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A consumer’s perspective on EV infrastructure

by Aaron Snyder - Sep 26, 2013
A consumer’s perspective on EV infrastructure

I'd really like to be able to say I'm the happy owner of an electric vehicle, but that simply isn't true--yet. The truth is that even though I have an intense interest in EVs, I face the same problems as any other consumer trying to make the switch.

None of the barriers are insurmountable, but they are pretty typical of the sort of frustrations early adopters of technology often face. I know because my own family recently took a careful look at EVs.

We are a family of five--with two kids still in booster seats--and currently drive five- and seven-passenger, gasoline vehicles. We need five seats on a daily basis and six on a weekly basis. Still, we're pretty motivated consumers. I'm an engineer, and my wife works for the U.S. Department of Energy.

When her agency offered some incentives to help employees become early adopters of EV technology--like charging for free at work--we were eager to explore the possibilities, especially knowing there are also consumer incentives at the federal and state levels, and price reductions on home chargers available.

Looking at the available vehicles left us really impressed. The engineering quality and consistency out there is excellent. The driving performance is equivalent to what we expect from any car, and the vehicles and charging technology available are also user friendly.

But the EVs we looked at weren't really comfortable for families like ours. There would be a lot more complaints from the second row with the two booster seats back there. And even if we were willing to accept that discomfort, other issues make it challenging to fit an EV into our lifestyle. The two biggest ones are both about immature infrastructure: charging and payment methods.

Charging technology is easy. Charging infrastructure is challenging. In our case, we would be okay for the commute--charging at home and charging at work. But it was the after work hours and weekends that left us feeling anxious.

Charging simply isn't everywhere we need it yet. What if you aren't quite topped off and need to take the kids somewhere where there are no charging stations? What if you are parked all day for an extended--and unpredictable--amount time, perfect for a complete recharge, but there's no station? That added level of anxiety was too much for our busy family.

Payment mechanisms at commercial charging stations also concerned us. I want to be able to just swipe my credit card and fill up like I do with my other vehicles. But I know that may not be possible right now, because that isn't where people in the industry are focused.

I participate in meetings with people from around the industry, and they view charging as a way to gather all kinds of data. But that's an engineer's perspective, and that doesn't tell me how consumers are going to fit in.

Paid charging stations need to be plug-and-play for consumers to want to use them. There should be zero anxiety around that infrastructure just like we have none for gasoline. People designing charging stations and payment systems need to think about how their mom or their grandma or their neighbor would use them.

So for now, I'll stick with my current vehicle. But I'm keeping a close eye on when the EV opportunity becomes ripe for my family, too.

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