If you just bought an electric car, you may be loath to admit it, but it's true: Although you're no longer a servant to Big Oil, you've signed up for another problem entirely—the urgent need to charge your car.
Sure, if you can design a driving routine around reliable charging sources, you may be able to get around your city—and even commute to work—with little disruption. But if your local charging-station infrastructure doesn't play in your favor, you'll begin to feel trapped within a gated community. Inside lies security. Outside lies risk. This is life on the fragmented edge of the electric-car ecosystem.
I've lived on that edge, having spent the past few months with two all-electric cars and one plug-in hybrid. Lacking a charging station at home or the workplace, I had two choices: Plug one of the loaner cars into my household electrical outlet overnight, or find publicly available charging stations as I tested the fleet vehicles throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
I quickly realized I was a have-not in this developing infrastructure. Last week was National Plug In Day, but I wasn't celebrating any time I faced the prospect of running out of battery power on a dark road. More stations are vital to attracting more drivers to the electric-car ecosystem. Automakers and public and private entities continue to invest in charging stations, but the economics are challenging.
The basics of the electric-car lifestyle
For those of you new to electric cars, the charging experience works like this: You can plug your car into a standard, 120V AC outlet at home and charge most batteries from low to full in 10 to 12 hours. This is called a Level 1 charger. You can install a Level 2 charging station, which uses a 240V connection and generally takes 5 or more hours to charge a battery. Level 2 is also the most common kind of charging station installed at workplaces and shopping malls. The highest-end charging option—which is still pretty rare—is a Quick Charging or DC Fast station, which can charge a battery to full in 20 minutes to 1 hour.
Most charging stations are managed by a network company, which usually requires payment for using the station (unless it's a subsidized station). The easiest way to pay is to join the network, so you can swipe a membership card at the station or use an app. If you don't belong to the network, you should be able to pay either by phone or online.
Flouting charging-station etiquette
For my very first experience charging an electric car, I set out with a friend in the Toyota RAV4 EV to visit the town of Los Gatos, California, where public parking lots have a handful of charging stations.
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