The road to functional electric vehicles (EVs) has encountered many bumps and barriers. Yet over the last few years, both EV technology and adoption have shifted into high gear.
More than 807,000 electric vehicles were sold in the U.S. in 2022—nearly double the amount in 2021, according to research firm Motor Intelligence. About 6 percent of all new cars sold in the U.S. in 2022 fell into the EV category, representing a big jump from 3.2 percent in 2021, according to The Wall Street Journal. Furthermore, a May 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that 42 percent of Americans would be very or somewhat likely to seriously consider purchasing an EV.
More than 2 million EVs are now on the road in the U.S. What’s more, almost every major automaker around the world sells EVs or plans to have one on the market soon. “EVs are finally moving into the mainstream,” says Marc Geller, spokesperson for the Electric Vehicle Association. “Over the next few years, adoption will increase dramatically, and this will lead to fundamental changes.”
Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in EV infrastructure, which incorporates everything from manufacturing plants that produce batteries and charging equipment to networks of charging stations along highways and byways. In the future, filling a tank at a gas station might be as quaint as a horse stable. “EVs introduce a very different societal model with entirely different requirements,” Geller says.
Transitioning to EV infrastructure is an enormous societal undertaking. In addition to producing vehicles, batteries, and charging stations, there are some prickly technical and practical issues. These challenges include deciding where to locate charging stations, ensuring they’re compatible with all cars, and managing maintenance and repairs of the stations—particularly in areas prone to vandalism. Further complicating matters, many consumers do not live in a single-family home with an outlet and a garage, which is the most common way to charge an electric vehicle.
42 percent of Americans say they are very or somewhat likely to seriously consider purchasing an EV.
Source: Pew Research Center
“We see record-breaking EV sales numbers quarter after quarter,” says Stacy Noblet, ICF Climate Center senior fellow and vice president of transportation electrification. “It’s vital to work toward a high level of interoperability so that EV drivers can charge at any charging station they approach, regardless of the network or place.”
Although electric vehicles have been around in one form or another since the 1800s, the technology has only begun to mature and move into the mainstream over the last few years. Of course, Tesla paved the way for the industry, but now EVs are about to hit the road in a big way. “It’s critical for the infrastructure to keep up with the increased demand if we’re going to transition to EVs and address climate objectives,” says Rick Azer, associate vice president at Black & Veatch, which has worked in the EV infrastructure arena since 2013.
“It’s critical for the infrastructure to keep up with the increased demand if we’re going to transition to EVs and address climate objectives.”
ASSOCIATE VICE PRESIDENT
BLACK & VEATCH
The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which provides a credit up to $7,500 for new EV purchases, is helping to supercharge the industry. Ford Motor Co. and South Korean battery maker SK Innovation have announced plans to invest a combined $11.4 billion for a new EV truck assembly plant and an EV battery plant in Tennessee and two EV battery plants in Kentucky to boost the automaker’s electric vehicle production.
Meanwhile, Black & Veatch and energy services firm SAI Group have announced a joint partnership to build a coast-tocoast network of more than 2,000 fast-charging EV stations for Electrify America, a private company that already offers more than 3,479 chargers in the U.S., including 116 Level 2 chargers that can refuel at 12 to 80 miles of range per hour. (Level 2 is the most commonly used for public EV charging.) By 2027, the company plans to have invested $2 billion in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and education programs, including $800 million in California.
Technical advances in charging have also changed the stakes. “The technology on vehicles and the charging infrastructure have evolved, enabling crucial applications like power control and managed charging,” Azer explains.
Today, at a fast-charging Level 3 station, it takes 20 to 60 minutes to obtain a charge of about 80 percent, depending on the vehicle. Level 3 charging technology can fuel a vehicle at three to 20 miles per minute, but it comes at a higher cost than Level 1 and 2 chargers. While all of this is a good thing, it has also introduced a somewhat chaotic environment with different types of connectors and charging standards, with different voltage requirements.
The good news for the engineering industry is that there’s enormous demand for expertise in a variety of technical areas. For perspective, U.S. electric vehicle sales jumped by about two-thirds in 2022 while the broader auto market shrunk. “This means engineering services are needed for electric vehicle charging, building energy consumption studies, boiler/chiller replacements, high efficiency system upgrades, and many other services,” says John Burns, chair of the ACEC Coalition of American Mechanical and Electrical Engineers (CAMEE), and senior vice president of Burns Engineering.
An April 2022 McKinsey & Company article, Building the Electric-Vehicle Charging Infrastructure America Needs, notes that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provides $7.5 billion to develop the country’s EV-charging infrastructure, won’t solve the problem. “Even the addition of half a million public chargers could be far from enough,” it points out. The writers estimate that the U.S. will require 1.2 million public EV chargers and 28 million private EV chargers by 2030. (See chart on page 15.) That’s about 20 times the number of chargers that currently exists.
