Peter Kelly-Detwiler: 617.875.6575 | Leighton Wolffe: 781.547.1193 pkd@northbridgeep.com, leighton@northbridgeep.com

In July, Green Car Reports ran a story about an intrepid driver – John Briggs – who made the trip from Boston to Silver Spring, Maryland in his Nissan Leaf.

The narrative highlighted some of the key issues that remain to be overcome in order for electric vehicles (EVs) to truly make it to prime time. The key challenges Briggs faced had to do with both the range of the vehicle and the charging network that currently supports (or doesn’t) longer-range trips.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that EV sales are set to explode in the visible future, as electric vehicle prices fall and EVs become cheaper to own than internal combustion vehicles by 2025. Indeed, EVs are making progress in many ways, including stronger batteries with longer range, and a continuously improving charging network. In fact, total cumulative U.S. sales hit the 500,000 mark in September. However, while that number is significant, it must be viewed in the context of the overall market. Last year annual sales were less than 120,000, compared with 17.5 million cars and light trucks that moved off the lot.

For EVs to win the field and grab significant market share, a number of major issues must be addressed. Right now, EVs are fine for families with two cars, where an electric-only EV can handle the short-term stuff but an internal combustion engine (even if it’s supplementing a Chevy Volt or a BMW i3 with gasoline range extender) is needed for the occasional long-distance trip.

It may be true that 98% of single trips in the U.S are under 50 miles. But the other 2%, whether they be Thanksgiving sojourns or trips to the beach of ski slope, are enough to keep many households from opting for an EV – especially if it’s the only car they own.

In order for EVs to effectively replace the internal combustion engine, drivers must see EVs with longer range as well as associated charging infrastructure that is both fast and convenient. The Chevy Bolt (238 miles of range and available within a few months in some markets) and the Tesla Model 3 (215 miles and available next year) help address the former issue, but we will need more such vehicles. Even then, a number of challenges still remain.

John Briggs’ experience on his trip to Maryland highlights many of these barriers, so I contacted him recently to learn more about his pilgrimage. It should be noted that – despite the long-distance limitations – Briggs is happy with his 84-mile range Nissan Leaf, which cost him $16,000 after state and federal subsidies. Briggs charges his Leaf opportunistically, the same way many people keep their smart phones charged – taking power where he can – so he has no problem getting around his urban area.

“I drive the car (from the suburbs) into Boston. 84 miles (of range) if you live in the Boston area is fine. For me in Boston, the thing is fantastic…I fully charge in 3.5 hours if completely drained… If I come home for lunch for an hour it’s charged back up, so if I have an errand I still have 84 miles.”

Credit: Bloomberg – a very solid start, but not quite there yet

Briggs originally had no plans to take his Leaf on a long journey, until one weekend on short notice, he decided to see his son at working a summer internship in Maryland. And the Leaf was the car available for the trip.

“I had one day to plot the trip. I honestly wasn’t sure I’d make it… Worst case, I’d fail and slow charge (from a standard outlet) for four hours. This is kind of how you learn. I honestly don’t think I’d do this again, but that doesn’t mean I’m sorry I did it. It’s experiential journalism.”

Briggs evaluated all of his fast charging options on-line, ensuring he would have access to at least two chargers in any single location, in case one was defunct (a good precaution as one location did have a broken charger). He finally settled on nine spots, ranging from 25 to 74 miles apart.

During his trip, he experienced firsthand some of the key issues that prohibit widespread EV adoption (for now), principally relating to: vehicle range, charger locations and charging speed. The good news is that most of these shortcomings will be addressed very soon.

Vehicle Range: In addition to the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3, other long-range models will enter the market by 2019, including offerings from Ford and VW. So in the near future, buyers of new EVs may not face that issue.

Charger Locations: This issue still needs improvement. On his trip, Briggs observed that – aside from the proprietary Tesla network – there are next to no chargers located near to or on the highway. In fact, he typically had to travel ten minutes or more off the exit to find charging stations – usually located at shopping malls. (Shopping mall owners are astute. They know that chargers are a good investment for at least two reasons: first, EV owners typically have higher discretionary income, and second, the length of the charging cycle dictates they will stay longer at the mall, so they are likely to spend more money). Ultimately, the mall detours added 70 miles and an additional two hours of driving time to his journey.

Once at the mall, Briggs found that the chargers were often difficult to locate, even if the physical location was highlighted in his on-board app. “Many were in parking garages. Do you know how big some of these parking garages are?…And which floor was it on?”

Image: USDOT - not a corridor of the future until you add some juice to it

Image: USDOT – not a corridor of the future until you add some juice to it

In one case, Briggs was able to pinpoint the specific location by looking at an online picture of the charging station and noting its location relative to a store in the background. (The Nissan app also had an additional shortcoming: it could add charging station locations to Briggs’ GPS, but it did not include the additions of other drivers to create a collective body of knowledge. In our conversation, Briggs observed “They have missed the whole big data part of this possibility.”)

Another issue with the chargers was that Briggs needed to take part in multiple networks. The Leaf had a “no charge to charge” card, which gave Briggs free electrons at participating stations. But at one point, one of the charging networks was not connected to Nissan, and Briggs had to try and set up a GreenLots account on the phone. He feels strongly that this needs to be made easier, the same way we buy gasoline. Forget the networks and proprietary cards.

“Just charge me for it with a credit card. Why have you made it so difficult? This should be the law. That should be a bare minimum rule. It’s not in the public interest to put that (network) up and not be able to take a credit card.”

He also feels that the network of highway fast-charging needs to be built out ASAP.

“They should be at highway rest stations, way more of them in clusters of four or more. Look at what Tesla does. But this happens all the time in the CHAdeMO world (the trade name for a fast-charging method via a special outlet).”

He observes that if the single charger is defunct, “nobody is going to show up with a jerry jug…I fast charged nine times in a day…I was forever concerned that those chargers would fail.“

The good news is that an effort is underway here – supported by $4.5 billion in federal loan guarantees – to support the commercial scale build-out of fast-charging networks. In addition, the government is developing a process to identify specific fast-charging corridors and a vision for a national network of fast-charging stations by 2020.

Meanwhile, leading EV charging vendor Chargepoint (with over 31,000 charging stations to its credit to date) announced last month that in conjunction with BMW and VW it had installed 95 new fast-charging stations on the coastal corridors from Portland to San Diego and from Boston to Washington. Located about 50 miles apart, they still have one shortcoming: they are “installed within a few miles of major highways” rather then being directly located on them.

Charging Speed: On top of that, the nine charging stops (approximately one hour of charging for every four hours of driving) increased the duration of the trip by another five hours, for a 14-hour journey. This is another area being addressed, with the goal of decreasing charging times by two or three-fold, so that the experience some day may be like filling up at a gas station. For example, Porsche and others are eyeing 800-volt charging networks that could yield 240 miles of range within 15 – 20 minutes.

Briggs – while perhaps not quite a modern-day Columbus – undertook a relatively unique and pioneering trip that highlights some of the challenges standing in the way of widespread EV adoption. He was concerned that his article could be used “as fodder that EVs don’t work,” but he disagrees with the premise for a number of reasons.

First, for most of his driving, his limited range Leaf is just fine, and cost-effective. Second, governments and companies are hard at work addressing the issues such as those highlighted by his trip. Within the visible future, such inconveniences will likely be viewed in the rear-view mirror as no more than the growing pains incumbent in the launch of a new and superior technology.

Last word from Briggs:

“My Leaf got into an accident and I had to go back to my gasoline car and I said ‘oh my god, the noise.’ I just had forgotten. The Leaf is completely quiet.”