Thanksgiving charge lines are a warning and a lesson

Posted
2 December 2019


“American” holidays have transitioned from a curiosity to a battleground for many Aussies. Halloween is celebrated in some suburbs but not others, Black Friday is aggressively pushed by retailers but ignored by many customers, and we stubbornly refuse to swap our Father’s Day from September to June. But at least we know what these holidays are. While the festive contest rages elsewhere, Thanksgiving has barely dented in the Australian psyche.

Which might just be a good thing if the latest pictures from Californian EV charging stations are anything to go by. As millions of Americans travelled cross-country to visit their families, the lines at Tesla Supercharger locations reportedly grew dozens of cars deep, requiring drivers to wait multiple hours to recharge their EVs.

And this after Tesla tried to prepare for the spike in demand by placing portable Superchargers run from “Megapack” batteries at popular locations. The San Luis Obispo Supercharging stop videoed above ran a Megapack attached to 10 Superchargers alongside the 10 already installed and still ended Thanksgiving with dozens of cars queuing for a plug.

This is only compounded by the charge times necessary for long highway drives. Even at a 120 kW Supercharger, Teslas can expect to wait up to 75 minutes for an 80% charge. Not a problem when you’ve just spent half a day on the road and needed to stop for lunch anyway, but definitely annoying with a 2-hour queue tacked on.

Out on the range

Obviously Australia won’t be subject to Thanksgiving travel crowds the way Americans are — even with Californian levels of EV adoption — but the problem of peak public charger demand exceeding supply is a very real one. 

It’s taken over a century for our network of petrol service stations to grow to its current scale. Even with significant investment, the idea of building so much infrastructure from scratch is a daunting one, and that’s exactly what needs to happen for a wide-scale shift away from combustion fuels.

As of today, Australia’s highway charger network is in its infancy. The Chargefox ultra-rapid network has only a handful of fast chargers at each of its locations. Plenty for now, but perhaps not when EV prices come down and car buyers shift en-masse. 

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Problem solving

Thankfully there are a number of promising solutions being developed to sidestep this problem before it grows. And not just building more fast charging stations.

Norway have been experimenting with wireless EV chargers on Oslo taxi ranks and BMW have been doing the same with their own plug-in hybrids. Drivers can park overtop the pad and — so long as their vehicle has the necessary receiver mounted on the undercarriage — can receive charge without needing to plug in at all. Systems like this would be significantly easier to implement for use with autonomous vehicles — if future EVs are forced to queue for a charge, at least the driver might not have to hang around with them.

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At the same time, fast charging stations and EVs are becoming faster to charge. Porsche have indicated the Taycan might be able to accept 270 kW of charge thanks to its 800 V architecture. This is roughly double what most EVs can handle today, and could allow a 5-to-80% charge in as little as 22.5 minutes.

Of course, highway charging is only a problem when you can’t make the trip on one charge. EV ranges have been growing steadily and getting cheaper every year, so it’s safe to assume that long drives will become less and less of an obstacle as EVs improve. The Tesla Roadster — expected to debut next year — is slated to have over 1000 kms of range. In the longer term, technology like solid state batteries could more than double current vehicle range figures.

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All of these solutions are on an uncertain timeline, however, so it’s tough to know when and how the hurdles will emerge on the road to electrification. For now we need to innovate, invest, and anticipate the obstacles as best we can. Do that,