Note: the author has spent his career in the auto industry starting with internal combustion engines and now working through the transition to EVs. This piece is not meant to convince people to drive electric cars. Instead, it presents thought-provoking considerations for potential buyers and their specific needs. The final decision is theirs to take.
There are three types of people when it comes to electric vehicles: the “early adopters”, the “wait and see-ers”, and the “not in my lifetimers”. Electric vehicle sales in the United States have finally crossed the critical threshold of 7% (7 of every 100 cars sold are an EV). With new technology there is often an inflection point and steep rise in adoption rate and sales after 7% is reached. But will this tech adoption rule hold true with EVs amongst those three types of consumers? Will the sight of more EVs on the nation’s roads lead to an increase in sales? This author believes that adoption will be related to individual customer use as well as the available infrastructure to support them.
We are currently in the midst of a ballooning of EV offerings on the market. The Covid pandemic-driven supply chain interruptions had hampered progress but by 2023 established automakers were launching new EVs almost weekly. In fact, over 30 EV models are set to be released in 2023 with over 40 more expected in 2024. Lack of choice or variety is no longer an issue as many brands offer a variety of body styles from sedans to SUVs to pickup trucks. As variety burgeons and vehicle styling evolves from quirky to sexy, one would think that acceptance and adoption would soar, right? Wrong.
There are several hurdles that increased adoption needs to overcome: price, charging infrastructure, mindset, and lack of EV education. Note that I did not include “driving range”, an often discussed point, in the list. More on that later under mindset.
Let’s start with price. The battery is the single most expensive part of an EV. Although battery cost has decreased dramatically, it currently remains infeasible to build vehicles under $30,000. Instead, automakers have focused on more expensive models to squeeze out a profit (or lessen the loss). In 2022 EV prices averaged over $60,000, far above most household budgets and $15,000 above the average price of any car. Clearly the EV revolution was starting amongst those with deeper pockets. It is expected that by 2030 there will be cost parity between EVs and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, making EVs an economical alternative. Sub-$30,000 EVs are perhaps 5-7 years away.
Next, charging infrastructure is problematic in the United States from several perspectives. There are multiple charging network providers with differing plug standards and payment gateways making it inconvenient to choose the right one. The public charging networks are also known for notoriously varying degrees of reliability and uptime. Charging points are less frequent in urban areas and in very rural areas but for different reasons. And while owners of suburban single-family homes can easily install charging, those who live in multi-family buildings or single family urban homes are less likely to be able to install their own charging infrastructure. Lastly, there is a fundamental question whether regional grids can support the rising demand for electricity.
Why are plugs an issue? Think of it like US versus European plugs; they have different shapes and are not compatible. There are three plug types in existence because the US has not yet determined a plug standard: NACS (Tesla), CHAdeMO (Nissan Leaf), and CCS (all others). Do any of the readers remember the ancient Beta vs VHS wars? It should be a no-brainer that CCS become the standard, right? After all, all but Tesla and Nissan use CCS until now. However, numerous automakers have announced that they will adopt the NACS (Tesla) plug in the future due to low reliability of public CCS charging stations. Though not all automakers have made this declaration the general shift indicates NACS will likely become the US standard. That should go to simplifying the plug issue over time.
Public charging network quality is a very valid reason to question acquiring an EV, especially if home charging is not an option. The internet is rife with user posts complaining that charging stations were out of service in the middle of the night, that they stopped charging after just a few minutes, or that the payment method was not accepted. Their cries are not in vain and it is one reason for the automaker shift to the NACS standard. Several of the competitor charging networks have been vilified for their low uptime and lack of reliability. There is a valid reason for their problems – each car brand’s software varies and compatibility is a problem – but that is not comforting to a customer at midnight.
Urban settings provide a conundrum. Whereas cities would benefit most from EVs with less emissions and lower noise levels, there is less space to build public charging stations. Apartment building owners may not be amenable to installing them (Who pays? Is it dangerous?) and single-family homes with street parking cannot guarantee a parking space for charging. While solutions are being developed, such as lamppost-based chargers, these are not yet widely in use.
