Electric Cars are Going Nowhere Fast

The Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3 might be great, but American consumers are poised to give the electric car market a reality check.

A Tesla Model S charging. Parco Valentino car show hosted 93
Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

We’ve heard the conventional wisdom for so long that it’s barely questioned: If electric cars could travel as far on a battery as regular cars do on gasoline—and do it affordably—Americans would switch en masse to EVs.

The Chevrolet Bolt, already basking its 2017 North American Car of the Year award, is about to test that theory. The spunky, smartly engineered Chevy can travel 238 miles or more on a charge, and it sells for just $29,995 after a federal tax break. Tesla's Model 3, the Bolt’s more-fashionable rival, will travel at least 215 miles on a charge when it reaches customers, ideally by late this year.

That’s all great stuff, and the Bolt and Model 3 will surely do their part to lift EV sales. But neither car is the game-changer that many analysts and media have proclaimed.

Driving range, I’ve come to believe, isn’t the biggest impediment to EV adoption. Sure, low gasoline prices make it hard to pry Americans out of their internal-combustion comfort zone. But there’s a bigger mental millstone: Charging. EV’s still take far too long to charge, at home or away. Farther afield, busy Americans aren’t about to waste time searching for a charging oasis and then cooling their heels. Tell them they'll need to hang out at a charger in Podunk for 30 minutes, let alone three hours, and they'd rather hang themselves with the cord.

Early-adopting EV fans will cry foul. They’ll point to a growing public charging infrastructure, or remind us of how we all tuck into bed every night, with ample downtime to charge at home. (The Chevy Bolt takes about 9 hours to charge on its Level 2 home charger, while the shortest-range Model 3 should take 7 hours). But to the typical spoiled consumer, those aren’t good-enough reasons to trade away from a gasoline car or a hybrid that goes where you want, when you want, with no extra hassles. Most American's likely feel that their vehicles already do their jobs just fine every night. And when those average Americans get up, that car's waiting with a tankful of unleaded, ready to go. Straight across Texas, if they want.

Don't misunderstand: I'm convinced that plug-ins, including hybrids, can play a key role in conserving petroleum and reducing pollution and carbon-dioxide emissions. But with supporters' projections of EV adoption always falling short—not by a little, but by a lot—it's time to be realistic about the reasons.

EV backers tell us, on permanent loop, that the typical American drives fewer than 35 miles a day. No argument here. But people buy conventional cars, in part, because they might want to drive 350 or even 3,500 miles; and without creating a spreadsheet to plot out charging stops with geographical and clockwork precision. Which allows me to debunk another favored EV trope: That Americans view stopping for gas as some horrible inconvenience. From the morning commute to an interstate road trip, drivers and passengers seem fine with dual fill-ups: One for unleaded, the other for coffee, doughnuts or Powerball tickets. By that standard, EV charging is a solution in search of a problem. When it's time to stop, it's actually the EV owner who experiences inconvenience—at Oregon Trail levels.

Call Americans unleaded addicts, but they can gas up any car in five minutes or less, and have roughly 300 to 500 miles of range at their disposal. It may be dirtier in environmental terms, but the hook-up with that promiscuous unleaded nozzle is fast, cheap and convenient. You're peeling away from the pump and off toward the next, with no worries over where that might be. For EV’s, even their best current alternative is a recipe for downtime and mental gymnastics. Tesla’s fast-charging DC Supercharger network adds about 170 miles of range in 30 minutes. Great. On the highway, that means stopping every 2.5 hours for another half-hour recharge, if you're lucky enough to string perfectly placed locations together. While the Tesla owner is twiddling green thumbs, a Toyota Prius driver has filled his tank in 5 minutes and been back on the road for 25 minutes and a 25-mile head start. Sayonara, Tesla. Mr. Prius is also sipping barely a gallon of gas for every hour of travel, able to drive a good 8 hours without stopping, if his bladder can hold out. Over that time, the Tesla driver will require three recharging stops. The Tesla driver can engage Ludicrous mode to his heart’s content, but he’s the Hare to the Toyota’s steady Tortoise, and he’ll lose every time.

And keep in mind that Tesla scenario is the absolute best case for traveling with an electric car. Chevrolet, BMW and most major manufacturers have adopted a slower-charging SAE standard that adds just 90 miles in a half hour. The roughly eight-hour, Level 2 chargers that make up the vast majority of public infrastructure are so woeful that it's a wonder they were ever built. Drifters and grifters aside, who on the Great American Highway has the time? Automakers (Tesla aside) keep telling us that most EV intenders are content to charge at home, and don't care about public charging. Of course they say that, because they know fast charging is a mirage in its current immature state.

Even those public charging stops are routinely filled with hiccups and hassle: The charger isn't working. Another EV has beaten you to it, forcing a travel recalculation, or a wait in the parking lot. Most disastrously, a conventional car is blocking the space, what EV fans call getting “Ice’d.” And despite sincere effort, a lot of chargers aren't where you want to be. An EV-owning friend, his hungry family in tow, recalls stopping at a desolate charger, a single sketchy Arby's looming a half-mile down the highway. He ended up calling Uber for a ride to a mall while their Nissan Leaf juiced back up. I’ve dealt with that reality even in California, with its relatively rich supply of slower Level 2 chargers. A few years ago, while my BMW i3 charged at a friendly dealer, I realized I was essentially stranded, a forlorn tourist stuck in a flyspeck town with nothing to do. Locals eyeballed me like I was casing the neighborhood. Cars like the Bolt that sail past 200 miles on a charge relieve some of those issues, but set out for a trip on America's vast network of roads and odds are you'll still have to stop sometime. Otherwise, we're back where we started, with EV's mainly limited to people who can access home garages for charging.

There is hope on the horizon, but that horizon is still distant. Companies, including a start-up in Israel, are touting hyper-charging EV batteries that could be juiced in as little as five minutes. President Obama—for as long as his administration’s generous support of EV’s lasts—earmarked $4.5 billion in Department of Energy loans to encourage EV infrastructure and charging innovation. Yet a better battery is only one obstacle. The aging, burdened electric grid in most American cities isn’t equipped for anything like 350kW charging, nearly three times as fast as Tesla’s 120kW units. As Liane Yvkoff reported, a dozen or so hyper-charging cars would suck up enough juice to power a neighborhood.

According to Inside EV’s, Americans bought 159,139 plug-in cars in 2016, including hybrids, a solid 37-percent jump from 2015. More than 100,000 of those were pure EVs. But that still leaves EV’s with a piddling 0.6 percent of new-car sales, far below rosy projections of a few years ago. Considering that low baseline, the affordable Bolt and Model 3 are sure to boost sales. But until someone figures out a smarter, faster way to boost batteries, EV’s will remain an electron-sized speck in the market.