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Forget Range Anxiety. Most EV Drivers Have Charge Anxiety.

From worries about pulling up to a dysfunctional charger, to wading through a sea of complicated incentive programs, the transition to electric vehicles in the U.S. is not without obstacles.

A row of electric vehicle chargers with a few vehicles plugged in.
A smoother incentives process and more reliable public chargers are two opportunities ripe for rapid improvement to attract more U.S. drivers to electric vehicles.

“People are anxious,” said Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America, as he described the current state of public charging and the anxiety it sparks in drivers. “When you pull up to a charger, will it be broken? Will there be three cars waiting for it? Will it take my method of payment?”

This looming discomfort has been dubbed “charge anxiety,” borrowing from the expression “range anxiety,” generally expressed by drivers who do not yet have an EV and are concerned about the ability to get where they need to be on the car’s available charge.

“Once you get an EV, people stop worrying about range because you kind of figure out how far the car will go. And you sort of work within those parameters,” said Levin, speaking on a webinar panel to discuss EV adoption and community engagement. The webinar was organized by Forth Mobility, an electric vehicle advocacy and policy group based in Portland, Ore.

Charging anxiety can best be summed up as, “when I pull up to a charger, is it going to work?” said Levin.

“Is it going to be like the experience of buying gasoline where you know you can take any credit card in your pocket, go to any gas station in America, and it will work,” he added. “And with the public charging network — leaving the Tesla network aside — it’s not like that yet.”

The public charging experience is checkered with stories about drivers pulling up to chargers not working, glitchy payment systems and networks that are not interoperable with each other, prompting drivers to sift through multiple apps.

The typical consumer, said Scott Hardman, a postdoctoral researcher in the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, “just wants a car. They want a reliable car that gets them where they want to go. They are not interested in dealing with any inconvenience. They just want a car that is going to be effective.”

“And their tolerance for public charging that doesn’t work well is going to be pretty low,” he added.

Automakers have responded to these concerns by forming relationships with the Tesla charging network, generally considered the gold standard when looking at reliability and ease of use. Also, federal requirements set by the the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program stipulate that the chargers funded by the infrastructure buildout project be operational 97 percent of the time.

Federal, state and local incentives designed to make electric cars more accessible by lowering the price of the vehicles or funding home chargers should be simpler and less Byzantine, said Hardman.

“I would say the U.S. probably has one of the most complicated incentives of any developed EV market in the world,” said Hardman. “It’s a really big administrative and informational burden for a lot of people.”

Too often, when incentive programs are overly complex, they end up not being used by the consumers who need them most — lower income purchasers, say officials.

“The time burden of being low income is real. And I think we need to do better to sort of weave those things together for consumers,” agreed Elizabeth Turnbull, director of market development in transportation electrification at Franklin Energy, which devises energy efficiency programs for electric utilities.

Incentives do have an impact, she said, pointing to U.S. EV sales numbers as proof.

Out of the top 15 electric vehicle markets in the world, 14 of them take the incentive — whether it’s a state or federal perk — at the point of sale, lowering the overall cost of the vehicle, said Hardman.

The U.S. is the lone exception, he added.

“It’s just the U.S. that does it in this extremely convoluted way,” said Hardman.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.