Electric vehicle charging times make some Americans hesitate : The Indicator from Planet Money People are hesitant to buy electric cars because fast chargers still aren't widely available. The irony? Most people charge at home, not with fast chargers. NPR's Camila Domonoske explains.
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Electric Car Chargers: When Supply Drives Demand

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Electric Car Chargers: When Supply Drives Demand

Electric Car Chargers: When Supply Drives Demand

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

By at least one measure, Wall Street seems excited about the future of electric vehicles. In fact, the S&P 500 is about to add Tesla to its influential index.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: But consumers - they have some questions. Like, Cardiff, have you heard of range anxiety?

GARCIA: I have because you once explained it to me, Camila.

DOMONOSKE: (Laughter).

GARCIA: Range anxiety is when people are scared that if they get an electric vehicle, they'll run out of batteries. And they won't have anywhere to recharge, and then they'll just be stuck out on the road.

DOMONOSKE: Right. And it's a reasonable anxiety if you consider the first Nissan Leaf had a range of 74 miles.

GARCIA: Yeah, you'd be anxious the whole time, basically (laughter).

DOMONOSKE: And that's been a huge issue for the auto industry, so they've been laser-focused on fixing it, mostly by giving cars bigger batteries. Mark Wakefield from the consulting group AlixPartners - he's been tracking the average range of new electric vehicles.

MARK WAKEFIELD: Late 2017, it was sort of in the 130 range. It's now 250.

DOMONOSKE: And it keeps going up. Three hundred is super-common now, and some Teslas are pushing 400 miles.

GARCIA: Yeah. See; I can feel comfortable in a car that's going to give me 400 miles. That's just a lot less nerve-wracking.

DOMONOSKE: Right. But even as range becomes less of a concern, there's a lot more attention being paid to another kind of anxiety, another reason people don't want to go electric.

GARCIA: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia. And I'm here, once again, with Camila Domonoske from the NPR business desk. Camila, today, you've brought us this story about the psychology and economics of using electric cars and, specifically, how they're throwing up these roadblocks for the use of electric cars. You like that?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Yeah, we'll charge on into this after the break.

GARCIA: Heyo (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA: OK, Camila, let's pick up where we left off. Suddenly, we are now looking at cars that can go 300 miles on a single charge.

DOMONOSKE: Right. And while they're still too expensive for many people, they're expected to get a lot cheaper in the next few years. But now people are worried about how long it takes to charge.

GARCIA: Yeah. And that's a fair question, I guess. How long does it take to charge an electric vehicle?

DOMONOSKE: More than 15 minutes, less than two days.

GARCIA: Yeah, that's not helpful, right?

(LAUGHTER)

DOMONOSKE: So I could throw a whole bunch of numbers at you to explain why there are so many variables that affect this, but the most important thing actually isn't the numbers. It's the fact that most electric car owners most of the time charge their car like this.

DUANE ROSS: My name is Duane Ross (ph). I live in Corrales, N.M. And I have a 2013 Tesla Model S. When I bought this car, I had a standard Tesla charger installed in my garage. And you just plug that in, and the car starts to charge.

DOMONOSKE: And then he goes in his house and lives his life.

GARCIA: Yeah. And so in the case of someone like Duane Ross and others, it doesn't really matter how long it takes to charge because you just leave the thing there overnight, right?

DOMONOSKE: Right. And it would be parked anyway.

GARCIA: Yeah, also, more convenient than having to go to the gas station from time to time. Plus, it's cheap - like, a lot cheaper than paying for gas is the way I understand it. I could see how this works for daily driving, but let's say I wanted to take a big road trip right across the whole country. What then?

DOMONOSKE: That's where fast chargers come in. Joyce Breiner has a Tesla Model 3. She recently stopped to charge up at a brand-new supercharger in Gettysburg, Pa. It sounded like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARGER WHIRRING)

JOYCE BREINER: And you can hear the power ramping up there. So this is going to charge pretty fast. And let's see what the car says here - looks like I've got 25 minutes to get to a 80% charge.

GARCIA: This is kind of staggering. So charging the car at home would take hours and hours, but charging on the go using one of these fast chargers takes - what? - like, 20, 30 minutes, half an hour, maybe not much more than that. That's amazing.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, that is really quick. There aren't very many fast chargers that actually are that fast. You might take longer, especially at an older charger.

