Gas stations tend not to be the best locations for charging. Focusing on destinations would be more effective
On June 4 Germany announced ambitious plans to electrify its mobility sector as part of a €130 billion post-coronavirus recovery plan. Among other things, this included higher subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles, more research and development funding and investments in charging infrastructure.
The most eye-catching proposal, though, was a requirement that all gas stations provide electric charging stations. Yet symbolic as it is, this is not the most effective way to improve charging infrastructure.
In fact, due to the different charging needs of electric vehicles, gas stations aren’t particularly good places to charge them at all. This reflects an old kind of thinking that sees mobility innovation primarily through the lense of the car. We suggest that the German government rethinks this idea, using its investments to deliver the best infrastructure possible by focusing on points of interest, not where the tanks are.
Range anxiety: The right issue to address
The uptake in electric vehicles is hampered primarily by concerns over the operating range of vehicles and the lack of charging infrastructure. In the UK, for example, 69 percent of motorists are put off from switching to EVs due to a perceived lack of charging infrastructure with 57 percent expressing concerns over battery range.
This fear of being caught short goes a long way to explaining why electric vehicles still make up just a tiny fraction of cars on the road. In Germany they made up just under 2 percent of new car registrations in 2019. This is a problem. EVs are cleaner and are therefore key to tackling climate change. By addressing these fears over range, companies and policy makers can considerably increase the attractiveness of EVs.
Although Germany has made efforts to improve charging stations in recent years, there is still a major shortage. According to BDEW, Germany’s association for the energy and water industry, at least 70,000 more charging stations and 7,000 fast charging stations are required to support mass adoption of EVs.
The government’s €2.5 billion investment in charging infrastructure is therefore welcome. And while there are provisions to offer more stations in public spaces, such as hospitals and city centres, the obligation to provide charging stations in every gas station is the most symbolic challenge to the orthodoxy of petrol-fuelled cars. Yet is it effective? The evidence suggests not.
Points of interest not gas stations
The idea that people will continue to refuel their cars at gas stations is based on four predominant assumptions:
The average car has a range of 400 to 600 km (300 to 400 miles);
Vehicles cannot be refueled at home;
Vehicles are refueled instantly;
Cars are owned and therefore driven off by the same person, once refueling is completed.
The first assumption means drivers are not worried about range, leading to gas stations that are clustered or positioned more sporadically. The second makes it reasonable to position them in suburban areas as drivers cannot refuel at home. In the case of EVs, charging stations in suburban areas make less sense when more people can charge their vehicles at home.
The third assumption allows for gas stations to be positioned on main roads and in out-of-town locations which are useful for somebody who is stopping for only five minutes, but not so useful for someone needing to charge a car for 30 minutes or longer. In this case it makes more sense to park at the location near to the final destination, and charge the vehicle there. And the fourth assumes that the person refuelling it is the one who is going to drive it. Shared mobility flips this on its head, in that, the person refuelling the vehicle is unlikely to be the next person to drive it.
This thinking, while still appropriate on a motorway or in a rural setting, is anachronistic in an urban mobility landscape.
The best place is where people are heading
In their research into charging station optimization, Raphaela Pagany, Anna Marquardt and Roland Zink of the Deggendorf Institute of Technology attempted to map out the optimal location for charging stations based on a number of factors. By taking into consideration points of interest, dwelling time, charging needs based on age, average driving distances and walking distances to destination, they were able to create a model which determines the optimal location of charging points.
They find that it is possible to reduce implementation costs by implementing charging stations only at sites with the highest demand and minimized walking distance. In this case they conclude that “the interaction between the users and their environment is central” to model.
It is therefore unlikely gas stations are the best places to put charging stations. While gas stations sought to optimize their positioning to cater to internal combustion engine vehicles, the different range of electric vehicles, and their need to charge for longer, mean that reaching points of interest is a far more important factor than being close to a main road, for instance.
This is highlighted by the comparison between the two cities Deggendorf and Freyung (see below).
As you can see, the demand in the two cities varies geographically reflecting the different needs of the cities based on environmental factors.
In our own research at Ubiq we saw similar results. By analyzing parking data for WienEnergie and innogygo! we found that to maximize the utility of charging stations, it would make sense to implement them in areas where cars are most likely to be parked. We assessed whether this changes at different times of day, but this made little difference. In Warsaw, Poland, for example, we found that the highest numbers of parking events are primarily located in the central district, no matter what the time of day. It is only the total number of parking events that change throughout the day.
No gas stations for shared mobility
In all of this, one mobility segment has been ignored: Shared mobility. Germany is not alone in this regard. France also recently announced large subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles. And while we agree with this, these are very much policies created with the suburbs in mind.
The way people are moving around is changing and the infrastructure needs to change, too. Putting charging infrastructure in a gas station doesn’t make much sense to someone parking a free-floating car share. If this would even be allowed, a gas station on a main road is unlikely to be a prime location to pick a car up.
What is more, shared mobility and the potential for multimodality - the use of different sized vehicles based on need - is putting into question the value of the one-size-fits-all car. Shared e-mobility of the future may take very different forms.
We are already seeing the use of mopeds and scooters but there are also other lightweight vehicles being developed. Imagine charging stations that are halfway between a car charging station and a bike rack which can cater for small to mid-range vehicles. Their smaller size would allow for far more agile implementation than a large space on the side of the road for a car.
Time to think differently
The steps Germany is taking to improve electric vehicle infrastructure are commendable and the funds they have committed will significantly tilt the scales in favour of cleaner vehicles. Yet the announcement requiring gas stations to provide charging stations is misguided. It is the kind of old-fashioned thinking we need to move away from if we are to reshape our cities for a mobility future that is cleaner and less congested.
This money would be better spent on first, pinpointing the optimal location of stations based on points of interest and parking locations, and second, by taking into account the charging needs of shared transportation. Forget the gas station, when it comes to charging it is all about the destination.
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