Not So Fast on Electric Cars

Source: By Allysia Finley, Wall Street Journal • Posted: Monday, January 2, 2023

Toyota’s CEO delivers a timely warning, and many states echo it.


A Tesla Model 3 at a charging station in Colonie, N.Y., Nov. 22.PHOTO: PAUL HENNESSY/ZUMA PRESS

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda recently caused the climate lobby to blow a fuse by speaking a truth about battery electric vehicles that his fellow auto executives dare not. “Just like the fully autonomous cars that we were all supposed to be driving by now,” Mr. Toyoda said in Thailand, “I think BEVs are just going to take longer to become mainstream than the media would like us to believe.” He added that a “silent majority” in the auto industry share his view, “but they think it’s the trend, so they can’t speak out loudly.”

Maine notes in a plan submitted to the Federal Highway Administration this summer that “cold temperatures will remain a top challenge” for adoption, since “cold weather reduces EV range and increases charging times.” When temperatures drop to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, the cars achieve only 54% of their quoted range. A vehicle that’s supposed to be able to go 250 miles between charges will make it only 135 miles on average. At 32 degrees—a typical winter day in much of the country—a Tesla Model 3 that in ideal conditions can go 282 miles between charges will make it only 173 miles.

Imagine if the 100 million Americans who took to the road over the holidays were driving electric cars. How many would have been stranded as temperatures plunged? There wouldn’t be enough tow trucks—or emergency medics—for people freezing in their cars.

The Transportation Department is requiring states to build charging stations every 50 miles along interstate highways and within a mile of off-ramps to reduce the likelihood of these scenarios. But most state electrical grids aren’t built to handle this many charging stations and will thus require expensive upgrades. Illinois, for one, warns of “challenges related to sufficient electric grid capacity, particularly in rural areas of the state.”

Charging stations in rural areas with little traffic are also unlikely to be profitable and could become “stranded assets,” as many states warn. Wyoming says out-of-state traffic from non-Tesla electric vehicles would have to increase 100-fold to cover charger costs under the administration’s rules. Tesla has already scoped out premier charging locations for its proprietary network. Good luck to competitors.

New Mexico warns that “poor station maintenance can lead to stations being perpetually broken and unusable, particularly in rural or hard to access locations. If an EV charging station is built in an area without electrical capacity and infrastructure to support its use, it will be unusable until the appropriate upgrades are installed.”

Arizona says “private businesses may build and operate a station if a grant pays for the first five years of operations and maintenance” but might abandon the project if it later proves unprofitable. Many other states echo this concern, noting that federal funds could result in stranded assets.

The administration aims to build 500,000 stations, but states will likely have to spend their own money to keep them running. Like other federal inducements, these grants may entice states to assume what could become huge financial liabilities.

Federal funds also come with many rules, including “buy America” procurement requirements, which demand that chargers consist of mostly U.S.-made components. New Jersey says these could “delay implementation by several years” since only a few manufacturers can currently meet them. New York also says it will be challenging to comply with the web of federal rules, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970, and a 1960 federal law that bars charging stations in rest areas.

Oh, and labor rules. The administration requires that electrical workers who install and maintain the stations be certified by the union-backed Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program. New Mexico says much of the state lacks contractors that meet this mandate, which will reduce competition and increase costs.

Technical problems abound too. Virginia says fast-charging hardware “has a short track record” and is “prone to malfunctions.” Equipment “previously installed privately in Virginia has had a high failure rate shown in user comments and reports on social media,” and “even compatibility with credit card readers has been unexpectedly complicated.”

A study this spring led by University of California researchers found that more than a quarter of public direct-current fast-charging stations in the San Francisco Bay Area were unusable. Drivers will be playing roulette every time they head to a station. If all this weren’t disconcerting enough, Arizona warns cyber vulnerabilities could compromise customer financial transactions, charging infrastructure, electric vehicles and the grid.

Politicians and auto makers racing to eliminate the internal-combustion engine are bound to crash into technological, logistic and financial realities, as Mr. Toyoda warned. The casualties will be taxpayers, but the administration doesn’t seem to care.