The biggest hurdle for the widespread adoption of electric vehicles isn’t price (or a conspiracy involving automakers and big oil) – it’s “range anxiety,” or the fear that we’ll be stranded when our EVs run out of juice. Tesla is hoping to ameliorate those concerns, though the real conundrum may be insoluble.
The trepidation surrounding EVs boils down to two factors – lack of available infrastructure (i.e., charging stations) and recharge time. Tesla is addressing the former with a massive Supercharger expansion across major US cities. By the time you read this, the Palo Alto automaker will have placed 8 charging stations in Boston and 10 in Chicago (and potentially more).
“The most convenient way to charge is to plug in overnight at home, and for most people, this is all that is needed,” noted Tesla’s CEO, the always eccentric Elon Musk. “However, for customers who use their car for long distance travel, there is a growing network of Superchargers located along highways on popular driving routes.”
This hints at the broader challenge – for EVs to fully normalize, they can’t just be puddle-jumpers. They need to be compatible with a broad range of lifestyles and geographic areas. Without a nationwide system of charging stations, EVs won’t make sense for longer commutes, and most consumers can’t afford both a short- and long-range vehicle.
But this is just part one – recharge time is the real hurdle. At present, it takes anywhere from 45 minutes to 15 hours to fully recharge your EV’s battery. Regarding Tesla’s Supercharger expansion, Elon Musk brags that “stations in urban areas will be installed in convenient locations, including supermarkets, shopping centers and downtown districts, so it's easy for customers to charge their car in the time it takes to grocery shop or run errands” (which equates to 45-50 minutes).
At best, this requires major lifestyle changes for most of the country to trade in their internal combustion engines (and their rapid refuel rates). Obviously, a recharge rate just shy of an hour means we’d have to plan part or all of our day around our car’s batteries. And getting stuck in traffic – or any unforeseen circumstances – could seriously disrupt the day if we can’t refill our “tank” in the time it takes to buy a soda.
The low-tech solution is a battery-swapping system, but that presents an even more foreboding infrastructure challenge. If we can’t deploy relatively small recharge centers, stockpiling hundreds of expensive and highly volatile batteries at every station is a fairy tale.
Someone will eventually release a consumer-friendly rapid recharge solution, but until then, “range anxiety” will prevent widespread adoption of electric vehicles.