GARCIA: Though pricier, I take it, than, obviously, charging it at home because it's - well, I guess it's just almost free at home, right?

DOMONOSKE: Right. In this case, Breiner's charge cost a little over $11 - not too bad compared to gas but more expensive than home.

GARCIA: OK, so even at a state-of-the-art charger, it's obviously still a lot less convenient than a gas station just because it takes a while.

DOMONOSKE: Right. But remember; for most drivers, that's also not a very frequent experience. Mike Dovorany's with the market research firm Escalent. And he says, if you ask people who are considering electric vehicles, they really focus on the idea of waiting to charge.

MIKE DOVORANY: It is, I think, psychologically weighted more than it deserves. And the inverse of that is the fact that they don't tend to appreciate how much they'll benefit from not going to gas stations.

DOMONOSKE: So even though fast charging is this rare occurrence for most drivers, a lot of companies are really focused on making it as fast as possible and putting up as many fast chargers as possible.

GARCIA: Yeah, I could see how that would get people over that mental hump so that they just buy the thing. And then after that, they're mostly just charging it at home.

DOMONOSKE: Yup, that's the psychology. Are you ready for the economics?

GARCIA: Are you seriously asking me if I'm ready for the economics?

(LAUGHTER)

DOMONOSKE: All right, here we go. The fastest fast chargers are super-expensive to install; like, more than $100,000 per charger. That means you can only really make money off of them if people are using them a lot, if the utilization rate is really high. But remember; most people mostly charge at home.

GARCIA: Uh-oh. That's another hump to get over. Sure.

DOMONOSKE: I spoke to Anne Smart. She's the VP of public policy at ChargePoint, which is a charging company.

ANNE SMART: And with the fast charger, you often have low utilization, not because it's not a necessary piece of infrastructure but because it's in a location which is vital to drivers occasionally but not necessarily used frequently every single day.

GARCIA: So in other words, people really want a fast charger to just be there. And, in fact, they won't buy an electric vehicle unless they're already confident that there are fast chargers everywhere and that they're super-fast and, in fact, way faster than they are right now. They want the whole package.

DOMONOSKE: But they don't actually want to use those fancy chargers all the time. It's easier and cheaper to charge at home. It's actually better for your battery too.

GARCIA: So it's kind of like if everyone wanted a gas station nearby, but they could just get the same gas at home for a fraction of the cost.

DOMONOSKE: Right. And in that situation - and you're the gas station - how do you make money?

GARCIA: Well, I mean, you can always just get money from the government, the taxpayer. That is happening, as I understand it.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Charging companies are also cutting deals with utilities. And, of course, they're joining forces with automakers.

GARCIA: Right, because they want the chargers to exist so that people will buy their electric cars - the automakers do.

DOMONOSKE: Cathy Zoi is the CEO of EVgo, which is a fast charging network. And they have a deal with GM.

CATHY ZOI: Essentially, that agreement with General Motors is building a bridge between where there's enough cars on the road to make money, which is a little time in the future, to right now, so that helps us. We'll build ahead of demand because General Motors has come to the party and is helping make a contribution to the building of that infrastructure.

DOMONOSKE: Zoi also says, look; people right now mostly charge at home, but that could change in a few years once more people who don't have garages start buying electric cars. So maybe utilization goes up.

GARCIA: Yeah. And this is really interesting, Camila, because, like, we normally think about how demand drives supply. So, like, people want demand for something. They're willing to spend money on it, so, you know, a company supplies it. But here is Zoi saying that, like, no. Once the supply is out there, then it's going to drive up demand. So build chargers, and people will buy the vehicles to use the chargers.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. She also says maybe you can get a bunch of shipping or transportation companies to use these fast chargers, and that'll help cover their costs.

GARCIA: So companies are optimistic then. They see a path to profitability here.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, but I think it would be fair to say that it's a lot easier to get there if people were a bit more rational. If people used fast chargers as much as they worry about fast chargers, there'd either be a lot more charging or a lot less worrying.

GARCIA: Yeah, and in either case, just less of a conundrum for the auto industry.

Camila Domonoske, thanks so much for bringing us this story. This was great.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Sean Saldana and edited by Paddy Hirsch. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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