This Cross-Country American Road Trip Route Is EV-Ready

Source: By Kyle Stock, Bloomberg • Posted: Wednesday, August 23, 2023

America’s Loneliest Road Is Finally EV-Ready

The US has added more than 1,200 public fast-charging stations in the past 12 months, filling in electron deserts and expanding the reach of the Great American Electric Road Trip.

Drive southeast from Denver on Route 50 and the roadside soon morphs into oceanic spans of grass, with little to break the scenery except cows and the occasional barn. Three and a half hours later, you’ll hit the visitor center for Lamar, Colorado, which doubles as an Amtrak station and a homespun museum for pioneering technology. There’s an antique windmill, a statue of a cowboy and an old locomotive steam engine out front. Nearby, the massive blade of a wind turbine blade lays on its side as though blown over in a strong breeze.

The latest addition to the collection is for actual use: a bank of four high-speed electric vehicle chargers. The units were turned on in late June, and complement a row of Tesla Superchargers across the parking lot. Those were switched on about a year earlier. Bob and Nadine McClure, retirees and volunteers at the visitor center, say the new hardware has brought a steady stream of travelers that might otherwise skip it for interstates 70 or 40, which bracket Lamar to the north and south.

“Oh my, they’ve been coming in all the time, and the first thing they all say is ‘I’m driving an electric vehicle,’” Nadine says, on a break from working through a jigsaw puzzle with Bob. “I try not to chuckle, because I hear that a lot these days.”

When US Highway 50 opened almost a century ago, traversing its entirety — from Sacramento, California, to Ocean City, Maryland — was a dicey proposition. The highway spans desert valleys and mountain ranges, and fellow travelers were scarce. So were gas stations. In 1986, Life magazine dubbed the Nevada portion of Route 50, which runs through the center of the state, “The Loneliest Road in America” for its dearth of activity and attractions. The highway’s nickname stuck.

Today, Route 50 is fraught for similar, albeit updated, reasons. Newer interstates have siphoned off traffic, making some stretches even more isolated, and EV charging stations are sparse. Making the full trek in a battery-powered car requires temperate weather, a few white-knuckle stints and a tailwind or two. But it is doable, as of a few months ago. With the right EV, a pioneering traveler can now cross America’s loneliest road on public fast chargers alone.

That milestone should please President Joe Biden, who wants 50% of new cars in the US running on batteries by 2025. In 2021, Biden approved a $5 billion plan to build fast-charging stations every 50 miles (80 kilometers) along 75,000 miles of interstates and highways. There are now about 4,800 public fast-charging stations in the US, with 12,500 cords between them. More than a quarter of those locations — some 1,300 stations — were switched on in the 12 months ending on July 31, according to a Bloomberg Green analysis of federal data.

This expanding network excludes Tesla Superchargers, many of which will open upto non-Tesla drivers by the end of this year. It also excludes the charging infrastructure that will come from Biden’s $5 billion. The government has approved proposals from all 50 states on where they plan to install new chargers, and laid out guidelines for things like reliability. The first of those stations will likely show up next year.

The good news for the Biden camp is that America’s electron deserts are filling in already, thanks to a tide of subsidies from utilities and state governments, as well as consumer tax rebates baked into the Inflation Reduction Act. The expansion is an indicator of rising interest from US drivers: EVs accounted for 6.5% of new car purchases in the first half of 2023, up from 2.5% two years ago. It’s also a reflection of investments from roadside retailers eager to lure the growing ranks of electric travelers.

“It feels like the country is at, or about to be at, full coverage,” says Steve Birkett, a marketing consultant from Boston who chronicles his frequent battery-powered road trips in a Hyundai Ioniq 5. “At which point it just becomes about density.”

Birkett says finding EV chargers on east-west interstates is “no problem at all,” though if he’s traveling on more rural routes, he usually plans to stop at a hotel or campsite to charge up overnight. Lately Birkett has been seeing more stations in far-flung places such as northern Michigan and the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.

