The State of Washington and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office has made a $9 million commitment in this year’s budget to support the West Coast Electronic Highway.
No, it’s not a super semi-conductor, but an extensive network of electronic vehicle (EV) DC fast charging stations located every 25-50 miles along I-5 and other major roadways. There are fast-charging stations already in place at the Gee Creek Rest Stop area near Exit 11 on I-5 as well as Country Cafe, located at 6370 Pioneer St. at the Ridgefield I-5 junction (Exit 14).
The West Coast Electric Highway compliments the EV Project, a $230 million U.S. Department of Energy project to deploy charging stations along six states including Washington, Oregon and California. Located at strategic points along the freeway, its goal is to provide drivers “range confidence.” They are meant to let buyers know that charging is easy and convenient is meant to encourage residents and businesses to invest in plug-in electric vehicles.
There have been a number of major hurdles facing mass acceptance of plug-in electric vehicles. Initially, it was simply the technology and specifically the battery weight and life. It then became the cost and demand. Even with government-mandated requirements for this technology and increased consumer demand today, most manufacturers lose up to $8,000 a vehicle on the electric cars. The buyers also receive up to $7,500 in tax incentives based on where they live.
Even with these financial considerations, there was still the major roadblock of convenience and practicality. There wasn’t an infrastructure in place to support the vehicles. Most drivers had a charging unit at home and had to plan trips of no more than 50 miles, which was a typical range on one charge. This meant they were primarily used for commuting and someone had to be very committed to the concept of electric transportation to take on the 10-15 year return on investment.
The investment in the charging stations has not been limited to government-created units. The Salmon Creek Fred Meyer has dedicated three prime parking spots to a Blink brand system. It’s quite common to see vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi I MiEV, Chevrolet Volt and others being charged while the owner was taking that time to shop or, as seen on more than one occasion, chat with fellow electric car owners doing the same.
A Fred Meyer spokeswoman said the charging stations have been a huge success and they do plan more. Right now they don’t “charge for the charge.” They select key areas where there would be the most need. The SE Hawthorne store in Portland was the first. They plan their first fast-charging station to be in place at the Hollywood store soon.
At the New York Auto Show in March, there was the debut of an interesting range of vehicles. Chevrolet showed off the 2014 Corvette Stingray and Camaro, and even Rolls Royce displayed the new 2014 Wraith. New York also was showcase for some exciting and interesting new electric vehicles.
Mercedes introduced its first electric car, the 2014 B-Class. It even has a drivetrain designed by Tesla. The big attention getter, however, on the heels of the great success of its gas-powered car was the Fiat 500E electric car. The just-announced price of $32,500 puts it about in the range of the Chevrolet Volt. Fiat is offering a very aggressive lease deal in California where the car will be launched. It’s still to be determined if those deals will be in place when it reaches the Northwest.
Interestingly, the charging areas are becoming so prevalent that there will likely be a bill passed in Washington to access a $124 fine to vehicles parked in a charging spot that are either non-electric cars or EVs not charging. SB5849 has already been approved by the transportation committee and is expected to pass later this year.
As the infrastructure has grown, so has the demand for EVs. There are still some major hurdles to overcome and the United States will fall well short of the one million electric cars on the road that President Obama expected. Even the fast charging stations require 20 minutes to recharge a vehicle.
With the range now as high as 87 miles on the new Fiat 500E, that still would require two stops if the driver wanted to be sure and make it to a Seattle Mariners baseball game from Clark County without running out of charge. With a number of the stops at rest areas along I-5, they may not be ideal areas to stop at night for 20 minutes if driving alone. It is also a big commitment for business owners to have an employee sit around for 20 minutes while waiting for his or her transportation to charge.
Clearly, these vehicles are still for a specific buyer, but with more choices coming to the marketplace, the creation of the Electric Highway and more businesses experiencing the benefit of a captive buyer, the EVs should be much more commonplace.
Brad Boyer is a Ridgefield resident and owner of Carcierge, a car concierge company. He can also be heard on Cars and Stuff Radio 101 on FM News 101 KXL. To learn more, visit www.carcierge.net, www.bradthecarguy.com or carsandstuffradio on Facebook.