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Electric Vehicles

EV Charging Stations Are Weird

Gas stations are predictable. EV chargers can be isolated, surrounded by cats, or inside casinos.

EV Charging Stations Are Weird
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Someone out there cares for the pea soup cats, thank goodness.

In the parking lot of the Pea Soup Andersen’s in Santa Nella, a classic California stopover known for its bread bowls and towering Danish windmill, sat a Volkswagen bus, adorned with the restaurant’s faded insignia, that hadn’t been roadworthy in years. When I stopped late one night to visit the Tesla supercharger in the same lot, the predator eyes of a wire-brush kitten peered out from behind a dusty, deflated tire. It turns out an entire colony of cats had found a home in the soup jalopy, subsisting on water and kibble that a kind soul left out for them.

If cat colonies sound like a strange road trip encounter, you’re right. Gas stations are all basically the same. You pump, you pay, you visit the convenience store’s unfortunate bathroom, and you leave. EV charging stations are weird. The experience of charging an electric car means spending a chunk of time, not just a couple of minutes, wherever the plugs are, whether that’s a crowded shopping mall or deserted lot patrolled by feral cats who have realized humans leave tasty garbage behind. In the EV era, America’s culture of pit stops is set to look a lot different.

I’ve stopped at dozens of fast-charging stations in four years of driving an EV. Some, especially the large depots found along well-traveled interstate highways, will feel familiar to the interstate traveler: parking bays lined with plugs within a short walk to a convenience store. However, as companies try to keep up with rapid EV adoption in America, other stations have hardly anything by way of amenities. I’ve stopped at some that sprang up in dirt lots with nothing but a few plugs and a mobile bathroom, clearly something Tesla hustled together to accommodate a holiday rush between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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  • More common in California is the outlet mall supercharger. It’s a match made in convenience, since malls have lots of available parking spaces and offer something to keep you occupied while the car charges. However, while charging during the daytime allows you to get a glass of wine at the Cheesecake Factory, needing electricity at night means sitting around a spooky garage or lot with nobody around aside from your fellow twilight chargers, wishing the stores, and their bathrooms, were open 24/7.

    Other stations exist wherever a well-situated business owner decides to rent out a few stalls. Many are situated at hotels, where at least there’s a bathroom inside. The Tesla supercharger in Twentynine Palms, a town right outside Joshua Tree National Park, is at a casino, requiring patrons to navigate a gauntlet of slot jockeys and cigarette smoke to reach the restaurant or restroom. One of the closest to my house is at an In-N-Out restaurant, forcing me to wait in traffic with drive-through burger patrons just to get to the plugs. Tesla must have reached an arrangement with Runza, the beloved fast food chain in my native Nebraska that serves meat-and-cabbage Czech hot pockets, because several of the superchargers strung along the interstate are found there.

    Wherever you accidentally wind up, there is the trouble of killing time, especially after hours. What do you do while your car sits for 30 minutes? Honestly, it’s an awkward chunk of time. Although many chargers are located near restaurants, the time to top off the battery isn’t long enough to complete a full sit-down meal, complete with waiting for the server to finally bring around the check (making it somebody’s responsibility to go move the car before it begins to incur idle fees). For this reason, perhaps we will see a rise in superchargers with valets, like the one in downtown Los Angeles where a person can charge an EV while going to the Lakers game.

    To waste time, people do what you’d think. They work, if a pressing email comes in between stops. They sleep. They walk the dog. They play the peculiar versions of solitaire or other games built into the car’s touchscreen. If they pay ten dollars a month for Tesla’s “Premium Connectivity,” they might watch Netflix or Disney+ to fill the empty minutes. According to some social media posts, they do drugs, squeeze in a workout, or, occasionally, if nobody’s around, have sex. Mostly, people kill time at the charger the same way they do on the couch: by playing on their phones.

    Yet the rise of the EV also offers the chance to reinvent the rest stop, to create something from the ground up designed for electric drivers with 30 or 40 minutes to kill. Tesla CEO Elon Musk wants to build a 32-stall supercharger in Hollywood alongside a retro drive-in theater that screens movies, and slings hamburgers, to Tesla drivers while their big lithium-ion batteries refill.

    On the road to full electrification, we should expect a variety of EV charging experiences to arise, replacing the universal gas-and-go service station stop. Here’s hoping you can still get beef jerky, inexplicable CDs, and a crappy cup of coffee.

    Green

    Andrew Moseman

    Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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