Gil Tal lives in Davis, California, where winter daytime temperatures are in the mid-50s and annual rainfall is well below the national average. But the Sierra Nevada mountains are two hours away, so Tal made sure his latest car had four-wheel drive. “One day, I will go to the snow,” he says.
It turns out that’s how Americans think about buying vehicles. They purchase trucks because they might have to haul something one day—or SUVs because, what if every kid wants to bring a friend on a trip? The same goes for electric vehicles, says Tal, director of UC Davis’ Plug-in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center. Despite leaps in battery technology, which allow some EVs to travel hundreds of miles between charges, surveys suggest that range anxiety still freaks out prospective buyers. Which means, Tal’s survey participants tell him, that people want to know there will be chargers on every possible route, even if “they’re usually not stopping,” he says.
That explains why the federal government last week told state and local governments to use $5 billion from the infrastructure bill to place EV charging stations roughly every 50 miles along designated stretches of national highways; the stations don’t have to be on the side of the road, but must be within a mile. That’s despite the fact that the average American drives less than 35 miles a day (even before the pandemic), and that the vast majority of today’s EV owners charge at home.
The chargers are a critical part of the Biden administration’s plan to build 500,000 public fast-charging stations over the next eight years, to support what it hopes will be a flood of EVs hitting the road. The US currently has 47,000 public charging stations, according to the Energy Department, fewer than 6,000 of which are fast chargers that can top up an EV in as little as 30 minutes. This administration wants half of new auto sales by 2030 to be zero-emission, up from 4 percent last year. In California, where 9.5 percent of new vehicle sales last year were electric, the governor wants to eliminate sales of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035.
But why put some charging stations in remote areas where they may get little use? In a word: psychology.
Paul Stern, president of the Social and Environmental Research Institute, who studies how people make decisions related to sustainability, says just seeing EV charging stations on a map might relieve some potential buyers’ anxiety about finding a place to charge. A network of highly visible charging stations along well-trafficked highways also could draw drivers’ attention to EVs, Stern says.
“People think, ‘This must be something that other people are doing,’” says Nicole Sintov, a psychologist who studies electric vehicle adoption at Ohio State University. In a new paper (still under review), she looks at the relationship between the density of charging stations in an area and its residents’ willingness to adopt EVs. She concludes that as the number of charging stations in an area increases, locals’ range anxiety abates and they become more willing to go electric.
Given the limited amount of money available—the $5 billion, plus the funds that states are required to put in, should fund tens of thousands of four-port charging stations—any decision about where to put charging stations will be fraught with uncertainty. The states deciding where to build these stations are “not going to be able to predict where charging stations should be, because we don’t know how people will change their behavior,” says Laura Schewel, founder and CEO of StreetLight Data, a transportation analytics company. In some ways, she points out, the government is acting like a tech startup. “If you’re driving innovation, that’s how you do it: fast,” she says.
Of course, these highway stations won’t be the only ones built. The feds have another $2.5 billion to distribute through grants for putting chargers in disadvantaged and rural communities. And many cities and states offer incentive programs aimed at getting more public chargers into cities. Utilities have pledged to spend billions supporting stations, and EV advocates hope other companies get in on the station-building act too (though the economics of charging can get dicey).
To be sure, even with built-out charging networks, car buyers will still have plenty of psychological moats to cross—like accepting the higher cost of electric cars, jumping through hoops to claim government rebates or otherwise benefit from incentive programs, and finding a new technician qualified to work on electrics.
But just seeing more electrics could beget electrics. “Life is complex, and humans are very good at learning from each other,” says Michigan State University environmental sociologist Thomas Dietz. “So naturally, when something new comes along, part of our process is to see how people like us are reacting.”
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