What Happens When We Can Get Picky About Charging Stations?

What Happens When We Can Get Picky About Charging Stations

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For people living in California, New York, or some other area with a lot of EVs, what I’m going to say here may sound behind the times. And, honestly, you’re probably right. I live in a rural state with no urban areas. Even the largest city in the state only has a few square blocks of tall buildings. The town I grew up in doesn’t have a single traffic light. Even worse, poverty is rampant, and many people simply can’t afford even today’s more affordable EVs.

For this reason, New Mexico was among the last to get much EV charging. Tesla put in a few Superchargers along major highways first, and then Electrify America added a few more. Until late last year and early this year, vast swaths of the state had no EV fast charging, and there are still large areas today with both no stations and no plan or money to ever put them in.

As an EV owner in this state, I’m not usually in any position to be picky about charging stations when I drive too far away for home charging to cover my needs. I live in the southern part of the state, near El Paso. If I drive into Texas, there’s basically nothing but Electrify America stations until Dallas or San Antonio. Heading west into Arizona, it’s the same thing: Electrify America or nothing. Heading north or east into New Mexico, most towns have only one choice of station.

Sometimes, this lack of choice means that I’m stuck with some awful stations. I’ve seen Electrify America improve station reliability a lot so far this year, but even when things are working perfectly, some stations are severely lacking in amenities. Several of them are located at hotels, and there’s no food or snacks available. Others are located at Walmart stores, which was great when they were open 24 hours, but those have closed at night since the pandemic. Some are located at restaurants and shopping centers where there are no restrooms or other amenities available at night.

On a recent road trip I took from home to North Carolina, I experienced something I hadn’t really experienced before: choice!

After I got to Dallas, I noticed that I had some choices. I started out sticking with what’s familiar: Electrify America. And, honestly, it sucked. Sam’s Club has bathrooms, but the parking lot was packed, it’s a ways off the highway, and it was clearly more aimed at serving local drivers than travelers. So, I decided to try something different for the next stop.

I found a really nice Mercedes-Benz-branded ChargePoint station in Royse City, Texas, at a Buc-ee’s travel center. Unlike the crowded Sam’s Club parking lot, there was plenty of room to easily pull up and charge without blocking any spaces, even with a trailer. I couldn’t test speeds, but these were rated for up to 500 kW of charging. They did put out the full 55 kW my Bolt EUV can take in, and given that many stations only put out 40–50 kW to my vehicle, this showed me that the station was in great shape and not nursing any busted power modules.

More importantly, it was located in a place with plenty of things travelers need: a clean bathroom, water, drinks, and food. This made for a very nice charging stop.

The next station I had a choice on was in Little Rock, Arkansas. I chose Franklin’s Charging both because DCFC pricing was reasonable and the amenities were better than at most charging stations. You can read all about my experiences at Franklin’s here. Again, the choice was a nice place with snacks and a bathroom or a Walmart parking lot.

As I got into Tennessee, I decided to give GM and Pilot/Flying J’s stations a try. The first one in Jackson, Tennessee, was good, but lacked pull-through charging. Worse, it was rainy and nasty there, so I didn’t get any good photos. But, it was at a place built for travelers and not local shoppers.

Later, near Knoxville, I used another GM/Pilot/Flying J truck stop. This one had a much larger canopy, pull-through charging, long cables that were easy to reach the car with, and all of the usual amenities you’d find at a Pilot or Flying J truck stop. You can read all about my experiences at that station here.

For the rest of the drive into North Carolina, I realized that my whole attitude about charging changed. Instead of finding the one station in range of an area, I found several. This gave me choices I could make not only about how long I’d go between charging, but also about what amenities I’d choose.

One of the good stations I came across was at a Circle K in Hickory, NC. My other options were Electrify America stations at closed Walmarts or other stations at businesses that were closed. Sure, I’d get a charge, but the Circle K station offered a place to go to the bathroom and get some snacks and drinks. It was also an easy place to go into and out of, had plenty of room near the chargers to park, and otherwise was easy to use for my vehicle and good for my needs.

The Big Takeaway Here

At this point, we’re starting to see more populated areas and more heavily-traveled corridors get actual options for EV charging. But, in much of the country, there are still many areas where you have to rely on the only girl in town for EV charging. They can be as good or as bad as they want, and people will still go there.

Aside from needing more redundancy and more capacity to make EV charging reliable and reduce wait times, competition helps the consumer in more ways, including with amenities.

If you’re opening a new EV charging station, or are involved in making such decisions, then you need to consider the emerging competitive landscape. It makes no sense to install EV charging stations at stores that close at night, at places with no amenities, or anywhere else that doesn’t offer a good set of amenities. It might work okay now in small towns where the charging station is the only one available to serve travelers, but when competition arrives, it’ll be a complete waste of money.

All images by Jennifer Sensiba.

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