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The World’s Most Remote Roads Need More Plugs

Bloomberg December 6 2018. Updated on December 7 2018.

The whole four-hour drive to Coober Pedy, Wiebe Wakker knew the inevitable was coming. Less than 15 miles outside town, a sun-scorched outpost of Australia’s Outback that’s served as a backdrop for Mad Max movies, the battery of his electric car ran out.

Wakker, a 31-year-old Dutchman, steered his bright blue VW Golf off the rust-colored highway, smeared on sunscreen and stuck out a thumb in the hopes of a tow. He completed the final stretch with his vehicle tethered to the back of a passing truck.

“It’s happened a few times now, and no-one’s ever refused,” said Wakker, who’s pushed the limits of his retrofitted, battery-powered car on a journey across Australia that marks the end of a sponsored 33-nation tour to showcase the capabilities of EVs. “A lot of people call it range anxiety, the fear of running out of battery in the middle of nowhere: I don’t have range anxiety, only range excitement.”

Few drivers are likely to ever cross a desert as vast as Australia’s outback, or share Wakker’s enthusiasm for running out of fuel, but his experience is indicative of one of the biggest challenges facing widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Boosting availability of public charging points outside the home, in urban centers or along remote highways, will be critical in removing consumer angst about long-distance driving.

Like many nations that have been slower to add sales of electric cars, Australia is lagging behind on development of public charging networks, making it more difficult — and typically slower — for EVs to access some parts of a road system that spans about 875,000 kilometers (544,000 miles).

Of about 600,000 public charging points currently installed globally, more than half are in China — the world’s top EV market, according to BloombergNEF. That dominance is even more pronounced when it comes to direct current fast chargers — equipment that’s capable of topping up car batteries in minutes rather than hours.

There’s about one fast DC charger for every five EVs in China, and about one for every 13 of the vehicles in Japan, the country with the second largest number of the units, according to BNEF data.

“Public charging infrastructure is essential,” said Paul Sernia, chief product officer at Tritium Pty., a Brisbane, Australia-based producer of fast-charging points that’s exported equipment to about 26 countries, including the U.S. and Germany. “Without the infrastructure in place, the adoption of the vehicles won’t increase, or won’t happen,” he said.

With plans to rapidly boost their electric lineups, carmakers are working to encourage expansion of fast recharging infrastructure to help boost customer confidence. In New Zealand, adoption of EVs has ballooned since the deployment of a fast-charging network from 2016, government data show.

Automakers “recognize that public fast charging is critical to selling EVs,” said Cathy Zoi, Chief Executive Officer of Los Angeles-based EVgo Services LLC, which operates about a third of fast chargers in the U.S. and has partnerships with companies including Hyundai Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co.

In Europe, an alliance of automakers including Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG, Ford Motor Co. and BMW AG is working with Tritium to add charging stations about every 120 kilometers along the continent’s highways. Tesla Inc. is continuing to expand its own global network of fast charging points.

Energy producers and fuel pump makers are also backing the strategy. Oil giant Total SA in September acquired an operator of EV points, while U.S. charging station operator ChargePoint Inc. this month raised funding from investors including Chevron Corp.

The high costs of fast chargers and low levels of utilization mean there’s a challenging business model, at least for now. Fast chargers can cost about $45,000 to $60,000 a unit and need to be used about 8 to 12 times a day to break even — more than an average of five daily charges currently, according to an October BNEF report.

Operators would also need to charge customers about 50 cents a kilowatt hour, the report said. That’s the equivalent of about $3.95 a gallon of gasoline, which currently costs about $2.45 a gallon in the U.S.

“Some electric vehicle infrastructure projects will need both public and private support,” according to EVgo’s Zoi. The company in August agreed to build and operate a network in Virginia in a partnership with the state.

EVgo’s pricing to recharge is now at parity with gas or better in many markets, Zoi said. Improvements in car batteries and charger technology should eventually allow motorists to refuel on highways just as quickly too, cutting stops to between five and 8 minutes, according to Tritium’s Sernia. “We want to replicate the petrol station experience,” he said. “We are not there yet.”

In parts of Australia’s central and western regions, EV drivers are still contending with slower alternatives, according to Harald Murphy, a 49-year-old electrical engineer who last month completed a circuit of about 14,520 kilometers (9,022 miles) around Australia in a Tesla Model X. Connecting to industrial-style sockets at remote roadhouses meant he often spent as long as five hours charging during the day.

Along the more densely populated eastern coast, where fast chargers are being installed, the advantages were clear, he said. At a Tesla supercharger in the state of New South Wales, the car’s battery topped up before his coffee and omelette order was ready at a nearby cafe. “I ended up eating my breakfast on my lap in the car,” Murphy said. “I must admit, I couldn’t hold back the feeling of euphoria.”