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Demand for electric vehicles is growing and a new report forecasts that one out of every five vehicles sold worldwide this year will be electric. But charging those vehicles and getting the power you need when you want it can be more complicated. Science Correspondent Miles O'Brien found that out for himself on a road trip in California. He reports in conjunction with Nova's "Chasing Carbon Zero."
Demand for electric vehicles is clearly growing. Federal legislation is providing new incentives. And one out of every five vehicles sold worldwide this year is expected to be electric.
But charging those vehicles can be complicated.
Science correspondent Miles O'Brien found that out for himself on a road trip in California.
His report is in conjunction with tonight's episode of "NOVA," "Chasing Carbon Zero."
Electric vehicles sure have come a long way.
Lilly Macaruso, Rivian:
Right now, we're going to Rivian R1T.
I just got in the driver's seat of an all-electric Rivian pickup truck in Venice, California. The company loaned us the vehicle for a reporting trip that spanned more than 500 miles.
It was a stress test for the electric vehicle charging network. We had no idea how much stress lay ahead.
We don't have enough chargers in this country, right?
I would agree. Infrastructure…
So, what do we do about that? What are we going to do about that?
Infrastructure is growing every single day.
You're in charge. You can fix this right now.
I'm in charge?
Lilly Macaruso is a Rivian engineer.
Each company doesn't want to outbuild the other.
Because,if you put in a lot of chargers, and then there isn't enough vehicles in the area yet, but then there's overwhelming amounts of vehicles in some areas.
For some insights, I drove to the Innovation Lab for one of the largest vehicle charging companies in the nation, EVgo.
All right, gentlemen, I want you to premium electrons here.
Chief commercial officer Jonathan Levy showed me around.
Jonathan Levy, Chief Commercial Officer, EVgo:
At the EVgo innovation lab, we have all of the charters that we currently have in the field. And we also test new ones we're putting out.
The company operates 1,900 fast chargers at 850 locations in 30 states.
So what we need is complementarity. You need to have the charging infrastructure to support the vehicles, the vehicles using that, and then enough charging infrastructure to be built to support additional vehicles, so on and so forth in a virtuous cycle.
The invisible hand of the free market is getting some hand-holding from taxpayers to speed the transition.
I sat down with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation: It's not that chargers wouldn't emerge in order to serve these electric vehicles. It's that they might not happen quickly enough.
The bipartisan infrastructure law earmarks $2.5 billion over the next five years to build 500,000 charging stations. They are to be manufactured in the U.S. and installed along interstates and in neighborhoods where home charging is not an option.
They might not happen in a way that reaches everybody, including some of the lower-income drivers who would stand to gain the most from not having to pay for gas, provided that these vehicles were affordable enough and easy enough to charge.
And this is very important to our administration. There's no guarantee, if we just let — let things take their course with no involvement, that this would be a made-in-America charging revolution.
The Department of Energy is also on the case. Near Chicago, at the Argonne National Laboratory, they are helping imagine the future of electric vehicle charging.
Thomas Wallner is director for advanced mobility and grid integration technology. He took me on a ride in his E.V.
Thomas Wallner, Argonne National Laboratory:
How do you talk about the electric vehicle and their challenges if you don't drive one?
So, I'm very happy.
Almost mandatory, right?
In his garage, he connects the car to a standard 120-volt outlet, enough to charge it up overnight, level one. For cars with larger batteries, a 240-volt outlet will do the same, level two.
At Argonne, Wallner showed me something much faster.
That's the state of the art. You can…
Right there, state of the art?
It's a DC fast charger. They are between five and 35 times faster than a regular home outlet.
The expectation we have to live up to is, you pull up to a gas station and you end up with a full tank 100 percent of the time. And that's the same benchmark we have to work towards when we think of electric vehicles.
We learned firsthand the scarcity of reliable charging in this country.
At our shoot in Santa Barbara, we plugged in outside the building. Eight hours later, we came back, and this "level two charger" — quote, unquote — gave us all of 11 miles of range per hour, 11 miles per hour. So all we added over the course of a whole day was 88 miles.
We drove up the coast to Pismo Beach, where one of my E.V. travel apps promised a fast charger. Third time's the charm, right? I have tried two cards now. Three cards. Here's a fourth card. Oh, maybe? No. It's just not working.
After our Pismo Beach failure, we aim for a fast charger in Paso Robles. We rolled in at 8:40 p.m.
Got 35 miles to go on range. And, hopefully, this is going to work. I'll tell you, these are hard to maneuver on the one arm. All right. We're plugged in.
Ah, processing error. Holy (EXPLETIVE DELETED). Oh (EXPLETIVE DELETED) damn, no, no, no, please, please, please. Oh, maybe we slide it in. Ah, OK. We are actually now officially charging.
We were charging fast at last. We went to dinner and came back 90 minutes later.
All right, here's the verdict. It was full. Charging time was an hour and 12 minutes. Wow. That was 58 bucks, I guess cheaper the gas, but 58 bucks is 58 bucks, right? All right. Well, we're tanked up, so to speak.
The next morning, we set out for another shoot in Modesto, 190 miles away. We had more than 290 miles of indicated range. So I figured we were as good as there.
Maybe I was going a little too fast. We had the radio going and the climate, the whole deal. And we watched the anticipated range in our destination dropped from about 60 to 30 to 25. And once it got to that point, the car pretty much is making us stop.
We stopped at Los Banos. Again, we found an inoperative charger.
Reconnect? What's going on here. Ready. Please unplug. Ah, man. Let me try this other one. All right, pop this in here. Payment authorized, and initiating charge, 110, 113, 114. It's ramping up. All right.
So there's a consistent problem with operating and maintaining these things. There's no question.
Kameale Terry, CEO, ChargerHelp!:
All right, well, on site, the technician is on that, yes.
When Kameale Terry saw this problem, she turned it into a business opportunity. She is the CEO of an L.A. based start-up called ChargerHelp!. The company is focused on repair and maintenance of E.V. chargers.
Getting electricity into a car is actually not that difficult, right,if you install it the right way and you haven't got an electrician.
When you insert software and comms interoperability, like, there's a multitude of issues that come about. But there's software, there are communication, there are system issues.
More than half of her technicians are Black and brown from disadvantaged communities. ChargerHelp! jobs are good-paying and clearly offer plenty of long-term job security.
Now that electric vehicle sales are reaching mass adoption levels, the pressure on the industry is building.
Here's the thing, right? If we don't figure it out this year, then we have a huge problem.
We stopped two more times before reaching our destination in San Francisco. In all, seven stops, five charging sessions over 560 miles. It took a lot of time and math.
This car has been really a lot of fun to drive. And I think people want them more than the system can support them. Part of me is disappointed, but part of me is also thrilled by the experience. So you can put that in the category of ambivalence.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien on the long road to San Francisco.
And you can watch Miles' full documentary, "Chasing Carbon Zero," on "NOVA" on PBS tonight. Check your local listings.
Watch the Full Episode
Miles O’Brien is a veteran, independent journalist who focuses on science, technology and aerospace.
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