A couple with a brand-new electric Lexus stand blankly at the EV charging station, walking from one charger to the other with cables in hand. Within minutes, a crowd of EV drivers gathers. The strangers offer to help the couple with charging their car, showing what plugs and apps to use. Soon enough, the appreciative pair are charged up and back on the road.
Motorists are not generally known for their community spirit and small acts of kindness. But around electric vehicle charging stations – whether on a regional highway, outside a cafe or in the centre of a busy city – a strange and wonderful communal vibe is developing.
Drivers share tips on stations and stop offs, offer to plug in others’ cars once their own is charged, or gather to help a new owner figure the whole thing out.
It is a much different experience to refuelling at a petrol bowser, where people stand around trying not to breathe the fumes and avoid eye contact before a perfunctory interaction with the cashier and getting back on the road as soon as possible.
This difference could be because most EV drivers spend 20 to 40 minutes at a charger, which is a long time to sit alone in a car. Or it could be that many EV drivers are still simply excited to own an electric car, that EV drivers are still relatively small in number so are keen to connect withs other people in the club. Whatever it is, something is happening at charging stations.
“What we’re seeing is enthusiastic early adopters who are developing a strong social etiquette around charging,” says Bernhard Conoplia, the head of charging at Evie Networks, which operates more than 110 public fast charging stations around Australia.
Charging network apps like Plugshare allow users to set a public status when they “check in” to a particular charger and communicate with others who might need to charge there: Here for 30 mins; Will be back at 5.45pm; One charger out of action.
As the number of electric vehicles on Australia’s roads increases – in 2022 EVs grew from 1% to 5% of overall car sales – the driving landscape and experience is changing.
Electric vehicle charging is a very different ecosystem in a social, technological and economic sense. This has implications not only for EV drivers but for hospitality and other businesses near charging stations, for ageing electricity infrastructure that will experience an entirely new type of demand, and for governments looking to encourage the uptake of EVs.
‘People are discovering places’
Goulburn used to be a natural stopping and refuelling point on the three-hour journey between Canberra and Sydney. Many drivers broke up the trip with a pause for petrol and a drive-by glimpse of the Big Merino in Goulburn. Then the highway was upgraded to bypass the town and it dropped off the map.
But now there are multiple fast and super-fast charging stations in Goulburn. Walk around these stations and there is a noticeable concentration of EVs as drivers grab something to eat or drink while charging their car.
Most EV drivers will spend about half an hour at a charger, but they don’t need to stay with their car. Payment for charging, if required (NRMA’s charging network is currently free, although not for long), is taken through an app, so there is no need to hang around. And that opens up a world of commercial possibilities.
“It’s a business-generating mechanism, as well as a service to the driving public,” says John Sullivan, CEO of Chargefox, Australia’s largest network of EV chargers.
A charging station means an increase in foot traffic and Sullivan says studies show that stations at shopping centres increase the time people spend in that centre. A business with a charging station, such as a farm shop, can also make it more attractive to EV drivers, Sullivan says.
EV charging stations are often more integrated with local towns and communities, rather than being highway stops or on exit roads. Conoplia says this changes drivers’ calculations about when and where to stop and charge.
“They’re planning where they might stop to charge where there’s going to be some good amenities,” he says. This has benefits for those locations beyond the time it takes for an EV to charge. “People are discovering places they may not have otherwise stopped at, and then they can think about having the next family holiday in that town if they like what they see.”
This aspect of EV charging has influenced where NRMA chooses to locate its charging stations. “When the NRMA started designing and planning for our network of EV chargers, we made sure they were located in areas which would encourage greater visitation,” says Carly Irving-Dolan, chief executive of energy and infrastructure at NRMA. “The average 20-30 minute charge time at our destination chargers means EV drivers can grab a bite to eat, stretch their legs, and explore the local area before heading back on the road.”
The issue with infrastructure
A key question for Australia is what a comprehensive national charging network looks like to support the rollout of EVs. But like petrol stations, EV charging stations can’t be built anywhere.“There are a lot of numbers being thrown around as to the number of chargers that we actually need,” Sullivan says. “It’s such an early stage that people haven’t really worked out what the pattern of usage really is.”
Sullivan says a lot of the assumptions about EV charging habits, which would inform modelling for EV charging infrastructure, are based on the patterns of people refuelling petrol cars. But the reality of EV charging is very different.
For one thing, many EV cars are at least partly charged at home, and Sullivan says most drivers will leave the house with enough charge to get to their destination and back. “What I think will happen is there will definitely be a lot more charging infrastructure put in homes, and that the majority of people’s experience charging will be from home.” That has implications for EV owners in high-density urban settings, who may not have access to off-street parking and an electricity source even for slow charging.
In commercial venues, such as supermarket or tourist destination car parks, it is not a simple case of just plonking some charge stations anywhere in a car park, as electricity suppliers might only be able to reach certain parking bays. And some venues may not want to lose prime car park real estate to charging operators. “It’s a task to find locations where you can lease parking spaces and drive energy and electricity to it, even in cities and in larger areas,” Sullivan says.
On the open road, super-fast charging stations are starting to appear alongside highways to enable rapid charging for longer distance drives. But in a country like Australia, with vast areas of little to no infrastructure and ageing grids, that too is posing a challenge for charge point operators.
“One of the key challenges is getting access to power,” Conoplia says. “We do augment the grid as part of our process, and that’s an expensive thing to do.” He’d like to see more government support for charging operators to help with the cost of upgrading electricity infrastructure to allow for fast and super-fast charging.
Australia also presents unique challenges when it comes to setting up charging stations in remote areas. “You can’t guarantee telephone connectivity [necessary for using the apps] driving from one city to another city, and all of this infrastructure that gets put in needs really good, reliable electricity,” Sullivan says. Then there’s heat, salt water, flooding, bushfires and even local wildlife such as ants to contend with.
But these barriers must be surmounted if Australia is to have the infrastructure to support electrification of domestic car travel. Last summer saw the first instances of Australians queueing at electric charging stations over the holidays. Increasing demand and longer wait times at chargers could challenge the communal spirit of EV drivers.
For now, scrolling through the statuses and reviews of EV users at charging stations around the country can trigger a sense of hope – not just because of the environmental benefits of EVs, but because of what is happening between the people using them: Tom offering to move his car if someone else is desperate for a charge; Anna sharing that she’s finished charging if anyone needs the space; Tim posting that the chargers work well and there are good food options nearby.
Conoplia hopes the charging culture and community established by the early adopters will endure as more EV drivers join the club. “I think that’s a really positive thing for everyone’s experience,” he says. “I hope it continues as it all goes mainstream.”