What Does It Take to Sour on the Electric Car Experience?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Sales of electric cars are growing but all is not well in electric car land. While owners of plug-in hybrids such as the Chevrolet Volt remain extremely happy, there is a specific reason why some EV owners are souring on their experience.

The issue is electric car charging congestion. The number of electric car chargers has grown rapidly in the last three years. The precise numbers are hard to get because there are different networks and they count chargers differently (workplace or not, etc.).

In any case, using round numbers, there has been an increase from 2,000 three years ago to 20,000 now. The problem is that while only 18,000 electric cars were sold in the U.S. in 2011, the number grew to 53,000 in 2012 and now 96,000 in 2013.

Cars are like cats, they are sitting still and asleep at least 21 hours out of 24, on average. That's when you want to have them plugged in to charge. We are now approaching 200,000 plug-in electric cars on U.S. roads but with only approximately 20,000 chargers -- and far from evenly distributed -- this becomes a problem in many areas.

The most popular electric cars are priced around $30,000 to $35,000 before tax adjustments and they have a rated range of approximately 80 miles, per the EPA. We hear to no end how this is enough for almost everything most people do with their car, most notably commuting to work.

Yes, it's true that most commutes are well below 40 miles, and if that is all you did with your car that would work just fine. The problem is at least twofold:

1. Real range is sometimes a lot less than 80 miles.

On a cold day, you could lose as much as 30% of your range. This means you are now down to 56 miles. Then, when the car is a few years old the battery may have lost up to 20% of its capacity, so now you are down to 45 miles. Then, if you want to keep up with traffic at 70-75 miles per hour, you will likely lose another 10% or more. So now your range is 40 miles, or half of the rated 80 miles.

As Clint Eastwood said in Dirty Harry: Do you feel lucky?

Surely someone will now object and say: "I have 35 miles to work, and I charge there, so even at 40 miles, I am fine."

Alternatively, "I have 18 miles to work, and I don't charge there, but I'm still fine."

Well, for you blessed souls who have nothing going on in your lives that you would ever want or need to do than go straight to work and back, I congratulate you. You are the 1%. You are fit to go with a nominal 80 mile EV. Pop open the champagne!

However, normal people may have you consider the next point:

2. Sometimes, you have to go somewhere else besides work.

You would think this is obvious, but from comments I hear from EV enthusiasts and automakers alike it seems like an alien concept. Sometimes you may need or want to travel an unpredictable distance outside of your commute to work.

There was a point, approximately two to three years ago, when there was an initial build-out of electric car chargers in city/town parking garages and equivalent, but there were not that many electric cars using them. It was the best of times.

Back then, in 2011 and 2012, I could count on being able to charge my EV when I headed to a downtown or some other shopping area. There might have been five chargers in those parking garages, but they were almost never all taken at the same time.

No longer.

As 2012 drew to a close, the sales of EVs had skyrocketed and the usage of these charging stations had increased to a point where they are all taken almost every minute between 6:30 a.m. and sometime in the evening. Judging from my own personal observations I can count to the tune of a 97% probability that if I show up between 6:30 a.m. and bedtime they will all be busy.

In other words, the only thing I can count on is that I can't charge when I'm out and about, with 97% certainty.

How would you feel if there was a 97% probability of the gas station being unusable? I thought so.

Of course, unlike gasoline stations I can still charge my EV at home and at work. In those places, I'm either in control or can effectively force myself to get a charge. This means that my short "commute" travel every day is at least protected from the inability to charge anywhere in a public parking garage.

Outside of that carefully crafted bubble, however, owing an 80-mile pure EV is basically a very limited experience at this point. I have several owners telling me they never dare taking their 80-mile EV more than 30 miles away from home because all charging stations are guaranteed to be busy.

This situation is not only totally unacceptable to the average American, but it's also causing some of the early EV enthusiasts to sour on their experience after an initial year or two of happy ownership and euphoria. After I heard similar stories for the umpteenth time I had to write about it.

Sometimes people need to go places on short notice, and on occasion a bit farther away than usual. Charger congestion has made this almost impossible over the last year or so for the prototypical 80-mile EV owner.

I hear it all the time these days: "If I have to go into the city, I take my other car" or "If I have to go anywhere more than 30 miles and it's not to work, I have to take the other car."

Thank heavens these people have at least one extra car in the household! But imagine how painful this is if they aren't at home and don't have easy access to that other car. Spontaneous travel has become almost impossible.

Don't get me wrong, electric cars are superior to internal combustion cars (ICEs) in many important ways: They drive smoother, they are silent, torque is instantaneous and they have fewer moving parts so service costs should be lower. Nobody has soured on these basic advantages.

Where people are losing patience is simply in the charging infrastructure. Four years ago there were almost no chargers, so that was an obvious problem. Now, there are tons of chargers but they are busy all the time -- other than at home and at work.

Another way of saying this is that the electric car market is choking on itself. The other problem would be if you know that a charger is available but it is out of service when you get there. Whoops! How much safety margin did you have? If you had to plan in advance, probably not enough.

This is why I am predicting that, for at least the near term, the EV market is facing some headwinds. The initial euphoria is wearing off, at least for some portion of the early adopters. There will eventually be a solution but it will likely take time.

Actually, there is already a solution for the reasonable $35,000 price point: A plug-in hybrid such as General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Volt. With its 38-mile average EV range, most people cover a majority of their driving in electric mode. When you have to go longer -- emergency, spontaneous outing, anything! -- you just continue and run on gasoline, just like in any regular car. If a charger is available where you happen to stop, great. Otherwise don't worry about it.

I think the market for cars where you have to organize your life around your car is rather limited. We're talking less than 1% of car sales in this category. However, in a plug-in hybrid you don't have to think about anything extra compared to a regular gasoline/diesel car. The car conforms to your needs, not the other way around.

With the Volt, you still have the option of plugging it in anywhere you want, such as your home and your office, plus anywhere else you can find an available charger. But if you can't, there's just no worry. How much worrying do you want to have with respect to your car? The average car buyer should not have to think about these things, let alone worry.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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