Last week, President Biden gathered executives of the three biggest US automakers—Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis (which makes Fiat-Chrysler vehicles)—at the White House. Biden got to gleefully drive an electric Jeep for the occasion. More important, the three companies jointly pledged that at least 40 percent, and as many as half, of vehicles they sell by the end of the decade would be zero-emission ones.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress was busy making that lofty goal easier to meet. A bipartisan infrastructure bill, the details of which are not final, would allocate $7.5 billion to bolstering the nation’s network of electric vehicle charging stations. It’s money badly needed, experts say, if the US wants to put a dent in its carbon emissions, and their increasingly horrifying effects on the planet. Twenty-nine percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and more than half of those are from light-duty vehicles like passenger cars.
A bunch of things have to fall into place if the US is to hit the White House’s electric-vehicle goals by 2030. Last year, roughly 2 percent of cars sold in the US were electric, almost half of them in California, meaning sales will have to increase 20-fold. Even so, that would mean only about 10 to 11 percent of cars on the road in 2030 would be electric.
Sufficient charging infrastructure won’t be the only hurdle to reaching the goal. Automakers will have to come through on their promises to offer more EVs, at lower prices. Utilities will have to take on the extra burden of powering transportation at a price that people can afford. Americans will have to simply get accustomed to the idea of ditching the sort of cars they’ve always known.
But creating more charging stations, and especially more publicly accessible ones, is “the holy grail,” says Mike Nicholas, a senior researcher who studies electric vehicles at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit research organization. A recent analysis by Nicholas and his colleagues estimates that the country will need 2.4 million public and workplace chargers by 2030 if it wants to meet its goals. Today, it has 216,000.
Biden initially asked for $15 billion, which the White House said would have provided 500,000 charging stations. Congress cut the proposal in half, meaning there’s estimated to be enough money for 250,000 fast chargers; if the money is used for less expensive chargers, it could finance more. Factoring in the charging stations that private industry might build, “it wouldn’t cover everything, but it’s a good start,” Nicholas says.
Here’s the funny thing: Most electric vehicles, especially at the beginning of the transition, will likely be charged at home, away from gas-station-like public fast chargers. That charging at home will be slower, probably taking all night to re-up the battery. For the two-thirds of Americans who live in single-family homes, with their own garages and driveways, that might be OK. They come home from work, plug in their car, and are ready to go the next day. This is especially true right now, when electric vehicle owners tend to be higher-income, better educated, have more than one vehicle, and live in single-family houses.
The infrastructure bill won’t “cover everything, but it’s a good start.”
Mike Nicholas, senior researcher, International Council on Clean Transportation
But research suggests people with great charging options at home feel nervous about the lack of public charging infrastructure, even if they don’t need it that often. Today’s most popular electric vehicles have a 250-mile range. What happens, potential owners ask, if they need to travel 300 miles in a day? What sort of chargers are there to support them then?
On one hand, this feels like a silly concern. The average daily commute is less than 40 miles round-trip, which an EV would handle easily. But drivers want to know that they won’t be stuck, especially if, for example, someone needs to get to the hospital and they forgot to plug the car in last night.