Electric cars like the Chevy Bolt have a huge infrastructure problem.

The Chevy Bolt Should Be the World’s First Mainstream Electric Car. There’s One Thing in the Way.

The Chevy Bolt Should Be the World’s First Mainstream Electric Car. There’s One Thing in the Way.

A Closer Look at the New Energy Economy
April 5 2017 9:45 AM

The Bolt Still Needs a Jolt

Before they can become truly mainstream, electric vehicles must overcome a huge infrastructure problem.

Chevy Bolt EV
Workers assemble Chevy Bolts at the General Motors assembly plant in Orion Township, Michigan, on Nov. 4.

Joe White/Reuters

The Chevrolet Bolt is slowly being introduced to the American car-buying public. Last fall, after taking a Bolt on a brief spin in midtown Manhattan, I concluded it might be the first truly plausible all-electric car. Unlike the Tesla, which starts at about $70,000, the Bolt is within the financial reach of a large number of American car buyers. (The sticker price is about $37,500, but purchasers can get a $7,500 federal tax credit, and many states offer rebates.) And unlike affordable quasi-electric hybrids such as Toyota’s plug-in Prius, it can go a great distance—up to 240 miles—on the power of its batteries.

The Bolt, in other words, is an electric car that you could imagine inhabiting the garages of a lot of people in your neighborhood. (And not just in towns like mine, where the density of Teslas rivals the that of exercise studios and Canada Goose coats.) I reaffirmed this conclusion last weekend, when I borrowed a Bolt and tooled around the byways and highways of Fairfield County, Connecticut, for several days. The noiseless acceleration was powerful enough for me to aggressively merge onto I-95 and quickly get up to 70 miles an hour. It has a setting that lets the engine generate more juice the instant you let up on the gas pedal. The Bolt zooms up hills and handles nicely around tight corners, all without emitting noxious fumes or disturbing the suburban peace.

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But here’s the thing. As a piece of new driving technology, the Bolt totally works. But the adoption curves and take-up rates of new technologies aren’t driven simply by the efficacy of the technology in and of itself. New innovations require infrastructure to reach their full market potential. Often that infrastructure has to be built by companies other than those who build the original products. And right now, electric cars remain hindered by a massive infrastructure gap.

Infrastructure gaps spring up all the time. In the 1990s, all the innovation in long-distance fiber-optic internet data delivery came to a screeching halt at the last mile; connections into the home, controlled by cable and phone companies, remained slow. That tripped up the rollout of streaming services. Another example: Fracking technology liberated vast new supplies of natural gas and oil in North Dakota and Pennsylvania. But the lack of pipeline infrastructure has been a continuing problem for the industry.

A similar mismatch is at work with the electric car, and it could inhibit the rollout of the Bolt—not to mention other mass-market electric vehicles, such as Tesla’s forthcoming Model 3. The auto industry has done an excellent job developing batteries that can store and dispense enough power to liberate drivers from the range anxiety that plagued earlier versions of the electric car. But it hasn’t built out the infrastructure necessary to fuel up these cars easily and quickly. And the advent of ever more powerful batteries could in some ways exacerbate the issue.

The good news is you can fill up the Bolt through existing infrastructure—you just plug the cord that comes with the car into a three-pronged outlet. But unless you install special equipment, the batteries sip their juice very slowly, just a few miles of charge per hour. Plug in at night and you’ll return in the morning to find that the car’s range has expanded by only about 30 miles.

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Depending on where you live and work, there might be a charging apparatus that replenishes the batteries more quickly. The website PlugShare, which also has an app, shows the expanding array of charging outlets. In the town where I live, there are (free!) stations at the public library; the town hall; and, most significantly, at the train station, which can provide about 30 miles of charge in an hour. That’s awesome. Park your car at the station, take the morning train, work from 9 to 5, and take another train home again to find your fully charged Bolt or Tesla waiting for you.

But there’s a tragedy-of-the-commons effect at work here. The city set up the chargers to encourage townsfolk to drive electric and electrified cars. The train station just introduced eight new spots with chargers. And a few months ago, you could always snag one. But as more become available, and more people realize the benefits, they get filled up quickly. If you’re the ninth Tesla to arrive to catch the 7:52, you’re out of luck, and you’ll get no charge.

Unfortunately, the private sector isn’t quite filling the gaps. Seeking a charge, I consulted PlugShare, which directed me to a charger in the parking lot of a shopping center that is part of the EVgo network. But if you don’t have a membership card, you can’t use it. I’ve also found, over the past year, that being a member of ChargePoint, another charging network, doesn’t guarantee you’ll find a charger that works and is available (people tend to park for long periods of time, long after they’ve topped up).

Tesla has dealt with the infrastructure challenge by building its own network of proprietary superchargers—stations that only Tesla owners can use. But it’s a closed system, and it is part of what makes Tesla a luxury product. Non-Tesla users are out of luck. And while some of the big automakers are establishing partnerships with charging networks, none has taken it upon itself to build the dense, easily accessible, and highly functional network of charging stations that is needed. So it’s great that the Bolt feels like it belongs in everyone’s garage. But until that gaping infrastructure gap is bridged, it won’t be in nearly as many as it could be.