Do electric cars even need special chargers?

Consumer Reports News: May 07, 2012 03:38 PM

Electric car advocates, gathering this week in Los Angeles for a forward-looking industry event, seem to be trying to solve two problems that may not exist. The main focus of this year's 26th annual Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS26) is on charging and chargers—who needs them and where to put them.

The mantra surrounding electric cars for the past few years has been, "We've gotta get some infrastructure out there!" Well, yes and no.

The infrastructure people are referring to public electric-car charging stations. These take mainly two forms: Level 3 "fast-charge" stations, as we wrote about last month, and 240-volt Level 2 charging stations such as this one, available at Best Buy.

But the latest statistics show that 50 percent of electric car buyers don't buy Level 2 chargers, which can cut charging times in half (or less) compared with charging from a standard household 120-volt outlet (known as Level 1 charging).

As discussed at EVS26, when the first electric cars rolled out last year, they were essentially sold to order. While consumers were waiting for their cars, they were put in touch with an electrician and a company that sold Level 2 chargers. But now, most electric cars are sold off the lot from dealer inventory. So about half the buyers just drive it home, plug it in to a low-speed, overnight Level 1 outlet and never look back.

Further, says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, research shows that many consumers insist public chargers be in place before they will commit to buying an electric car. But once they do, they always charge at home and never use the public chargers.

So, are companies, often backed by federal loans or tax incentives, wasting the money installing public infrastructure? Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Institute, which organizes the symposium, doesn't think so. Federal programs incentivizing the installations in 26 cities were designed to gather data about how people use them. In other words, if the answer is "not at all, but they won't buy electric cars otherwise," at least that's worth knowing. "And I have no doubt that all the equipment will eventually be used," he says.

If that's the case, one thing is sure: We'll see all the new choices in charging, from wireless to giant fast-chargers at EVS26 this week. It's hard to believe groups such as EVS have been talking about developing electric cars for 26 years! Time flies, and progress charges ahead.

See our guide to fuel economy and guide to alternative fuels.

Eric Evarts

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