LOS ANGELES – You've heard it many times, from automakers, the energy industry and government officials: Electric vehicles are the cars of the future, essential to the fight against climate change.
Yet that grand vision may founder on something most drivers take for granted: the pit stop.
Most electric cars need to be plugged in after they've traveled 200 to 250 miles — a much shorter distance than similarly sized gasoline vehicles can run on a full tank — and charging them can take an hour or more.
What's more, chargers are often missing in the places where people need them — like the parking lots and garages of apartment buildings, where residents have had to go to great lengths to top up their car batteries, even dangling extension cords from their balconies.
Changing consumer habits is difficult in the best of circumstances, but it is much harder when a new technology makes it less convenient to use something as essential as your car.
Eve Hogerheide, a teacher who lives in Sacramento, Calif., said she and her husband had considered buying an electric car but decided that charging it on trips to see her mother, who lives about 100 miles away, or to Los Angeles would be too big a headache.
"I just don't know how it would work," said Hogerheide, who shuttles two 11-year-olds and a 9-year-old around along with nieces and an exchange student in her Toyota Sienna minivan. "That's why I don't take that leap."
To better understand what life with an electric car is like, I hopped into a Chevrolet Bolt recently and traveled from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, a 540-mile round trip that many people make regularly.
The Bolt is the first in a lineup of electric cars that General Motors hopes to sell in the coming years. The hatchback, which costs about $37,500 before federal and state tax breaks, can travel about 240 miles on a full charge, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But for Bolts, as for other electric vehicles, experts generally recommend keeping it 30% to 80% charged for optimal battery life.
I rode with representatives of EVgo, a company that is building fast-charging stations across the country. On top of the eight hours or so that we were actually on the road, we spent close to 5½ hours charging the car.
In one case, the Bolt could not accept the fastest charging speeds from the most powerful units. In another, the charger could not deliver the power as fast as the Bolt could accept it. It could have been worse: We always found a charger available, though more than once we got the last one, and drivers arriving after us had to wait.
The extended intervals allowed us — or forced us — to play tourist along the way. We wandered around Whiskey Pete's Casino at the Nevada-California border while our Bolt sipped electrons. On another stop, we had lunch and checked out the World's Tallest Thermometer, a 134-foot oddity in Baker, Calif., near Death Valley.
We were not the only ones with time to kill. On our way to Las Vegas, we met Alina Yamaeva, a 27-year-old law student from West Hollywood, Calif., who was napping while her BMW i3 charged at an EVgo charger behind a J.C. Penney at the Mall of Victor Valley in Victorville, Calif., on Interstate 15.
Her two-year-old car cannot charge as fast as more recent models — for each hour it was plugged in, the car's range increased by just 10 miles. All told, her i3 travels less than 120 miles on a full charge, though it also has a gasoline engine that can add 66 miles.
The limited range and the paucity of public chargers have made Yamaeva question her car choice. "I don't want a gas vehicle, but I'm wondering, should I get another electric vehicle?" she said.
Heading back to Los Angeles, we met Tiaerra Young, a Chevy Bolt owner, at the same station. Though she was more satisfied with her vehicle, she was huddled under a blanket at 11 p.m. because it would take about an hour to charge her car.
Young estimated that it would take her and a friend a full day to get to Las Vegas from her home near San Francisco, a trip that would require about 10 hours in a conventional car. "It's been fun, though," she said cheerfully, noting that they had watched three movies at their charging stops, including the Beyoncé documentary "Homecoming" and "The Emperor's New Groove."
A work in progress
Of the more than 270 million registered vehicles nationwide, only about 1.1 million are electric, with about half of those in California. That picture may change quickly: By 2025, about 7% of new vehicles sold in the United States are expected to be electric models, according to government projections cited by the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy. But as Young's road trip and mine demonstrate, these vehicles have a ways to go before millions of people will be willing to dump the internal combustion engine.
Engineers haven't created batteries that can store as much energy as a gas tank or be filled as quickly. While costs have come down significantly, batteries remain expensive, adding to the cost of the car, and they degrade over time, which means maximum mileage might decrease.
These cars have been held back partly by decisions that automakers and other businesses have made. Companies have often gone their own way, rather than adopting universal standards. Tesla, for example, has built more than 1,500 charging stations worldwide, but they can fill up only Tesla cars; Teslas can generally be fueled at stations built by other businesses.
There is no single standard for plugs, so some electric-car drivers have to carry multiple adapters. Nor is there a single approach for how car owners pay for electricity, with some companies charging by the power consumed — as with a home utility bill — and others charging by the time spent at the charger.
Executives at automakers and charging companies argue that it is unfair to judge electric cars and charging stations based on their current limitations. Given a few years, they say, these vehicles will become as convenient as gas-fueled vehicles, if not more so.
Much is riding on that prospect.
Tesla has raised billions of dollars from investors to build cars and charging stations. Volkswagen recently said it would invest more than $34 billion by 2023 in electrifying its car lineup; the company is also spending $2 billion on a network of charging stations called Electrify America. EVgo, which claims to have the largest fast-charging network in the United States, expects to secure more than $2 billion in grants from state governments and environmental programs and raise an undisclosed amount from venture capital firms. And big oil companies like BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron have invested in charging stations.
