And given our addiction to oil, Dahlberg suggests, the country has little choice but to take a shot at something. “There are certainly a lot of obstacles” to an electric car future, he says. “But when you put those in the context of what is at stake for our country, they start to pale in comparison.”
What, precisely, a city or state should do to prepare the way for electric vehicles is not entirely clear. But a central focus, at the moment, is building a network of publicly available charging stations in a bid to alleviate “range anxiety” — the fear of getting stranded by the side of the road with a depleted battery.
There is some debate about whether range anxiety ought to be the primary concern at the moment; even without a charging infrastructure, early adopters — well-to-do environmentalists and technophiles — are plunking down the $99 deposits on first-generation Nissan Leafs with little hesitation.
But most advocates say the chargers are a necessary precondition to widespread adoption of the cars. And in Rhode Island, Brown University researchers are already using enrollment in an alternative energy program known as GreenStart to predict clusters of electric vehicle buyers — and mining data on traffic patterns and population density to suggest where chargers might be placed.
It is, though, a sort of educated guesswork for now. There is no real science of deployment. To wit: BP has committed to installing charge points at a handful of its gas stations elsewhere in the country, but the company itself seems skeptical about whether drivers will want to hang out in its convenience stores for any length of time while their batteries charge.
And while it’s easy to imagine better places for the stations — malls, movie theaters, the beach — no one is really sure how many to deploy in a given city or a state. “There’s no magic number,” Dahlberg says.
Indeed, there is a real concern about overbuilding the infrastructure and creating a backlash — among taxpayers angry about unnecessary public expenditure and among drivers annoyed at the sight of prime, dedicated parking spots sitting unused outside the department store.
In fact, early research suggests that electric vehicle owners will do about 80 percent of their charging at home or at work, making the public infrastructure little more than a sprawling exercise in psychology — intended more to put drivers at ease than to inspire heavy usage.
Of course, if Americans are ever to drive electric vehicles from city to city, they will need something more utilitarian. One company, Silicon Valley-based Better Place, proposes a vast network of battery changing stations, stocked with giant robotic arms that would pull deplenished batteries out of vehicles and replace them with fully-charged models.
The advantage here, of course, would be avoiding the problem of lengthy charge times. But industry experts say the system could only work if automakers agree to standardize battery technology. That seems unlikely given that the battery is the prime piece of intellectual property onboard any electric vehicle.
The alternative, a nationwide network of costly fast-charge stations capable of replenishing a car battery in 30 minutes — as opposed to the four to eight hours it takes for a regular charge — would probably cost hundreds of billions.