for hardware, installation, and maintenance. "A local authority may not have a fund to cover that, a local retail outlet may not have the funds." That leaves companies such as Tesla and Nissan to invest on behalf of their electric-car customers, or companies like Chargepoint (which is transitioning from public to private funding) to build for-profit networks.

Electric cars have a small but enthusiastic user base, and the technology is already changing how we drive. But neither the movement nor the cars themselves can get far without more infrastructure investment. Even if you're an electric-car owner with ready access to charging opportunities, in the end you're not driving the car wherever you want, as you can with a traditional, gas-powered vehicle. It's the car that's driving you, from charge to charge.


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