EV Chargers Should Be Dumber
Plugging in a Lucid Air at a campground was a revelation.
It’s hard to embrace serendipity in an electric car.
Taking a longer journey in an EV means ensuring there are enough charging stations on the route, including on the way home. It means praying none of those chargers are broken — or worse liable to break your car. And it means downloading the right charging app ahead of time so you don’t find yourself searching for cell service when you arrive at the station.
But on a recent 750-mile road trip in an EV, I had a revelation: We’re over-engineering our public charging infrastructure. If we want to speed up the electric car era, we should put aside the apps, doodads, and expensive fast chargers and embrace the cheap dumb plug.
My revelation hit me on a recent trip from Columbus, Ohio, to Fontana Dam, North Carolina, in a Lucid Air Grand Touring I was driving for an assignment.
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When I arrived at Fontana Dam, I discovered that the vast majority of this section of the Smoky Mountains, including its nature-oriented resorts, does not have cell phone service and offers limited Wi-Fi access, meaning there aren’t many places to set up a fast charger in the first place. The nearest DC fast charging station is in Knoxville, about 65 miles away. There is a single Tesla NACS Level 2 charger, but it’s seemingly always occupied by hikers or car enthusiasts seeking a spirited drive at The Tail of the Dragon.
But charging there wouldn’t have been an option for me anyway, because I forgot to bring along a NACS-to-CCS adapter. For a brief moment I feared I was stuck in Fontana Dam — until I remembered the cord in the trunk.
The Lucid Air’s mobile charge cable comes with an adapter that allows its cord to be plugged into any NEMA 14-50 outlet, common at RV parks and campsites all across the country.
I had never used one before, but it was stupendously simple at a nearby campground. I didn’t need a cellphone to open an app to connect to the charger and start my session. I just plugged in the car like I would my iPhone.
Charging wasn’t blisteringly fast — but it wasn’t slow either. Since the car and the cord are both self-limited to avoid overheating the power source, it maxed out at 9.6kW per hour. That's not the 19.2 kW speeds the car is capable of, but it’s still very good, and stronger than the 6.6 kW found at many level 2 public chargers. Even considering the Lucid Air’s large 118 kWh battery, the rate I was charging would have been enough to go from about 15% to more than 80% overnight. An EV with a smaller battery could no doubt recharge completely in a shorter amount of time – the 9.6 KW supplied by that Lucid cord surpasses the AC charging speeds of some modern EVs.
The plug is not unique to Lucid either. Many EVs come standard with mobile charging cords that are capable of matching (or getting pretty darn close to) the maximum AC charging speeds the vehicle is capable of. If they aren’t supplied, it’s not hard to find a portable EVSE that can do so, for a few hundred dollars.
The key thing is that NEMA 14-50 standard outlet.
This is a generic standard, rated for 50 amps worth of service at 240 volts. It resembles the standard 3-pronged (NEMA 5-15), only larger and with two extra prongs. They’re the standard used by most modern electric washers and dryers.
They’re also what most RV campgrounds use. An RV can pull up, plug in, and — voila — it has electrical service.
The NEMA 14-50 outlet also underpins much of our charging technology already, particularly at home. In fact, most home EV chargers are just a spare NEMA 14-50 outlet on a dedicated circuit. You might get a few fancy features, like Wi-Fi or energy monitoring, with the wall-mounted box, but the electricity is probably delivered from a NEMA 14-50. Indeed you can find many threads on Reddit outlining how much you can save by forgoing the box altogether and just going right to the source.
They have a point — and not just at home.
The Biden administration is investing $7.5 billion in EV charging. Currently, the U.S. has roughly 130,000 existing EV charging stations, but the administration estimates that the country will need 500,000 of them by 2030.
Meanwhile, there are an estimated 15,000 RV campgrounds in the United States, many of them strategically located near popular destinations like national parks. If each location averaged just three power outlets, that’s 45,000 charging points that could help ease the huge EV charging deficit.
Now, I’m not saying we should turn every RV campground into a defacto EV charging station; EV drivers shouldn’t muscle out RV and trailer owners who need access to those hookups. But, charging the Lucid Air via the NEMA 14-50 hookup while on a weekend getaway allowed me to think more clearly about the way we’re prioritizing our charging infrastructure.
What we want from our EV charging infrastructure is ubiquity and reliability. Most EV drivers have encountered public charging stations that don’t work or have been out of service for a long time. Some might take too long. Or be too far apart. A bunch of NEMA 14-50 outlets would conceivably be faster to install in more places than more complicated set-ups. They wouldn’t be as quick as a DC fast charger, but, as I previously explained, they have the potential to be quite a bit faster than many public level 2 chargers out there, provided the supplied cord is rated for it.
Being able to just plug in with one’s own supplied cord would simplify the set-up immensely, likely making stations more reliable. A power outlet can be serviced by any common electrician, whereas EV charging stations can be complicated and difficult to repair. When they’re broken, the reason is rarely the power source; why not just make EV drivers responsible for their own power cord, akin to bringing along your own USB-C or Lightning cable for a cell phone?
Paying for the service might be harder to manage without complicated apps. I mean, I can’t picture companies or utilities doling out power without a way to manage or bill drivers. But, the self-supplied cable isn’t even a particularly new concept; in the U.K. it’s pretty common for level 2 “non-rapid charging” to simply be a computer-controlled outlet where the driver must use their own cord to juice up their vehicle. This seems like a small, easily managed hiccup on the road to charging equity.
Installing NEMA 14-50 outlets everywhere could put the EV revolution on the road sooner rather than later.
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