A Nissan Leaf at a charging station. Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
When I set up a weeklong test drive1 with an electric Nissan Leaf last month, I didn’t expect a 35-mile trip from San Francisco to Mountain View to lead to two of the most stressful days I’ve experienced this year. And I didn’t expect to walk away from the experience convinced that, although electric vehicles are great to drive and slowly overcoming their range shortcomings, the infrastructure needed for owners to keep them charged is woefully inadequate—even in EV-lovin’ San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where Teslas are as common as pigeons.
The problem is not a lack of places to plug in: There are at least 20,000 stations in the US, and that number is quickly growing. But they’re no help unless they’re both easy to find and available. In my case, they were neither.
Before I tell my tale, there’s a big caveat: I live in an apartment in San Francisco, and I don’t have anywhere to charge an electric vehicle overnight. Many EV advocates argue we will charge our cars like we charge our phones: At night while we sleep, during the day while we work, and any other time we don’t need to be moving. It’s a “grazing,” rather than “gorging,” mentality, and it makes a lot of sense.
With nowhere to plug in when I’m at home, I was stuck with using public charging stations during the day. And that’s where the trouble began.
The real-world range of a Nissan Leaf is roughly 80 miles (84, according to the sticker on the window). That’s on par with pretty much everything else except the way more expensive, road trip-ready Tesla Model S. I left San Francisco with about 50 miles left in the Leaf’s 24 kilowatt-hour pack, and knew when I arrived that I wouldn’t have enough have enough juice to make the 35-mile drive back.
Once I’d wrapped up my meeting and gotten back to the car, I used the Leaf’s navigation system to find the nearest charging station. I figured I’d hang out for half an hour or so before heading north. The Leaf, like many EVs, will direct you to the nearest charging station. That system isn’t nearly good enough: First off, it doesn’t tell you whether the station is occupied. That’s a real problem: Unlike a gas station, it doesn’t take three minutes for each car to fill up and move on. It takes at least 20 minutes, and that means if the plug you need is taken, you’re going to be waiting a while. And secondly, the nav system didn’t pick out publicly available chargers. The first destination? Some kind of (defunct?) BMW facility.
Which I don’t even realize once I get there, because it just looks like a driveway.
So I search the map again and head off to the next result. It’s a 5.3 mile drive. This worries me, because I’ve only got about 20 miles of range left.
And I find myself in a hospital complex. I wouldn’t mind sitting in a parking lot while the car charges since I don’t have a lot of options anyway, but I can’t find the promised charger after about 10 minutes of circling around.
So I leave, this time for a safer bet: a charging station at a shopping mall. There goes three miles.
Aha! I finally find a charging station that’s right where the map said it would be. But it’s not a ChargePoint, so I need to set up an account. This takes a while, punching my credit card info into the website using my phone, but I get it done. So I pull the charger to the front of the Leaf and plug it in. And…nothing. I unplug and enter my new login info again. I plug in. And…nothing. Now, the screen is giving me its equivalent of Apple’s spinning pinwheel of death. The cancel button doesn’t work, so I hit the emergency stop (the large, red, plunger-style button). Now it seems to be alerting some kind of authority figure, so I bail.
But I’m in luck, kind of, because at the other end of this garage is a station operated by ChargePoint, for which I have an account. But both spaces are occupied. At this point, I’m happy just to be near what seems to be a working setup. Also, I’m hungry. And as luck would have it, you can see the two spots from the mall’s McDonald’s. I park nearby, grab a double cheeseburger, dig in, and wait.
Google Maps Screenshot / WIRED
After 15 or 20 minutes, a woman shows up, unplugs her Nissan Leaf and pulls away. I’ve finished my burger, so I speed-walk to my Leaf and speed-drive through the garage to snag her spot. I plug in, and wait. I’ve got work to do, anyway. An hour later, I’ve got enough juice to get back to San Francisco, where I park, exhausted. A trip that would have taken an hour in a regular car—Bay Area traffic is a hassle, after all—took me almost three.
The battle began anew the next day. I’d forgotten that Nissan was sending someone to retrieve the car that day, and when the guy calls to say he’s a few minutes away, I realize he won’t have enough juice to get where he’s going. I tell him as much, and apologize. He offers to run an errand first, giving me an hour to charge the car. We figure that’s plenty of time, because he isn’t going far. Twenty miles, tops. Piece of cake—San Francisco has plenty of charging stations.
Plenty of stations, yes. Plenty of open spots, not so much.
I drive through a handful of garages. I find several chargers in each, but they’re all occupied. I spend a full 18 minutes in one garage, driving up to the roof before learning the charging spots are in the basement. Despite my noting, loudly, that I didn’t park the car, the cashier makes me pay. There goes three bucks.
At this point, I’ve burned half an hour and decide to ditch this crowded neighborhood for somewhere less trafficked. I’m in a downtown business district after all, so it makes sense for EV drivers who work in the area to park in the morning and not leave until the evening.
And finally—this is the last finally, I promise—I pull into a garage and find an open charging spot. I plug in and the juice starts flowing.
By this point, I’m exhausted, sweaty, and behind on my work. And I’m a mile from my office.
Now, you could argue that because I don’t have access to a place to charge overnight, I just shouldn’t buy an electric car. You’d likely be right, but that’s a problem: There are a lot of people who live in cities and don’t have garage parking. Or they do, but their garage doesn’t have any charging stations. Or it does, but only two, and they’re always taken by other residents. Yes, there are public charging stations, but, unlike a gas station, where people fill and go, an EV charging spot may be occupied for hours. Yes, there are some EV owners who carry an extension cord and surreptitiously plug into 110 outlets (there are a surprising number of them accessible in the world), not everyone can, or wants to, mooch. So until the public infrastructure improves, people who can’t plug in overnight are in for a very serious headache.
There are ways to fix this. The first is obvious: Keep building charging stations. As the battery and charging technology advances, powering up should take less time, which will help. But in the meantime, we need a clear way to know a station’s available before heading over. A system where you can remotely reserve one for long enough to get there would be a good start.
As I stroll back to my office, the stress fades. And when I head back to pick up the now adequately-charged Leaf, I feel a wave of gratitude that I got it plugged in. Because on my way up the ramp, I stop to help some poor guy push his car into a space.
It’s an electric. And his battery’s dead.
1Post updated at 15:10 EST: We originally wrote “When I set up a loan for an electric Nissan Leaf.” We’ve changed this to clarify that we were borrowing the car itself, not money to buy it.
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