EVs – For the Few.

For several decades, automobiles have been synonymous with the democratization of mobility both within and beyond the city, for billions of people across the globe.

You would think that by switching to Electric Vehicles (EVs) en masse, we’d be replacing ‘traditional’ cars with something better, cleaner, faster and cheaper to run, but also easier to operate and maintain. But, as countries, manufacturers, universities, associations of all kinds and the press alike, tout, support, subsidize and extol the virtues of Electric Vehicles, I struggle to see how exactly EVs, by themselves, will help anyone, but the top single percentiles of the society, not just for the foreseeable future, but for a few decades at least.

Let me explain. EVs use batteries. Those batteries need many hours of charging when one uses normal residential power to charge those cars. Eight or even ten hours are common figures quoted by manufacturers for most EVs on sale today. There’s a few things someone could do to reduce this time to something more ‘reasonable’. One is to buy a special charger from the manufacturer. Another is to use a public charging facility. The difference with both of those solutions and standard home charging is the speed with which those charging units can provide energy to the car. 

For example, in the US, Tesla’s home charging device can provide the vehicle with 48amps, that’s 11.5KW of energy, at 240volts. Now, in many (most) European states, the standard contract with the power company typically stipulates less power than this, for the whole home. In Greece it’s about 8KW on a single-phase connection. In France and Belgium, it’s about 9KW. Of course, it’s not impossible, nor uncommon, to find larger installations using three-phase connections etc., but for the vast majority of the population that’s not the case, nor is it always easy to change — think a rented apartment. 

Let’s assume that this is not a problem for you and you already have a much higher supply of electricity that would allow you to maintain a 48amp wall charger for your electric vehicle. Oh, and that you would be able to provide this power to your garage, which is not really common in underground apartment block building garages. But let’s assume that you, somehow, managed to solve this too.

What if you don’t have a private garage. That’s the case for the vast majority of most European city residents: parking their cars on the street. Where are you supposed to charge your car overnight? Someone might argue, you could charge your car at work during the day. Well, in many cities employers do not (and cannot) offer private parking. But even if they did, it would require considerable investment to build the infrastructure for charging dozens, if not hundreds, of vehicles in a secure garage. What about public parking stations that offer charging. That’s a possibility. But there aren’t as many to support a wholesale switch to EVs, and even if there were, the infrastructure cost for providing charging units for everyone would be stupendous. Let alone security in those places would need to be considerably improved if people left their cars charging there for hours on end.

So, if you were someone who’s renting a flat and working at an office without parking facilities (i.e. having to park on the street), you’d be expected to make use of some public charging station, or something like a ‘Tesla Supercharger’ (or equivalent) during your day. Those are much higher energy charging stations that can deliver more than 100KW of power to the car, thus charging the batteries much faster. Sadly, it would still take more than an hour to fully charge your car from almost empty and about 20 minutes to get from zero to 50%. On top of that, regular fast charging of batteries, generally speaking, greatly affects (viz. reduces) their lifespan. And Li-ion batteries in cars are not cheap. In fact, Tesla suggests its customers prefer to charge at home (using much ‘slower’ charging devices) and only use Superchargers in long trips. Oh, and public charging stations, like Superchargers, aren’t really available in most European cities, or, for that matter, US cities, at a density even close to supporting a wholesale switch to EVs.

Let’s assume that all of the above is understood and, for some reason, accepted without question. Let’s just use public charging stations. The problem with this is that even if you used the fastest public charging facility available, the time it would take you to charge your car will, on average, be much longer than the time you currently wait in a gas station to refuel your vehicle today. Which means that for every trip you make, you would always need to explicitly factor the trip to the charging station. Which is certainly possible, but not exactly practical.

EVs initially targeted the luxury segment for a reason: technology and R&D costs aside, only those with large detached homes, private parking spaces with the ability to install a home/wall charging unit etc. could afford to buy and maintain EVs. With dozens of governments offering tax discounts, incentives to manufacturers and consumers alike in an attempt to catalyze the switch to electric, I’m wondering if I’m missing the point or if they are; for they seem to be ignoring the actual logistics nightmares issues that come with having the vast majority of new vehicles sold in a market like Greece, France, Italy or Germany being EVs within the span of a few years with the infrastructure necessary to run them nowhere to be found. I seriously doubt whether the average person in any of those countries that rents a flat, owns a car and parks on the street (or in an open parking area) today will be able to maintain and operate an EV for the next decade or so. 

Unless battery swapping becomes an option that is — although given the complete lack of support by all manufacturers for this idea it doesn’t seem to be the case.