My first month as an EV owner in the Silicon Valley

I recently leased a 2017 BMW i3. Switching to an EV from a traditional gas-only vehicle was a strange and surprising experience. Here are some of my key take aways from the first month.

CC BY-SA 2.0 by David van der Mark

What do I do while my car is charging?

This is a big problem you’ll notice right away in your first few days of owning an EV.

I was naïve to think I could take this car on a road trip. It’s possible, but not practical. Yes, there are plenty of chargers along the way, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find one right in front of the restaurant where you decide to take a pit stop. More likely, it will be in some random location and you’ll be forced to sit in your car or find something to do for four hours while your vehicle charges.

Enjoy the Fremont Peak Historical Marker while you charge at the only station in town.

My vehicle came with a level 1 or “trickle” charger. It’s the slowest of the typical three levels, but super convenient because it can plug into a standard outlet and charge your car from home. You can also buy level 2 chargers for home, but it will easily run you over $1,000 after installation. Adding another 10–30% of charge or more while I sleep doesn’t sound like much, but for no extra cost, it’s actually pretty valuable.

Getting the range extender option was a great idea

I desperately want the world to ditch gas vehicles, but the infrastructure is still in its early days. My vehicle has a 2.5 gallon gas tank that kicks in if the charge dips below about 6%. I hardly notice the transition and as you’ll read, finding and using a charger is not always convenient. I would be afraid to rely on my car if it weren’t for the peace of mind knowing I can always…well…go back to gas if needed.

The strange world of commercial chargers

I love my EV, but I miss the simplicity of using a gas station.

Gas stations are plentiful all over the U.S. I care little where they actually are because I only spend 10–15 minutes at them. They also have the added benefit of carrying snacks and a light inventory of car maintenance supplies like windshield wiper fluid and tire pressure gauges.

Most if not all electric vehicle chargers are not like soda machines you can walk up to and pay one-off every time. They require you to be a literal card-carrying member or download the app to get a code to charge as a guest. It’s a hassle. But once you’re membered-up, it’s not as annoying.

Going back to the boredom-while-charging problem, if my i3 is at 50%, that means I need become a complete pedestrian for 2–3 hours for a full charge. Unfortunately, chargers are not plentiful enough to count on being in a walkable, shopping friendly area whenever you plug in.

I’ve found myself charging in the back of corporate offices with frightening “PARKING RESTRICTED” signs greeting me along the way. I also can’t rely on using my eyes to find a charger as I would with a gas station. the stations are roughly the dimensions of a shortish human being standing up. I really need to open the app and get directions to chargers in my car navigation to find them.

The rare supercharger

Maybe it’s different as a Tesla owner, but the superchargers are scarce. Superchargers are the fastest chargers you can find. For my car, I can expect them to charge it to 80% in 20 minutes and about 10 more minutes to finish it off. The reason for the split has something to do with the strain on charging your battery this way.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much else to report on this matter because I have yet to find myself in a situation where a level 3 charger is available.

Every charger owner gets to make their own rules and prices

Like a soda machine, the owner gets to run the charger like their own little business. Usually the rates are reasonable. They typically charge at 6kw/hour. I’ve seen prices from $0-$6 per hour. Usually it’s around $2–3, so $0.33-$0.50 per kw. Per mile, I pay very little to charge my vehicle compared to gas and I love it.

But the whole system still has room to grow. There are different kinds of plugs and some may not be compatible with your vehicle. I consider myself lucky because my plug is pretty common, but I do have to check before I drive over to a station.

VIP treatment

On the other hand, commercial chargers often give you access to priority parking locations right next to accessibility-reserved spots. There is a shopping area in San Jose I love because I get to park right next to the parking garage exit, charge my car, and even move it to a priority “clean air vehicle” non-charging location after I’m done.

Read the comments before you charge

Despite the occasional VIP treatment, I’ve been bitten several times by not reading the comments first. Some chargers are stalked by repeat jerks who will park and squat well after their charge is complete. Others are reserved only for employees of whatever business owns the parking lot. You might find yourself driving up to the charger only to be greeted by a locked gate. Some chargers are at car dealerships where the staff do not take kindly to your using the charger without being a customer.

It’s like having to take a piss in Paris. You’re made to feel like you’re doing something wrong for doing something you need to do.

On one occasion, I found myself driving up an FBI-like driveway where the guard immediately came out and asked me what the hell I was doing.

On another, I parked in a public and commercial area, charged my car, and walked over to a Starbucks. On the way over, I read in the comments to beware that the charger is open for public use, but the parking space itself is customers only…”park at your own risk.”

These situations could have been avoided by reading the comments on the Chargepoint app for the station first. But doesn’t it suck that you have to do that at all?

Employer-sponsored charging programs are great

My employer has chargers at every building and gives us a pass that lets us charge for free. M-F, charging is a breeze. I don’t even think about it. During the week, my battery life is never on my mind. Weekends are a different story.

Chargepoint is my favorite for several specific reasons.

The app is well designed and works perfectly. As I noted earlier, people actually chip in and provide commentary on chargers which is super helpful. Even though the charger can’t access your vehicle’s information, such as how far along it has charged, it can tell you when the draw has greatly reduced and stopped. It will notify you that your car is “probably done charging” it’s always correct. They’re all over the place in the Silicon Valley.

Charger companies have different solutions to the problem of EV vehicles staying parked well after being charged to 100%.

Other companies charge a penalty, which seems fair. However, practically speaking, it’s super disruptive to have to interrupt whatever you’re doing (imagine going out to a restaurant with friends) so you can run back and move your car.

Some Chargepoint chargers let you tap your membership fob to “Get in the queue”. That means when another member has finished charging, you get a notification that you can drive up and be next. You hold your place in line in front of anyone else who might just happen to drive up to the space thinking it is available. (There is also a time limit and other considerations I won’t get into here.)

Blink and evGO are good too.

I was happy that upon first seeing a blink charger, instead of having to wait to get their membership card, there was a guest charging option from the app I could use. It was a little more expensive to charge as a guest, but they called that out before I signed off on it, and I get the idea from a business perspective.

How the experience could improve

For the boredom-while-charging problem, the most elegant solution I can think of for this is to just ask your car to get lost and drive itself to a charger while you enjoy your time at wherever you need to be. You can then summon the car when it is needed again. Otherwise, just get more chargers out there.

I also wonder if it would make any sense to make a standard, swappable battery component in the vehicle. This would be a lightish battery holding a percentage of the vehicle’s total range that could be immediately swapped out for a fully charged battery at a service station. My guess is that there are too many concerns for practicality when the modules belong to everyone and no one; Users will damage the modules and the weight and maneuverability of them might not actually be worth it.

For the squatter problem, I wish they could add two extra “queue” charging cables to each station. I don’t mean that each station could charge four at a time instead of two. I understand that this would mean a significant upgrade to the station’s output ability. I mean four cables but two at a time.

This way, you could drive up, plug in, and automatically start charging once another user has finished without having to wait for them to physically remove the cable from their vehicle. I also wouldn’t feel as guilty if I had let my car sit around for a half an hour because it was too inconvenient to move it.