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Charging network expansion easing EV road trips

Rapid growth of long-range charging networks reducing ‘range anxiety,’ says expert
Long road trips across B.C. are becoming more practical for electric vehicle owners, according to one expert.

The combination of a rising number of drivers switching to electric cars and the loosening of COVID restrictions this spring will almost certainly result in more such vehicles on B.C.’s highways this summer than ever before, observers say.

And with more people taking their electric vehicles (EV) outside of the usual environment (i.e. commute/travel within an urban area and returning home to charge every evening), there may also be more concerns than ever about “range anxiety” – or the fear that a car’s battery will run out of charge without being able to access a fast charger in rural areas.

Such fears, however, are almost completely unfounded these days, industry experts say. The advent of electric cars has also spurred a number of public and private players in expanding fast-charging networks – chargers capable of DC charging a vehicle in the matter of minutes instead of hours – to the point where most motorists can travel freely across Canada with only a small amount of route-planning.

“That’s quite correct,” said Tim Burrows, producer of the Canada Talks Electric Cars Webinar with the Electric Vehicle Society, one of the major non-profit groups dedicated to promoting the use of electric vehicles across Canada. “Range anxiety is something that goes away after you own the car.

“Up front, there is a range anxiety because [owning an electric vehicle] is such a paradigm shift ... but it doesn’t take very long for EV owners to totally see that range anxiety dissipate because they see there’s no reason for it.”

Today, there is a wide range of providers who offer DC fast charging throughout B.C. Although they tend to be concentrated around major highways, they now stretch beyond the normal transport corridors (Trans-Canada Highway, Coquihalla and Highway 3) to as far north as Fort St. John – and the gaps between charging points are quickly being filled.

Beyond the most recognizable supercharging network – that of automaker Tesla Inc. (Nasdaq:TSLA), which runs its own proprietary network that is the paradigm of the industry – there are other private network operators like Flo (Quebec-based AddEnergie Technologies Inc.) and California-based ChargePoint Inc., as well as affiliated networks such as Petro-Canada’s Electric Highway program, Volkswagen AG’s Electrify Canada and Shell plc’s Greenlots.

That is on top of the B.C. government’s own 70-plus DC charging stations – operated through BC Hydro – that now practically covers the entire major highway network in the southern half of the province, according to charging station tracking app PlugShare.

Perhaps no one has as profound an understanding of the progress made to charging networks as Harvey Soicher, a Vancouver electric-vehicle advocate whose Mary Ann’s Electric Drive Blog drew attention to his quest to drive across Canada in 2019.

Soicher, who repeated his feat again last year, said the differences in finding fast chargers along his route between 2019 and 2021 are nothing short of astounding.

“In 2019, we were able to make it – but it was really tight,” Soicher recalled of the trip, which he made in honour of his late wife (with the blog bearing her name). “I could have easily been stuck had just one charger along the route was out of order ... We had to go a little slower sometimes, because that’s how you get more range. Another way was drafting behind a big truck.

“Now the infrastructure after just two years is like 10 times better. There were no fast chargers in 2019 between Prince Rupert and Prince George; now, there are five or six of them. And the BC Hydro chargers have been very reliable. It’s amazing, the difference.”

The capacity of such networks will be tested this year. Both Soicher and Burrows said electric vehicle demand in B.C. and throughout Canada has skyrocketed during the pandemic – and is currently also driven by record-high gasoline prices due to the war in Ukraine.

In fact, the uptake of electric cars, Burrows said, is only currently being tempered by the same supply-chain issues that have plagued other products – as automakers from Tesla, Nissan Motor Co Ltd. (TYO:7201) and Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F) to Volkswagen and Hyundai Motor Co. (KRX: 005380) often report complete sellouts of a given model’s stock for an entire model year in recent months.

The vast majority of owners, he added, would not even have to worry about charging networks – since 95 per cent of all charging is usually done at home when a driver doesn’t leave their home markets. But with the out-of-town network expanding, Burrows said he has already seen a massive spike of electric vehicles driving on rural Canadian roads as drivers push the boundaries of their cars without fear of being stranded.

That does not mean that driving an electric car out of town is completely without its challenges, however. Burrows warn of some items that do require planning – such as times when “the car needs to eat before a driver does,” leading to a driver having to rest prematurely on a trip and have a meal for 30-45 minutes while a car recharges at a station.

He added that some drivers do report that third-party charging networks can be hit-and-miss when it comes to reliability, charging a car at much slower speeds (especially when a location is crowded with many other users).

Then there are the different standards – or the type of plug offered by a station. Tesla offers the most comprehensive and reliable fast-charging networks – but there is currently no way for a non-Tesla vehicle to charge there (although the company is testing such cross-platform charging in markets like Europe and have committed to do so in North America eventually).

There’s also the two rival standards of DC charging that’s widely offered outside of Tesla’s proprietary plug – CCS and CHAdeMO. But with CHAdeMO only being used by some automakers in Japan (as well as being compatible to Tesla with an available adapter) and in North America, Burrows and Soicher agree that – for the most part – CCS is gradually unifying the non-Tesla market in Canada and the U.S. And that, they say, is a good thing for consumers.

“Anything that adds to a reliable charging infrastructure is going to help speed up the transition to electric cars,” Burrows said. “Tesla has gone on-record in saying that they are going to allow other non-Tesla users to use their network. ... That is going to help a lot.”

Soicher, who said he wanted his cross-Canada trips to show other Canadians that they can drive vehicle over long distances and not be limited by battery range, added that the only factor that could keep people away from electric vehicles is the availability of such cars (whether cost or lack of stock), since the limits of long-range driving is no longer a concern for most.

“It’s like going from an old cell phone to a brand new smartphone,” he said. “When you first get the smartphone, you don’t know how to use it. I know what it feels like; I was on a BlackBerry for years before I switched to an iPhone.

“It’s the same thing, going from a gas car to electric car,” Soicher added. “But it only took me a couple days to get used to it. You will get familiar with it; it just takes a few days. And once you’re familiar with it, then it’s much more convenient than going to a gas station.”