Electric cars are all over the news in the USA, but there aren't many of them on the streets.
With the UAW on strike and both future presumed presidential candidates visiting Michigan (coincidentally on the same day that I arrived in the state), electric cars and the future of the auto industry is all over the news. It's amusing timing for me, because my family have very recently joined the ranks of electric car owners, and it's been an education. On the off chance that my experience contains any lessons useful for the broader public, I'll tell you about it.
I've long been a fan of electric cars, as a concept. The idea of a battery always made more sense to me than containing a raging, toxic fire under the hood everywhere you go, with an internal combustion engine. It's no panacea for the climate crisis by any means, but in any case, we're finally clearly entering the electric car age, with countries around the world making firm plans for when petrol-burning engines will no longer be sold.
This is often in the news. And I'm also often in places like Oslo, where most of the cars on the streets seem to be electric. Huge tax incentives and lots of free downtown parking and charging successfully got most car-buyers in that rich country to go electric.
I figured there might be issues with things like long-distance travel, and insufficient charging infrastructure out in the boonies. But when Reiko and I realized that between the various schools and workplaces we were constantly driving to, given where we live and the lack of other good options, we were compelled to get a second car, I thought it would be cool to get an electric one.
Looking at the prospects in our meager price range initially dissuaded me from the idea, as going 35 miles before needing to charge the battery didn't seem workable. But when a relative of more means than me offered to double our budget, suddenly a much more recent model car with a viable range was feasible, so we got one.
We knew we were operating under the circumstances of living in an apartment complex that, like the overwhelming majority of other ones I see around the city, lacks EV charging ports, or even easily-accessed outdoor electrical outlets. I also understood that finding places to charge your car was going to involve downloading lots of apps, just like parking does these days.
I had the PlugShare app ready to go, and located a charging place after dropping one of the kids off at preschool. Everything worked fine there at the Beaverton Library's parking lot, though I discovered that the slow chargers are indeed slow.
Downloading a new app to use the fast-charging place not far from our apartment, it worked great, and had the car fully charged in an hour. The next time I went back to that same place, the charging station I had used before was saying it wasn't working, so I hooked up to the one that was. This one wasn't working with the app, but swiping a card got it going. The car charged fine once again, but then the charger wouldn't unlatch from the charging port.
I of course at first figured I was doing something wrong, but nothing I tried was working. I called the number on the charging station for help, and eventually got someone on the line, who took me through all kinds of paces, restarting this and that, and he restarted the charging station from a distance, but nothing worked. Going inside the supermarket nearby and asking the security guy if he happened to know anything about detaching from these chargers, he said he had noticed this happening to people at least ten times before, who got stuck with that charger, and he explained how it was a purely mechanical problem, and unsticking it could be achieved with a butter knife.
Of course I didn't think to ask people in the supermarket about it until two hours after trying to figure it out with the gentleman on the phone, and talking to random passersby, and one other guy, a jazz musician on tour from France, who was charging his electric rental car. After consulting with the security guy, with the help of a friend who had a knife, we got the charger unstuck. If we had had to wait for someone from the EV charging company to come help, the wait might have been at least another two hours, I was told over the phone.
Luckily there were other parents I could call on to pick my kid up at preschool while I was stuck in that parking lot with the charger situation.
A few days later I had planned to get a fast-charge again, after dropping visiting relatives off at the airport. I ended up making two trips to the airport, because of delayed flights, and by the time I was heading towards the charging station, the car was saying 0% battery. Panicking slightly, not wanting to stall out in the middle of a four-lane road, I headed towards the nearest charging station on the map, which was a slow-charge place in front of a healthcare corporation of some kind.
There were two charging stations run by a company called Blink, and one was being used. When we pulled up to the other one, everything seemed to be working, but whenever we'd get to the point of plugging in our car the screen said "error." So I called this company's tech support number. Eventually getting through, the nice man on the line this time checked, from his remote location, the veracity of this charging station, and found it was kaput, not functional at all. Blink was on the blink. He recommended nearby charging ports that, according to his information, were working and ready to plug in to.
Heading there, to the parking lot of a fast food restaurant, the two charging stations were both in use, with cars belonging to the restaurant, and there seemed to be doubt over whether they were available for anyone else's use.
Off to another parking lot, this time a Kohl's department store, with another couple of slow-charging stations, these run by another company, called Charge Point. It seemed somewhat unlikely, but once again, we had machines that appeared to be in working order at first glance, but once you try to use them, error messages. Once again calling tech support for this company, when this person ran their tests they found these chargers were not working. They were the charge points that weren't.
At 0%, the car kept going, so I guess it's a very relative 0%, which is nice. We went to yet another charging station, this one a fast-charging one in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and it worked like a charm.
These were my experiences during the first two weeks of driving around this car in the Portland metro area, which is a part of the country reputed to be advanced when it comes to this sort of thing. It was just after that last charge that I was listening to NPR and they mentioned that there were now 70,000 registered electric vehicles in the state of Oregon.
That doesn't seem like many, I thought. I looked up how many other cars there were in the state. Four million. That's quite a contrast. Given the price for a decent electric car and the apparently questionable state of the infrastructure, it's not surprising that Oregon is nothing at all like Norway in this regard.
Listening to the pundits and politicians of whichever stripe, you'd get the impression that electric cars are about to take over. But the facts on the ground in the Portland area, at least, tell a story about an idea being adopted very slowly by very few people, which is depending on very dodgy infrastructure.
In other parts of the world it's obvious that they mean business with their plans to go electric, as far as all the cars, trucks, and buses go. It's all very visible to the naked eye, if you find yourself in certain countries. In the USA it mainly gets a whole lot of hot air from pundits and politicians. Hot air which doesn't charge a single battery -- although it may turn out voters to the polls, and give the social media corporations fuel for some of the arguments that will guarantee their next billion dollars in advertising revenue.