Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

Is This the Tipping Point For Electric Cars?

Electric vehicle charging stations may have hit critical mass—yet with gas just over $2 a gallon, Americans are still guzzling more than ever.

Making an electric car is easy. We’ve been doing it for more than a century. Charging them, however, is tough. It requires infrastructure—a grid on the grid—and presents a chicken-egg conundrum: Who wants a plug-in car when there’s nowhere to plug it in? Who wants to build car chargers, when there aren’t enough cars to charge?

Rest easy, Tesla-heads and Nissan Leaf geeks; we’re finally getting there. The number of charging stations in the U.S. has reached a critical mass. The U.S. Department of Energy says there are now 14,349 electric vehicle charging stations nationwide, comprising almost 36,000 outlets. Meanwhile, electric vehicle owners still do most of their charging at home outlets that aren't included in that tally, according to the agency.

Silicon Valley-based ChargePoint, which operates one of the nation's largest charging networks, just announced that it now has 30,100 outlets to plug in a vehicle in the U.S.—roughly double the number of McDonald’s restaurants in the country. Tesla Motors, meanwhile, has 294 supercharger stations where travelers can top off their batteries quickly and another 2,906 destination chargers at such places as wineries and luxury hotels.

A Tesla Motors Inc. Model S P85D vehicle sits plugged in at a charging station in Nephi, Utah.
A Tesla Motors Inc. Model S P85D vehicle sits plugged in at a charging station in Nephi, Utah.
Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg

ChargePoint's chief executive officer, Pasquale Romano, said the proliferation of plugs will help electric vehicles go mainstream, mitigating drivers' fears of getting stranded with a dead battery. “It won’t be long before drivers start suffering from 'gas anxiety', not range anxiety,” he said in a statement.

But with $2-a-gallon gasoline in much of the country, it might take longer than Romano thinks. Americans, it turns out, have been buying a record amount of gas this year, as a solid labor market and cheap fill-ups encourage them to drive more. Low fuel prices and increased driving also led to a 7.2 percent increase in fatal traffic crashes in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

In June, U.S. drivers bought 9.7 million gallons of gasoline per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration—more than they have since the government started keeping track in 1945. Gas prices this past Labor Day weekend were the cheapest they have been in 12 years.

“I don’t think anybody could have seen this coming a few years ago,” said Jeff Lenard, vice president at the National Association of Convenience Stores. “They’re driving more, and the sustained period of $2 gas has changed behavior both behind the wheel and in the showroom.”

So far, the rash of car-charging ports appears to be holding little sway at dealers. In the first six months of the year, Americans bought about 65,000 cars that required charging. Ford alone sold that many pickups, on average, every month.

Not surprisingly, gas stations aren’t going the way of bookstores and film-processing huts soon. Sure, there are far fewer service stations with a few pumps out front, because cars have grown more reliable—but that decline has been outpaced by a growing number of convenience stores selling gas along with groceries. Also on the upswing: big-box retailers such as Costco adding pumps. The convenience store association says there are now about 5,500 of these so-called hypermarkets selling fuel.

“Gas stations are kind of making this long-term shift away from mom-and-pops,” said Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy, which aggregates price information. “Volatility is pushing out the small players who can’t afford all the data that comes in the market these days.”

While gas stations are seared into the American landscape, the electric vehicle infrastructure will keep quietly growing. DeHaan said savvy gas stations are adding plugs as a hedge against future fuel price spikes. 

And California, already a charging hotbed with almost 11,000 car outlets, is about to get a lot more. Many Silicon Valley tech companies offer workplace charging as a perk for employees, while Stanford University currently offers 14 charging stations located in high-demand parking areas on campus. The state’s landmark settlement with Volkswagen over its diesel scandal calls for the company to invest $800 million in zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, infrastructure in California over a decade. That will mean more places to plug-in, whether drivers need them or not.

Watch Next: Big Oil Should Fear Tesla – Dead or Alive 

Big Oil Should Fear Tesla – Dead or Alive
Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE