Solving the EV Road Trip Challenge with Special Charging Corridors

By · July 28, 2016

Tools like PlugShare allow today's EV drivers to locate so-called Quick Charging stations along major highways. Availability of charging stations on high-traffic corridors is set to rapidly expand in the next three to four years.

As any electric car driver knows, today’s EVs have all the necessary range for effortless local daily driving—as long as you charge at home over night. Having a 240-volt home charger, ideally backed up by a charger at work, is all you need for nearly every day of the year. While it’s nice to have a smattering of public charging stations positioned across the landscape, the bigger and more important task is enabling electric car road trips between major cities—on key corridors.

The US Federal Highway Administration this week addressed that issue by inviting state and local officials to nominate routes to be designated as national electric vehicle charging corridors. The corridors would also support the use of vehicles powered by hydrogen and natural gas. The so-called Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act was signed into law on Dec. 4, 2015.

Anthony Foxx, US Transportation Secretary, said, “Making sure drivers with alternative fuel vehicles can use the national highway system, rather than being limited only to local areas, is the next step in advancing America’s transportation network.”

The deadline for the initial round of nominations is Aug. 22, 2016. The corridors will be established by Dec. 4, 2016. State and local officials can learn how to submit nominations on this Federal Register website.

Then, the federal government would update and re-designate the corridors about every five years. A statement on the US Department of Energy’s website indicates that the timing will be even faster—when it calls for a progress report regarding designated corridors by the end of 2020.

Among the criteria for selecting the EV and alternative fuel corridors will be:

  • The current number of charging facilities on proposed corridors and past successful use of the stations
  • Distance between existing and planned facilities
  • Visibility, convenience and accessibility for travelers on the corridor

Planners will need to consider the emergence of long-range electric cars—with about 200 or so miles of driving range per charger—coming in the next couple years. While these EVs with bigger batteries, such as the Chevy Bolt, can travel further on a single charge, the fastest available charging rates add as much as 90 miles of range in about 30 minutes. That would require EVs on road trips to stop about every 1.5 hours to charge for 30 minutes before continuing to drive for another hour and a half.

As part of last week's announcement involving a coalition of organizations—including the Department of Transportation, Department of Energy and The White House—$4.5 billion in loan guarantees would support development of new technologies, including the long-term possibility of creating 350-kilowatt charging. Today's Quick Chargers are commonly rated at 50 kilowatts, while Tesla Superchargers max out at 120 kW. The goal could be to reduce meaningful charging pit stops to 10 minutes or so.

Not The First Attempt at Corridors

The proprietary network of so-called Superchargers established by Tesla is arguably the most robust corridor-based EV charging system today. According to Tesla’s website, there are currently nearly 700 locations where Tesla drivers—but not owners of other electric cars—can add up to 170 miles of range in as little as 30 minutes. While Tesla executives have for a couple years floated the idea of opening up Superchargers to other automakers, the company’s network remains a closed system (in part due to incompatible technology).

In January 2015, BMW and Volkswagen announced its plans to work with ChargePoint, the nation’s largest charging network, to provide strategically placed stations for EVs along heavily traveled highways in the US Northeast, the Bay Area and Southern California. The idea was to install about 100 DC fast chargers approximately 50 miles apart for drivers of the BMW i3 and Volkswagen E-Golf.

ChargePoint applauded this week’s announcement about EV corridors. “We support this vision and believe that we need a network of charging stations in our communities and along our nation's interstate highways,” said Pasquale Romano, chief executive at ChargePoint. “That’s why we’re committing to investing $20 million for the development and deployment of this network.” The related ChargePoint press release did not make mention of the status of its work with BMW and VW. At our last count, ChargePoint had more than 3,000 charging sites nationwide—mostly Level 2 240-volt chargers with about one-quarter of them in California.

> See our guide to electric car charging networks.

In April, the California Energy Commission (CEC) identified four companies, including ChargePoint, to receive a combined $8.87 million to install a network of DC fast-charging stations along major highways in California. The other companies were Recargo, EVConnect and NRG EV Services. The proposed routes include Interstate 5, State Route 99, and Highway 101. California, the number one market for plug-in vehicles, has been slow to close the gaps in fast-charge coverage along its most travelled highways. The CEC grant requires completion by 2020.

Other recent efforts to establish EV corridors include the entire Pacific coast—as part of the so-called West Coast Electric Highway—as well as the “Electric Circuit” from Maine to Québec and German highways connecting Berlin and Munich.

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