That jibes with the rollout on the ground. Many new stations are redundant, adding layers of service in regions where EV adoption is decent and getting stronger. Atlanta, Georgia, for example, got four new stations in the 12 months ending July 31, augmenting an inventory of 20 public charging stations and three Tesla Supercharging sites.

But other chargers are starting to emerge in electron deserts, opening up vast swaths of the American heartland to EV drivers. Atlanta, Illinois, (population 1,600) sits deep in corn country between Chicago and Springfield. The nearest Supercharger is 25 miles away. It got its first public charger in January.

In the 19th century, Lamar was part of the Sante Fe Trail, one of the country’s busiest trade routes. Today, travelers tend to opt for major interstates to the north and south instead.

An influx of public chargers is essential for boosting EV sales in states where they are currently lagging. The Midwest, across which Route 50 sits like a beltline, has some of the country’s lowest rates of adoption. While one in five vehicles registered in California this year is electric, adoption rates in Kansas and Missouri are still under 4%, according to data from S&P Global Mobility. But between them, those two states got almost 50 new places to park and charge up since last summer.

“There’s a lot of money going into charging right now,” says Nick Nigro, founder of Washington, DC-based consultancy Atlas Public Policy, which focuses on transportation. “And if you want to build a national network, at some point, you’ve got to go everywhere.”

Starting at Route 50’s westernmost point — bound for Maryland 3,000 miles away — an EV driver won’t hit any snags in the almond fields of central California or around Lake Tahoe. Even zipping across Nevada and Utah, a stretch of literal desert, isn’t a problem. Quick-charging stations come fast and frequent. The mountains of Colorado are EV-friendly, too, until they fall away to plains.

That’s where the electrified road ended, until recently. The new chargers in Lamar, Colorado — 34 miles from the Kansas border — essentially put a 330-mile swath of the US on the EV map for the first time. In doing so, they also connected the entirety of Route 50.

Since Lamar’s chargers went in, this desolate corner of the state has seen road trippers in Ford Mustang Mach-Es, Volkswagen ID.4s and Audi e-trons trickling out of its visitor center. They can catch Barbie at the town’s sole movie screen, then grab a drink at Desiree’s Night Club across the street, or a latte at Brew Unto Others Coffee down the block.

“I come in at 7 a.m.,” says Tera Bender, general manager of the cafe. “If there’s a car at the charger, there’s usually one of two people in here who wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

On an afternoon in early August, Ed Byrne was topping up a Tesla at Lamar’s Supercharger station, on his way to the Denver airport from his home in Meade, Kansas — a trip of about 400 miles. “This is exactly where we were in the early 1900s with gas,” he says. “We just try to fill up wherever we can and it’s going to take a little while to fill in.”

Heading east on Route 50 from Lamar, the next fast-charging station is 273 miles away at the Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson, Kansas. There used to be another dicey section here: 333 miles of plugless highway between St. Louis, Mississippi, and southwest Cincinnati. But in April, a Cadillac dealer in Vincennes, Indiana, switched on a fast charger, essentially erasing one of the largest electron deserts left in the Midwest.

“No one is making a profit on selling a charging service,” Nigro says. “That means it’s going to be dependent on really creative business models.”

Charging companies are busy figuring out how to share the costs and risks, in the interest of staking out prime locations even before they make sense financially. Over the past year, they’ve been able to tap into a vein of subsidies from utilities and states eager to get ahead of the EV parade. Atlas Public Policy estimates governments and utilities have poured about $8 billion into public chargers, compounding the $13 billion put up by private investors.

Running east out of Lamar, Route 50 covers 273 miles before hitting another public fast-charging station.

At the same time, charging executives are aggressively courting convenience stores, outlet malls and other destinations eager to attract travelers that will have 20 minutes or so to kill.

