Plug Versus Pump

What people don’t get about the convenience of electric cars

Yesterday, Tesla announced its plan to radically expand its Supercharger stations around the country, and hinted at new technology that will decrease charging time at these stations by 50%. (If you haven’t been following the discussion of supercharging, the quick summary is that these stations allow you to re-charge the Tesla’s battery in about 45 minutes with free, solar-generated energy.) The announcement is designed to combat the familiar criticism that all EV’s have faced to date: the so-called “range anxiety” that comes from driving a car that can’t refuel itself via the existing infrastructure of gas stations. This drawback has led some observers to question the mainstream viability of all-electric vehicles; Business Insider’s Henry Blodget went so far as to call them “dead in the water” thanks to the inconvenience of relying on charging instead of gas stations. Matt Yglesias makes a similar point with more subtlety: 

The real problem is scale and infrastructure. People sometimes express this as a problem of “range,” but that’s not right. A car that can go 200 miles before refueling is a fine car. The problem is that electric cars are hard to refuel. But if lots of people owned electric cars, then parking lots all across America would feature charging outlets and highways would be dotted with superchargers. After all, if you were the only person in North America to own a gasoline powered car you would be the one with the range problem. It’s the gas stations, not the internal combustion engine, that make gasoline-fueled vehicles convenient. 

The Supercharger rollout looks like a great response to these critics, but I still think there’s a more fundamental point to be made here, which is the only reason why we think of EVs as being “inconvenient” is because we’re biased by the expectations of the gas-powered twentieth century. 

To get outside those expectations, consider this little thought experiment. Imagine a company releases a new smartphone that works exactly like today’s phones with one crucial difference: you can’t charge it at an ordinary outlet in your home or at the office. You can use the phone normally, but when the battery starts to run down, you have to drive to some bleak spot by the side of a highway, swipe your credit card, and sit there in this depressing non-place while it charges. And for the pleasure of this experience, your card gets charged $50. 

How do you think the market would respond to such a device? I think it’s fair to say the response would be universally negative, precisely because it’s ridiculously inconvenient to drive off to some random location to charge your phone, when we’re accustomed to plugging in by our bedside table overnight. 

You see where this is going: the whole beauty of the EV with more than 200 miles of range is that 95% of the time, you do all your charging at home in your garage. You pull into the driveway, turn the car off, plug it in, and you’re done. Electric cars are “hard to refuel”—as Yglesias puts it—only because we’ve been acclimated to the tedious grind of driving to gas stations and standing around a pump.(Jason Calacanis talks about the joy of never having to visit a gas station again in another post in this collection.) Even without a Supercharger network, EVs are actually much easier to refuel than gas-powered cars, precisely because the “scale and infrastructure” problems were solved by the electrical grid a hundred years ago. Once consumers get used to the charge-at-home ritual, the pilgrimage to the gas station will very quickly feel as inconvenient as rewinding the VHS tape and driving it back to Blockbuster.

The one caveat here is something I’ve written about in an earlier post: the enhanced convience of an EV disappears if you live a dense city and park your car on the street, or in a public garage with no outlets. That’s why I was hoping Tesla’s announcement would include some reference to Supercharger stations in urban places like Manhattan or Boston or San Francisco. (To date, they have mostly invoked the Supercharger network as a way of supporting longer road trips between cities.) But for everyone else, replacing the pump with the plug will very quickly make us realize how much time we’ve been wasting at gas stations all these years. 

Full disclosure: I write this as a big fan of Tesla who owns a small piece of stock in the company, and who would someday love to figure out a way to justify buying one of their cars.

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