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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Kohn

Geoff Kohn's thoughts and ideas for the future of electric vehicles.

Previously, had a post on a student's view on electric vehicles, so we thought it would be useful to highlight the thoughts of someone who has had years of experience with electric vehicles and renewable energy. - Madhav Bhat

A hundred years ago we were on the leading edge of a transformation of society which continues today. We were just beginning to mass produce a new device that would transform society. That device was the automobile. The practicality of the automobile in 1920 was limited by the lack of good roads. We are now beginning to adopt a major modification to this device which is taking form as the electric vehicle. I know that there is an incredible amount of effort in industry being focused on making the electric car into a direct replacement for the internal combustion vehicles that we are used to. The goal is to have similar range on a "tank" of electrons that we have on a tank of gas or diesel and to provide charging times that are similar to what it takes to fill a gas tank. There is another approach to this transition. What if we transform society again, this time in order to adapt to our new form of transportation. If we just accept that electric vehicles are essentially different we can revamp our infrastructure to accommodate those differences.

Today, the practicality of electric vehicles is limited by the lack of adequate charging infrastructure. Right now, our economy is in disarray and we are trying desperately to get back to "normal". With COVID becoming the new normal and millions of people out of work, many of whom will not have jobs to go back to in the next economy, we are at a unique crossroad where we can literally choose a new direction. I drive a Chevy Bolt as my daily transportation and it has changed the way I look at personal transportation. I am retired so my experience may be different from many of yours, but I am in the habit of pulling into my garage and plugging my car in when I get home from an errand. I have a Level 1 and a Level 2 charger in my garage. If I was on a longer errand (30 to 100 miles each way), I put the car on the Level 2 so it is ready in a few hours. If I just go the grocery store or the Post Office, I put it on the Level 1 so I can charge it from my solar array.

I have been on a few road trips ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand miles and this is where I have developed some ideas about charging strategy and pacing my trip. As we all know, range is related to speed - more speed = less range. I find that my sweet spot is about 60 mph sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower. This leaves me with about 3 hours of driving then about an hour charging on a Level 3 charger. I drive back and forth between Colorado and Ohio somewhat regularly and when I drive an ICE vehicle I use the old US highways because they have little to no traffic and the ride is smoother from the roads not having been beaten up by heavy truck traffic. When I drive my electric, I have to use the Interstate system because that is where the Level 3 chargers are. Looking at the characteristics of my electric car, I would be better off on the old US highways where I can go 55 - 60 mph and not be in anybody's way. I know that all the automakers are working to provide more electric options for our transportation and that resistance to adoption of these options stems largely from lack of electric infrastructure.

OK, we are looking at a chicken or egg situation here. Investment in electric infrastructure is slow because there is no immediate return on investment as there is not much demand for charging in more remote areas. Electric vehicles are slow in moving into the mainstream because they are somewhat limited in where they can take us. A car with a 400 mile range that can be charged in 5 minutes is useless if we still don't have places to plug that car in. If we have places to plug in, we can live with a 200 mile range or even a 100 mile range, or even a 50 mile range. How many ICE vehicles would be on the road today if all we had was dirt roads coast to coast?

Now, what was going on a hundred years ago? All across the country, people were building roads and gas stations and mechanic shops and restaurants and motels to get people moving. And in the process of preparing this revolution, we built local economies, many of which were based on this new means of transportation. Major enthusiasm for this new thing prevailed and as a result local economies grew and prospered. Drive the old US highways today and you can still see the ruins of what we built a hundred years ago. Abandoned garages, gas stations and motels that got left out during the fifties and sixties when we transitioned to the Interstate highway system. We originally built the US Highways as public works projects. Now we need to upgrade them to electric byways. I'm sure that any suggestion that public money be spent on this will be met with resistance, but the simple fact is that not much private money is being spent and that indicates that it might need to be done by government. Most of the private money being spent is being spent by Volkswagen and that is only because it is part of their punishment for cheating on diesel emissions. If we were to make the commitment to upgrade the old US Highway system to an electric byway system, the number of electric vehicles out on the road will increase and there will again be a need to feed and house travelers while they are on the repurposed old roads. The last major upgrade to our highway system was the construction of the Interstate system. This was built out for commerce and the movement of freight and it is convenient for automobile traffic as well. The next major upgrade to our transportation infrastructure needs to be the electrification of our roads. This one step could push our entire economy into a more sustainable future. Right now we are largely shut down because of COVID and the economy is losing momentum. This is the perfect time to change direction and create a rebirth that will benefit all of us.

It is clear that we need to transition to electric transportation and we need to do it quickly. But how? Basically, all that we need to do to create an Electric Byway would be to put up DC fast chargers every 50 miles or so and find some of the old motels or bed and breakfasts that would be willing to put in a Level 2 charger or even just make a 220 volt 50 amp plug available for overnight charging. If an Electric Byway was available, I would definitely make more road trips and as the electric vehicle market grows, I would expect that the same forces which grew the towns along the US Highways could help rebuild them now.

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