January 18, 2015

The EV chicken-and-egg problem has hatched several solutions

When automobiles first started to make roads noisy and dangerous, nobody had to worry about where they were to get the gas: of course you got it from your local gas station. People had not yet been bitten by the travel bug, and weren't used to straying that far from home. Besides, before the Interstate highway station was built it was nearly impossible to traverse the country in a car, anyway.

The advent of the electric car has seen a few road blocks, so to speak. Apart from the fact that better batteries urgently need to be invented, we have been bitten by the road trip bug, we do have a network of highways on which we can travel coast to coast, and we got used to traveling a few hundred miles to see friends and relatives over a weekend. And short of going around in circles in some remote area, we can be assured that we'll be able to fill up the tank. Because there is also a dense network of gas stations. You get used to it.

So an electric vehicle, or EV, that has a range of less than 100 miles is just not an impressive thing, especially if you can't be sure that you'll find a charging station once you get more than 50 miles away from your home charger. In fact, for many it's just not a practical thing.

Here is the conundrum: “Why would anyone buy an electric vehicle if there were no place to charge them? And why would you put chargers out there if there were no electric vehicles? Somebody had to blink.”

The quote is from Kent Rathwell. You can call him The Guy Who Blinked. Rathwell started providing chargers to whoever was interested: places like restaurants, hotels, and stores, through his company, Sun Country Highway (nearly eponymous with his other company, Sun Country Farms, which produces bird seed).

After bringing his persistent persuasion everywhere, eventually Rathwell completed a network of chargers that runs coast to coast in Canada, where any EV can pull up and charge for free.

This screen shot of Sun Country Highway's charger map shows a rather robust network of chargers, and more are being added. For instance, the network now extends into California and other parts of the US.

The US has its own coast-to-coast charging network, courtesy of Tesla who, understandably, is eager to break the chicken-and-egg conundrum of EVs. This network has several branches traversing the country, but is quite a bit sparser than the Canadian network, a clear demonstration of the power of crowdsourcing.

Of couse, there are many more charge points that aren't on either of these maps; I'll cover those in another post. But these are the networks built with the express purpose of connecting the coasts.

And now EV owners in China can drive between Beijing and Shanghai by charger-hopping the first segment of the network installed by State Grid, the electric utility which is, as its name suggests, state owned.

These charging stations are utilitarian boxes, without the sleek design that comes standard with anything Tesla. But they do the job, so those who want to drive the first 1200km segment can cover the distance.

It does take a while. This map shows the route between Beijing and Shanghai: it takes more than 13 hours to drive it by car - that's not including charging stops. In contrast, if you take the bullet train on the Jinghu High-speed Railway, the journey will take less than six hours: not even enough time for a good night's sleep. Just sayin'.

Still, when China determines that it will make it its business to support green vehicles, you can be sure it will do so in a big way. So stay tuned for further developments.

In the end, whether the cross-nation network gets installed by an independent enthusiast spearheading a crowdsourcing effort, an EV manufacturer or a government, is less important than that it gets built. After this, the switch to EV will be easier for a lot of people. That's what counts.



You may also like:
1. EV Unplugged: the TRULY zero emission electric car
2. Of Electric Vehicles and the Intergluteal Cleft
3. The Car of the Future Comes to Singapore



  1. What an interesting post. To be honest, I've never thought about the practical day-to-day use of an electric car and where people could find a charger. You're so right ... the important thing is to get them built. It's especially important right now since gas is so cheap ... I've heard that the move towards large, gas-guzzling cars is back on and that's tragic. We must make it more appealing to drive electric.

    1. Thanks, SF!
      There are several apps that help you find charging stations - I should write a post about that. They're in most large cities now.

      The sales of gas guzzlers has indeed ticked up -sigh- but that is as short-lived as low gas prices. I personally don't think gas prices will stay this low for too long.

  2. It certainly puts people off from owning an electric car. There are not nearly enough stations, especially if people want to travel to remote areas. I agree that the batteries will have to be designed to be more efficient under these circumstances.


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