EVgo Inc., which owns and operates fast chargers at 900 locations across the US, has been building its network for more than a decade. These days, though, the brightest part of its business is EVgo eXtend, a new unit in which retailers and other partners pay EVgo to build and maintain chargers, instead of the charging company owning them outright.

As part of the eXtend program, EVgo, in partnership with General Motors Co., is currently installing 2,000 fast-charging slots at Pilot Flying J travel stops across the US. The company typically wants its chargers to be used around five hours per day — EVgo says a 20% utilization rate delivers its target profit margin while minimizing wait times for drivers — but the Pilot Flying J cords provide a revenue stream whether they’re humming or not.

“It’s a model that allows us to really move into the corridors without taking on that utilization risk,” says Sara Rafalson, EVgo’s senior vice president of market development and public policy. In the quarter ending June 30, two-thirds of EVgo’s revenue came from eXtend — a disclosure that helped send the company’s shares up 24% when it announced earnings on Aug. 3.

The eXtend model will sound familiar to ChargePoint Holdings Inc., which operates about 19,000 fast-charging ports around the world and owns almost none of them. The company’s customers include office buildings, apartment developers and retailers.

“We’re totally indifferent to the economics of the actual chargers,” says ChargePoint Chief Executive Officer Pasquale Romano.

To date, much of the ChargePoint map has been made up of slower Level 2 chargers, which take at least a couple of hours to add a meaningful number of miles to most vehicles’ batteries. But demand is picking up for faster units in travel corridors. “Businesses have just leaned in because they’re seen the handwriting on the wall,” Pasquale says. “Every food service brand, every convenience store, every service center in the country is looking at this.”

Kum & Go, a string of 400 convenience stores mostly in the middle of the US, now has 35 chargers scattered among its gas pumps, for instance. Many of them are in relative EV hotspots, like Denver, but its busiest chargers are in Springfield, Missouri, and Northwood, Iowa, a tiny town halfway between Des Moines, Iowa, and Minneapolis.

“With both of those, basically there are no other chargers around, so there is a first-mover advantage,” explains Jacob Maass, Kum & Go’s senior fuel pricing manager. In July, the Springfield charger juiced 160 cars. “If someone else put in that EV charger, that’s 160 customers we wouldn’t have,” Maass says.

While Route 50 may be all sewn up for EVs, electron deserts linger elsewhere. Shrinking them to 50-mile spans will require thousands more cords in places far more desolate than Lamar. There’s still a chargerless stretch of nearly 600 miles between Whitefish, Montana, and Willinston, North Dakota, for example.

To speed things up, the Biden administration inked a deal with Tesla in February to open up parts of the Supercharger network to more vehicles. Automakers that include General Motors and Ford Motor Co. have also announced plans to adapt their EVs to work with Tesla’s chargers, which use what the company calls the North American charging standard. Tesla’s network is far more widespread than all other public charging networks combined and offers nearly twice as many cords.

For the next few months, however, Tesla chargers largely remain a walled garden. After Cincinnati, a Route 50 road tripper with a Rivian R1S or a Nissan Leaf might make a stop in Chillicothe, Ohio, at the public fast-charging station that was installed in January 2022. But the Supercharger bank nearby, installed in September 2020, is still off limits.

From Chillicothe on east, the rest of Route 50 is a breeze. It’s 70 miles to the next plug, in Athens, Virginia; then another 115 miles to a ChargePoint cord at the Almost Heaven Harley-Davidson store in Clarksburg, West Virginia. From there, it’s a modest 164-mile trek to a charger in Winchester, Virginia. As the highway approaches Washington DC, Route 50 becomes the antithesis of lonely, and public chargers are as abundant as monuments and museums.

In Maryland, the highway zips through Annapolis, doglegs south and then runs straight east to Ocean City. The Barefoot Mailman motel on 35th Street might be a good place to plant the “finish” pin. It’s not really on the way to anything, but there’s a charger just across the street.