Final Inspection

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As more EVs trickle onto the highways, owners may come to covet the limited number of public charging stations.

 “Men began to feed on men. On the roads it was a white line nightmare. Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive. The gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice...” _ from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

OK, so this grim vision of a dystopian future may not have room for a Nissan Leaf. At least not yet. But as more EVs trickle onto highways, did the 1979 Mel Gibson film about battles over juice in gasoline form foreshadow faint rumbling today, when the juice in question is electricity?

I pose this question because we at WardsAuto routinely test-drive electric cars, and we charge them at a charging station we installed inside one of the parking structures at our suburban Detroit office complex.     

But there’s this guy who occasionally helps himself to our juice by plugging the charger into his Chevy Volt parked near our dedicated space. My understanding is he’s made some kind of arrangement with us to do so, but as a newbie I’m a little uncomfortable having to unplug his battery/ICE-powered Volt so I can charge the battery-only EV I’ve been driving.

“Don’t worry about him,” a co-worker told me. “He’s got a gas engine, too.”

Indeed, electricity isn’t the exclusive lifeblood of the Volt. But access to our charger could well be coveted by the early adopters who work in our complex and drive Leafs, Chevy Spark EVs, Mitsubishi i-MiEVs or other pure-electrics with a range of maybe 80 miles (110 km).

That’s because unless their commute is short, driving an EV anywhere close to its top range becomes a calculated risk. The complex’s four parking structures, including the one with the WardsAuto charger, provide a total of 5,743 parking spaces. Another 446 spaces are outside.

Room for more than 6,000 cars and one EV charger? Can you put me through to Mad Max?

To be fair, EV charging stations aren’t terribly scarce in Greater Detroit. But they’re not common, either.

I pored over the U.S. Department of Energy’s map and list of public charging stations in Wayne, Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw counties and located about 100 between Detroit and as far away as Ann Arbor (which, reflecting that city’s environmental ethos, has 14 of them). A number of stations do offer multiple chargers.

Almost as troubling as the single charger at our office complex, however, are the mere 10 charging stations I counted in downtown Detroit. Presumably there are plenty of private chargers for the Volt- and all-electric Chevy Spark-driving employees who toil in General Motors’ Renaissance Center headquarters.

The key word is public. Reuters reports there are more than 20,000 public charging stations in the U.S. and Canada, up from 3,000 in 2009. To GM’s credit, half of the nearly 800 stations at its U.S. facilities are available to the public.

Ford is installing 200 chargers for EV-driving employees at more than 50 of its U.S. plants and offices but says it doesn’t plan to put any in public places, Reuters says.

This reminds me of the dealer ads that trumpet low, low lease prices before mentioning those prices are (only) for “Well-qualified employees … ” Maybe Ford doesn’t like the idea of Volt, Spark or Fisker Guy usurping one of its chargers while C-Max Energi Guy goes without. 

So, one of many questions about EV charging is: Can the EV owner from Auburn Hills who wants to see a Tigers game at Comerica Park make the 65-mile (105-km) round trip confident he can find a public charging station with an available plug? To play it safe, he may leave the EV at home and take the ICE Impala instead.  

Tesla kingpin Elon Musk and Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn are all-in when it comes to EVs. With few exceptions, other auto makers are developing them with an eye toward meeting ever-tougher fuel-efficiency standards.

But electricity isn’t the only game in town. Fuel cells, natural gas and continued improvements in diesel and gasoline engines eventually could leave the EV behind as an artifact of good intentions that couldn’t withstand technological advances on other fronts.

In the meantime, Volt Guy, I invite you to keep using our charging station. Just be ready for things to take a Road Warrior turn if we have to defend it against you and other drivers thirsting for our juice. The next day’s headline may well read, “EV Plug Brawlers Charged With Battery.”

 

 

  

 

 

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WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.

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Dave Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into WardsAuto.com, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

James M. Amend

James Amend is an associate editor at WardsAuto.com, covering day-to-day business and product news at General Motors. He also leads coverage of regulatory and environmental issues, as well as the...
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