Motor Mouth: Holiday travel proves the fallacies of highway EV charging

You think it's bad waiting to fill your tank now? Wait till it takes 20 minutes or more with an electric car

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The photo above was taken at about 1pm on Monday, January 1 at a gas station halfway between Montreal and Toronto. My inability to capture Ansel Adams-like perspective shouldn’t minimize the fact that there was a lineup of approximately four cars deep for each of Mallorytown (East) ONroute’s 12 pumps, everyone in line waiting about ten to 20 minutes for their turn to refuel.

This is the very bottleneck that Motor Mouth has been lamenting over these last few months regarding our proposed complete conversion to a battery-powered motoring future, the question still the same: If we can refuel a gas car in somewhere between one-and-a-half and two minutes, what exactly will the bottleneck look like when the very best we can hope for in the future is a recharging time of 12 to 20 minutes?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Mallorytown’s 12 gas pumps would have to be replaced with at least 72 350-kilowatt chargers — each costing, at current prices, $100,000 to $200,000 — to handle the same amount of traffic. Even that, of course, wouldn’t have alleviated the traffic jam that clogged the exit— tempers were fraying, not just from those in line, but also for those trying to leave the general parking lot.

Nor was the Mallorytown exit the only over-trafficked ONroute that day. We stopped at four more Host Kilmer service stations — I called it research; my significant other said they were pee breaks — and though not as crowded , all had people waiting (impatiently) in line to fill up their gas-powered Hondas and Chevrolets. Indeed, in my experience, pretty much every holiday Monday — New Year’s isn’t the worst, Labour Day typically seeing even more intra-city travel — sees a repeat of this overload at virtually all the 401’s refueling depots.

Nor, as so many of my EV-boosting friends suggest, is this an issue easily solved by increasing an electric vehicle’s range. For one thing, though my polling was hardy Gallop-accurate — I only talked with about 10 people in line —almost all were travelling distances beyond the range of current (and forseeable) EVs. This, of course, would only have been exacerbated by the cold front that seemed to grip all of eastern Canada during the holidays. Indeed, New Year’s Eve’s -20 Celsius chill would have meant a decrease in range of anywhere between 30 and 50 per cent for even the hardiest of EVs. Even using the most optimistic of those figures married to the most muscular of Teslas means a Model S would have needed to stop at least once, possibly twice, travelling between Montreal and Toronto, exacerbating, not alleviating, as so many EV protagonists claim, the service station clogs.

Nor is the phantasm that all EV owners will simply spend their 30-minute to two-hour delay happily eating or shopping in some idyllic fill-up station of the future a reasonable reality. As it is now, although a family might be able seek the shelter of ONroute’s fine dining experience, the driver has to stay with the car to inch it forward every four or five minutes as each motorist finishes filling up with gasoline or diesel. Now imagine the frustration of having to sit there while every car in front of you takes 12 to 20 minutes to recharge.

Nor is there likely to be any breakthrough that reduces this local distribution roadblock. Yes, as so many have posited, there’s a good chance we will have superior batteries —solid state batteries may be here within the next decade — with superior range and power density. And, assuming that we’re willing to construct more nuclear stations or festoon our entire countryside with wind mills, the strain should be manageable (for a sample of the extra load involved, , a website devoted to promoting electric cars, notes that while Tesla now offers a 100 kW-hr battery, typical North American households use 25 kW-hr daily).

But there won’t be any Moore’s Law — the observation that the number of transistors in a computer’s integrated circuit board, and hence its speed, doubles every two years — for charging stations. Despite all the hype that the 350-kW and 450-kW (900 volts and 500 amps!) charging units have garnered lately, the physical limit would appear to be 500 kW — all these superchargers need liquid-cooled conduits. That means that a Tesla 100D will still need 12 minutes to charge from empty, not counting the time it takes for credit card swiping, windshield cleaning and, of course, those aforementioned pee breaks.  It’s also important to remember that, like pretty much all services, electric grids and service stations have to be built to withstand atypical “peak” loads and not just the demands of an average non-holiday Monday. 

All of which means that the roadside refueling bottleneck of replenishing electrons will not easily be solved. Nor will the frustration of road — or should I say service station — rage be diminished by the fact that you’re saving the planet. The average consumer is not going to change their expectations for convenience when it comes to their cars. Nor, as the stagnant sales of “electrified” cars (hybrids, PHEVs and EVs combined) indicates, can we expect a wholesale conversion to misty-eyed environmentalism. This is an issue that must be examined with hard facts, not emotional pleas no matter how heartfelt. It will also come with a bill that will positively frighten even the most tax-friendly statist.

Indeed, the whole roadside charging infrastructure might be trip down a (very expensive) rabbit hole. More practical solutions would seem to be a conversion to plug-in hybrids (much reduced costs and no inconvenience issues, but only an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases) instead of EVs, or equipping all extra-urban highways with wireless inductive charging (virtually limitless intra-city range and the ultimate in convenience, but hugely expensive and high maintenance in cold climates like Canada’s). No amount of wishful optimism for future technology or hopeful prognostications of the willingness of consumers to alter their driving habits will change this harsh reality.

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