Most of the companies are losing money on these efforts, largely because of the upfront costs. To turn a profit, they will need many more people to buy electric cars and the electricity that powers them.
Charging on average costs $10 for about 200 miles, depending on the car, or about half the typical cost of gasoline for that distance, according to AAA. Our experience was not as economical: We spent about $67 on electricity, perhaps $10 less than we might have on gas.
Charging stations typically receive their power from the electric grid, for which they pay local utilities, though some supplement that with energy from solar panels and batteries. And electricity rates fluctuate less than gas prices because they are subject to state regulation.
Tesla concluded that it would need to build its own charging stations to convince car buyers that they could "go anywhere," said Drew Baglino, the automaker's vice president for technology. Initially, the company offered free charging to Tesla owners, a perk no longer available to most buyers.
All told, the United States has about 24,000 public charging stations, with an average of fewer than three charging posts. By comparison, there are about 150,000 gas stations, some with dozens of pumps.
In addition to building more charging stations, auto and energy companies say, they are working to speed up charging.
Chargers are classified by how quickly they dispense electricity. A Level 1 charger is about as fast as using a standard wall outlet and can take a day or more to fill a car battery, depending on the model. A Level 2 charger, akin to a 240-volt outlet used for dryers and other large appliances, can replenish a car battery in a few hours. Level 3 chargers can achieve similar results in a fraction of the time but can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The fastest Level 3 public chargers available fill up electric cars like the Chevy Bolt, Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model S in 30 minutes to an hour.
Later this year, Porsche will start selling a Taycan for $130,000 that it claims can be topped up in 10 minutes at newer, faster Level 3 chargers. Companies like EVgo and Electrify America have begun installing such chargers.
But in practice, car chargers are often much slower than their advertised top speeds, especially when many cars are plugged in at the same time. That's because banks of chargers typically share a single power source.
Actor John de Lancie didn't realize that limitation until he recently showed up at Tesla's charging station in Hawthorne, Calif., with his Model S for the first time. One charger was available among eight stalls. He was lucky; Tesla owners have been known to wait an hour or more for a charger to open up.
"It says five hours [to charge]," de Lancie said incredulously to Tesla representatives. The company's staff quickly moved his car to a faster charger, called the V3, that was being tested at the station.
De Lancie, who played Q on the TV show "Star Trek: The Next Generation," said driving his new car was "a little like stepping into the future." But he added, "You do have to think about charging."
Where should chargers go?
One thorny problem is where to put chargers.
Industry and government officials agree that there should be chargers along highways to cater to people going long distances. Beyond those locations, the picture becomes murkier.
In suburban areas where people tend to have garages and access to 240-volt outlets, most people will charge electric cars overnight. But the needs will be different in urban areas, where many people live in apartments or condominiums.
Arturo Martin of Burbank, Calif., said his building's homeowners association would not let him install a charger for his Tesla 3 even though he was willing to cover the $3,000 cost. So he is running an extension cord from his patio to the garage. With a standard wall outlet, it takes a day and a half to charge his car. Martin said he was baffled by the association's decision. "They said it would deface the building," he said.
Charging companies recognize that there could be lots of people in Martin's situation and are working to cater to them.
EVgo, for example, has put chargers in high-traffic locations, especially in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But the company is trying to make sure that people in disadvantaged and rural communities are not left out, said Julie Blunden, an executive vice president. "We just can't build fast enough," she said. "But there are things to consider. What are the ramifications for urban planning?"
EVgo aims to become profitable by persuading consumers to make public chargers a regular part of their lives. That is partly why the company recently reached a deal to put its chargers at a few Chevron gas stations in California.
Brendan Jones, chief operating officer of Electrify America, pointed out that the infrastructure for charging was cheaper and easier to build than the large tanks required for fuel. He believes that the demand will increase to justify the investment. "I've put them everywhere," Jones said. "I've put them at malls. I've put them at Walmarts."
For their part, property owners say having chargers can help attract customers for other businesses. Macerich, a real estate investment firm, said it was adding charging stations at 23 shopping centers.
Some elected officials have endorsed that "build it and they will come" approach and are even using taxpayer funds to advance it. "It's a very exciting moment in urban planning," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said. His administration has put up more than 200 chargers that sell electricity for $1 to $3 an hour — sometimes substituting them for parking meters — and 43 that are free.
Los Angeles and Indianapolis have approved electric-vehicle ride-share programs that have added their own charging networks. Cities like Stoughton, Mass., have incorporated charging sites into their master plans. Mountlake Terrace, Wash., a Seattle suburb, requires developers to put charging stations at 1% to 10% of parking spots, depending on the type of land use.
And to encourage utilities to invest in equipment and power lines to supply charging stations, the California Public Utilities Commission and other state regulators have allowed companies to pass those costs on to their customers.
Garcetti says electric vehicles will be critical to addressing climate change. But he acknowledges that it is too early to know how quickly people will adopt the vehicles.
"A charging station, is it a social space?" he asked. "Does Starbucks become one of the great places for chargers?"
One thing is for sure, he said: "It's still going to be Wild, Wild West for a while."