Wide open spaces and distance are an issue in highly rural locations. The placement of chargers could be at home or in small town centers but the distances traveled in the meantime could exceed the vehicle’s range. It is easy to understand the hesitancy of rural drivers to purchase an electric vehicle.
Home charging is the ideal solution and, when installed, over 80% of EV owners charge at home, never requiring a public charging station unless they travel a longer distance from home. Energy cost in the home is lower than at public charging stations, another benefit of home charging. And lastly, the vehicle can be fully charged and ready to drive every morning when leaving home (although it is better not to continuously top off with respect to battery health).
Mindset is perhaps the most challenging hurdle to overcome. As noted above, driving range was not an issue unto itself even though the press write about it often. Instead, I consider range as an issue of mindset. Why? Most modern gasoline-driven vehicles have a 300 mile range engineered into the size of the fuel tank. People are used to driving 300 miles before needing to refuel. They figure before they reach that point they will find a fueling station and quickly refuel. Very few people actually ever run out of gas by the side of the road because they pay attention to fuel level. But even when presented with a comparable 300 mile EV there is a different reaction.
There is a somewhat irrational fear of running out of charge even when daily driven distances are far under the vehicle’s range. While working for an EV startup I had access to customer survey data. Rather than looking at overall statistics I read the individual responses. I was surprised by the number of people that claimed they would not buy an EV because of range even though they indicated that they drove less than 20 miles per day. One individual drove less than five miles per day but was concerned about range.
The irrationality is not fully unfounded, of course. With the state of home or public charging it can be perfectly rational if there is no immediately accessible station. Even a 20 mile daily commute needs charging after at least 10 days. If reliably available charging is an issue for an urban dweller then even one charge per week can become a challenge. However, if charging is readily available, short to medium range commuting should be no issue. Mindset will continue to be the leading hurdle for EV adoption in the short term.
How does that mindset then translate to customer use cases? Ultimately it will depend on the daily usage of the vehicle in terms of distance driven, location, and charging availability. The easiest use case is a suburban single-family home owner with home charging and a fixed daily commute less than 200-250 miles. This individual could charge their car nightly or as needed depending on distance driven during the workweek.
On the other extreme, an individual that is required to drive long distance to various locations may have a poor use case for an EV, especially if there is questionable or no charging available in the areas driven. This could pertain to rural locations or to intercity drivers (i.e. salespeople).
Urban dwellers, whether in multi- or single-family homes, may have short commutes but would have to validate the availability of charging sources in their area whether at home or near the workplace. Depending on availability of charging an EV may be a perfect choice or a poor one regardless of distance driven.
There are some cases where consumers have regular short range commutes but once or twice per year they travel with family on a long trip. In cases like this it may make sense to consider the everyday energy savings of an electric car and rent a gasoline-powered vehicle specifically for the occasional trip. For example, leaving the electric sedan at home and renting a more appropriate travel vehicle such as a minivan.
The greatest gap is in available education and rampant misinformation and misunderstanding. The lack of information is a failure of the auto industry and the agencies that advocate for electrification. Automakers are tempted to highlight horsepower, acceleration figures and on-board technology. They do not spend enough effort on assisting consumers in understanding the use cases and how an EV may or may not be appropriate for their lifestyle. Misinformation from players that are either highly for or against EVs will fill the information gap, making it difficult to discern fact from falsehood.
Whether the reader finds themselves in the “early adopters”, the “wait and see-ers”, or the “not in my lifetimers” groups, it is a matter of gathering reliable information from credible sources, avoiding misinformation, and keeping an open mind. The topic of EVs is all around today – on TV, the news, in podcasts, in cinema – so take part and share your thoughts and gather information. The so-called EV revolution has started and depending on use case the reader may grab their EV keys or push a decision a decade down the road.