“Engineering services are needed for electric vehicle charging, building energy consumption studies, boiler/chiller replacements, high efficiency system upgrades, and many other services.”
ACEC COALITION OF AMERICAN MECHANICAL AND ELECTRICAL ENGINEERS (CAMEE)
SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT
Plug-in vehicles will account for 23 percent of all new passenger car sales globally by 2025, according to BloombergNEF. But charging situations and stations vary considerably, a fact that’s often overlooked. For instance, electricity purchased at a public charger can be more costly because most public charging takes place during the day, when the price per kilowatt-hour can be between five and ten times higher, according to McKinsey. Of course, pricing—and carbon footprint—are dependent on the energy source and where people charge their electric vehicles.
The latter is critically important. Newer EV models can top out at a range of over 300 miles, and approximately 80–90 percent of charges take place at home, Geller says. These Level 1 systems charge at 120 volts, which equates to a range of about three to five miles per hour. Yet, “If you live in a single-family home and have a garage, you already have your own charging station,” Geller points out. “For the vast majority of situations—work, shopping, and local driving—this is sufficient. You charge at night when rates are low and when the vehicle isn’t needed.”
“Over the next few years, adoption will increase dramatically, and this will lead to fundamental changes.”
ELECTRICAL VEHICLE ASSOCIATION
Things get more difficult with condos, apartments, and office buildings, all of which often lack sufficient charging stations or outlets. These structures may require retrofitting, including in underground garages or outside parking spaces. And things get even more complicated when private companies such as Electrify America must buy electricity from a regulated utility.
Although the price of EVs is dropping rapidly—and thanks to current incentives could match the sticker price for gasolinepowered vehicles within a year or two—for now the cost difference remains an important factor for new and used EV sales.
Of course, the need for home EV charging stations in no way diminishes the necessity for public infrastructure. “We must focus on building out a robust charging network nationwide while making charging more accessible and affordable for both current and future EV drivers,” Noblet says. “This includes the full range of vehicle types—from personal vehicles to taxis to commercial delivery vans.”
Fortunately, many metro areas already boast a large number of charging stations—located at workplaces, government buildings, retail locations, and other destinations. “Rural areas can be a lot more challenging,” Noblet says.
If demand for chargers isn’t particularly high in certain areas, there’s often no incentive for private companies to build and maintain stations. This has led to some gaps in charging infrastructure, and it could put the brakes on future sales, Noblet adds.
“We must focus on building out a robust charging network nationwide while making charging more accessible and affordable for both current and future EV drivers.”
SENIOR FELLOW AND VICE PRESIDENT OF TRANSPORTATION ELECTRIFICATION
ICF CLIMATE CENTER
There’s no question that building out the infrastructure required for EVs will be costly. However, there’s good reason to be optimistic. For one thing, federal funding is making its way to state agencies through the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program. It is designed to establish a national network of charging stations along highway corridors, enabling longdistance EV travel. Many cities, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, and Seattle, are also responding to the needs of EV owners through legislative actions such as passing new building codes and zoning laws to allow for the installation of charging stations and speeding up the permitting process for charging station applicants.
There’s also a growing focus on simplifying public EV infrastructure, including moving toward greater compatibility in charging systems—which can vary among automakers. In February 2023, the U.S. government indicated that Tesla wouldn’t receive part of $7.5 billion in subsidies if it didn’t open up its charging network. As the largest EV charger network in the country, Tesla’s stations feature chargers that can only be connected to plugs used by Tesla cars. Likewise, many are pushing for standard and consistent ways to pay for a charge by card or an app, along with consistent signage and other tools to simplify finding available charging stations.
Engineers have a crucial role to play, which extends far beyond building out EV infrastructure, says Noblet. “It is important to design charging stations so that they meet the needs of EV drivers—whether they’re at a fleet yard, in an employee parking lot, in a residential garage, or at curbside locations,” she says.
There’s also a need to factor the desire for bi-directional charging, which can use an EV’s battery to supply power to a home or business during a power outage. Several EV manufacturers already offer vehicles capable of handling two-way charging. “The way a charging station site is designed is as important as the ability to serve a variety of vehicles, from compact sedans to tractor-trailers,” Noblet adds.
Nevertheless, a more sustainable future appears to be in sight. As EV technology continues to mature and the infrastructure expands, more widespread adoption will almost certainly follow. Similar to any major transition, there will be bumps and detours along the way, but the common denominator is a need for engineering services to guide the industry.
“In order to meet ambitious net-zero greenhouse gas goals, we must move EVs further beyond early adopters and into the mainstream,” Noblet says. “These users will demand accessible, reliable, and efficient charging infrastructure.”
Samuel Greengard is a technology writer based in West Linn, Oregon.