On Being Ever-So-Slightly Ahead of the Curve, Infrastructure-Wise
A couple of months ago I noted that we had put down a reservation for a Ford F-150 Lightning, Ford’s first fully-electric truck. It’ll be primarily for Krissy’s use, as she’s the one of us who, you know, leaves the house and goes out in the world, and also does various things that would make having a truck actually practical for her to have. Krissy hauls things and moves things and sees humans on a daily basis. She’s a truck gal. I stay at home and wrangle cats and yell at the Internet. I’m a truck gal’s deeply-introverted spouse.
Inasmuch as getting the truck will fulfill a long-standing commitment I have to gift her a really cool vehicle, and because I am a supernerd who enjoys bells and whistles, I’m encouraging (read: pretty much begging) her to get the fully-specced Platinum trim, which among other things will come with ventilated massaging seats that lie all the way flat, a bunch of supercool towing abilities, the whole suite of driver assist functions that mean once it’s on the highway you can pretty much let it drive itself, and the ability, with some extra equipment which we absolutely will get, to power our house for three days in case of blackouts. It’s less like we’re buying a vehicle as it is we’re buying a small apartment that you can drive around. In many ways it’s nicer than the first apartment I lived in. It’s arguably more expensive than my first apartment.
As you may tell, I’m really excited about getting this truck, possibly more so than Krissy herself. But I will tell you what I’m not particularly excited about: the fact that we’re still in the early stages of electric vehicle infrastructure. I’m enough unenthused about it that, while I’m excited about the possibilities the Ford F-150 Lightning represents both for us as vehicle owners and for the grand switchover of our country and world into a more carbon-sensible place, I’m glad we’ll still have my gas-burning MINI Countryman, because the idea of using an electric vehicle for anything other than local trips still fills me with apprehension and possibly terror.
Let me tell you why. On its page promoting the Ford F-150 Lightning, Ford includes a map function that lets you enter a starting point and an ending point, and then plots out a route which includes various charging stations you will find along the way. You can select for any public chargers, or the ones on Ford’s “Blue Oval” network, and between any chargers of any sort, and ones that are “fast charging” (50kw and above). When you enter the information, you are then presented with the charging locations that fit your criteria; clicking on the icons representing the locations will then tell you how many charging outlets there are, if they are currently occupied, and what amenities are available. This is, of course, all hugely sensible on Ford’s part, to make the point that you can take your electric car almost anywhere you can take your gas-powered car.
Except… when I was checking out the various places to charge cars, I noticed that many of them have only one or two available chargers, and those chargers were often occupied or out of service (or under construction). Charging an electric car takes longer and is a more drawn-out experience than putting gas into your car; even a “fast charger” will take 30 minutes or so to add 100 extra miles of range to your car. If the charging station along your route is currently occupied and not a fast charging station, you either commit to waiting a long time (now we know why the Lightning has such awesome seats) or you try for the next charging station and hope it’s unoccupied, and reasonably fast charging, and that you’re not down to your final electrons.
Beyond that, charging station infrastructure is still… spotty. For example, you want to know how many public charging stations currently exist in Darke County, Ohio, where I live? Zero. In the whole county! I checked on the Ford site as well as the ABetterRoutePlanner.com site. There is a charging station at the Midmark Corporation in Versailles, but it’s specifically for the use of the company’s employees and visitors. Maybe you can use it outside of business hours. Otherwise it’s off to Miami County or Indiana with you. Don’t get caught in Darke if you’ve got 20 miles on your electric vehicle, is what I’m saying. You’ll be here a spell.
Now, how big of a problem is this, really? On a day-to-day basis, almost none at all. The average person drives a few dozen miles a day at most, so if you are able to charge from home, you will possibly never feel any sort of range anxiety whatsoever. In five years there were likely be exponentially more charging stations than there are today (if gas station locations are at all sensible, they’ll be adding them to their parking spots right now), and in ten years there will be even more than that. Charging times are likely to shrink as we go along because we’ll get better at pushing electrons into batteries with newer designs that will be able to go further.
(And in the case of the F-150 Lightning in particular, the stated range of the vehicle (300 miles with the extended battery, which we will get) is allegedly predicated on the idea that one is hauling half a ton of stuff in the truckbed; empty, the range is likely to be somewhat larger. Day-to-day, not a big deal in 90% of use cases. Which is why Krissy will use it as a daily driver: Every daily mile she’s driving the truck is a day she’s not burning gas. The gas burning car (mine) will largely stay at home, since on a day-to-day basis I go nowhere; I work from home and leave the house maybe once a week. Hi! I’m a hermit!)
But that still doesn’t mean that today I would necessarily want to take the F-150 Lightning on a long journey, particularly if I were going from one rural midwest destination to another, and especially if I wanted a fast-charging station. Krissy, who works in insurance, currently takes a car out to do inspections for her job, which takes her all around Ohio and Indiana, and into a bunch of rural places. If she were to use the truck to do that and hadn’t charged up fully the night before, there’s a non-trivial chance she’d be stuck on some country byway, especially when the weather gets colder. Is range an issue in California or in the Acela corridor? Maybe not! But in the great US interior, a bit away from a major population area? Yup, still something you very much have to think about.
Which is why, for now, any trip outside a radius of about 100 miles, we’ll still be more likely to use the Countryman. A full tank of gas in the Countryman gives it a similar range to the F-150 Lightning, but there are never not gas stations in just about any direction one chooses to go, and it takes five minutes to gas up. How often do we take trips like that? Not often in the last couple of years thanks to the pandemic, but in normal times, every couple of months as we went to conventions or visited friends.
Again: This is a problem I am confident will be solved in time. That fact, plus the reality of day-to-day vehicle use, plus the fact that it really does makes sense for us not to explode refined dinosaurs to get around when we can avoid it, is why I’m ready to get that F-150 Lightning now (or, well, next year, which is when we would take delivery). But for where I live, getting this truck will still have us out slightly ahead of the curve, in terms of infrastructure. I’ll be interested to see how long it will actually take for the infrastructure to catch up.