Consumer Preferences for Public EV Charging Stations | Episode 34

  September 30, 2021

Public charging is a significant part of the EV ownership experience. The ability to charge their vehicle conveniently, is a key factor in the broader adoption of EVs. J.D. Power released a new report, "U.S. Electric Vehicle Experience (EVX) Public Charging Study," that dives into the public charging experience. We spoke with Brent Gruber, senior director of global automotive with J.D. Power, to learn more about this study and the tangibles that consumers are looking for with their EV ownership experience.

Transcript

John Eichberger:
Hey, everybody. Welcome to Carpool Chats. I'm John Eichberger with the Fuels Institute. And today, we're going to be talking about something that's on everybody's mind. We think about the transition to electric vehicles, one of the critical elements is access to charging infrastructure. If you've been paying attention to anything in the automotive industry at any point in your life, the name J.D. Power is definitely something familiar with you. And today, we're joined by Brent Gruber, who's the senior director of Global Automotive. And Brent, you guys recently just published your inaugural U.S. Electric Vehicle Experience Public Charging Study, right?

Brent Gruber:
Yeah, that's right. John, thanks for having me on the show. So yeah, we just released our Public Charging Study last month. It was actually the last of five new studies that we introduced this year. Everything from consideration, so people who are in the market and considering electric vehicles, up and through the ownership experience, all the different aspects of owning an electric vehicle, which obviously includes charging. And so, we developed a study specific to the public charging experience because it's so unique to EV ownership.

John Eichberger:
Yeah. We launched an Electric Vehicle Council last year that's laser-focused on infrastructure. We've done publications on the regulations affecting installation operation, how to get into the business if you want to be a site host, consumer behavior. And I think one of the things that when we talk about the transition to electric vehicles, one of the key elements that seems to be missing is the consumer decision factor. What are you guys learning in the study you guys have been doing about the consumer behavior and what they're looking for?

Brent Gruber:
Yeah. Well, this is something we've actually been doing for a while. So I mentioned that these five new studies we have that we released this year was really the culmination of some work that we had done in recent years, which indicated a lot of the typical findings that you hear in the media: range anxiety, charging the vehicles, locations for public chargers, all of those kinds of things, and how fast it is to charge. We had a sense for what the consumer sentiment was, but really developed these studies to go in more detail on just that. And so, when we talk about what consumers are looking for, what consumers want, it's very much those things. They very much want a long battery range. They want the vehicle to have a long range. They want the fast charge. They want charging stations to be as ubiquitous as gas stations. Those are really at the core of what consumers are looking for, but I think what we've found is that there's a lot of tangibles that go along with that that make EV ownership much better along the way.

John Eichberger:
I've always said that the three Cs to EV adoption, it's choice, cost, and charging. And choice is getting... We're having so many more vehicles come to the market, so your options are there. They're being offered in crossover utility vehicles now, which is what almost everybody wants to buy anyway. The costs are coming down. But that charging infrastructure, I think the administration wants to get half a million chargers by the end of the decade. We're trying to figure is that the right number? What's the right number? When, where, what type of charger? But I really believe that the calculation that's being used is how many chargers you need to satisfy demand. In order to satisfy the consumer concern for access to charging, it's going to be an exponentially higher number than what we can calculate out. Is that something you guys have seen?

Brent Gruber:
Yeah, it is. There's an inherent problem there. First and foremost, I think one thing that's oftentimes overlooked is the importance of charging at home, right? So when we talk about building public charging infrastructure and the amount of money that's being invested in that space, that's all great and well, but 85% of primary electric vehicle charging occurs at home. And so, the public charging infrastructure and the need to rely on that is really for those folks who don't have easy access to home charging. Maybe they live in a multi-unit dwelling or in an urban environment where they can't install a charging station. So it's for those folks, and then it's for people who are utilizing it out of convenience.

Brent Gruber:
When we talk about public charging, there's really two different tracks. There are those people who are utilizing it on a road trip, so going to grandma's house for Thanksgiving and they need to charge along the way. And then those people who are just driving around town and taking advantage of charging stations nearby. So when you look at it in that context, and again, you take the amount of money that's being invested in the space, I really strongly feel that we should do what we can to support the ease of charging at home and facilitate that, because I think that would put a lot less stress on the need to build out the public infrastructure, which is absolutely needed, but not nearly to the extent that good home charging is.

John Eichberger:
Yeah. And I think right now, clearly, the majority of the people that own an EV, and it's only about one and a half percent of the market, have access to home charging. The majority of them. They're single family homes with a garage, so it's not a big issue for them. I think when we start getting to mass adoption, if we're going to get to a point where 30, 40% of new vehicle sales are going to be EV, you're going to get into a very different demographic. And I think the profile of the driver's going to normalize, and the number of people living in multi-unit dwellings is going to increase. They're not always going to have access to charging. So I think we're trying to build it up now to satisfy that need.

John Eichberger:
The challenge we run into from a business perspective is to invest in a charging station today, when the vast majority of charging is done at home, demand for in-market charging is low, is really hard to justify their ROI. When you guys looked at the consumer sentiment, I mean, where do you see the needs and the opportunities here to actually build an infrastructure that will be viable today, but also satisfy the needs of the market in the future?

Brent Gruber:
Yeah. Well, I think first and foremost, one thing that came through loud and clear with the research we did was the convenience factor. When you're talking about public charging, right now it's largely done based on convenience. So you're driving home from work, you're stopping at the grocery store to pick up some groceries and there's a charging station there, so you charge because it's convenient. So when we talk about it like that, it's that convenience factor that's really driving a lot of this, and that's what consumers are looking for.

Brent Gruber:
So the behaviors that we see with public charging and the levels of satisfaction that are responding well to public charging is those that have a convenient experience with things to do nearby. That was one of the top findings, the level of amenities nearby when someone's charging. I can't tell you how many responses we saw from survey takers who were indicating that the charging station they were at was in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing to do while they were charging. So having restaurants nearby, shopping, those kinds of things, that's really going to be key to adding that convenience factor.

John Eichberger:
Now, you also found something about downtime, and we've talked about resiliency. These are fairly new technology, the chargers and stuff. Other than the proximity activities, what are the other things you look for? Obviously, they want the charger to be operational, but what are the other things that we need to really be thinking about to make sure we're satisfying their needs?

Brent Gruber:
Downtime is really critical. I think you hit on something a few moments ago. Right now, we're looking at a very small percentage of the market for EVs. We're right around 3% for battery electric vehicles for U.S. retail share right now. But we're planning for that uptick, we're planning for that mass market adoption. That's where we're going to start to see some of those problems. So when you talk about downtime with charging stations, it may not be problematic now, but when you have, like you said, 30, 40% of consumers who are utilizing charging stations, it becomes much more problematic.

Brent Gruber:
So right now, we have a challenge where there's a race to build infrastructure and put new charging stations in. And there's almost a little bit of neglect with some of the older stations, so some of these things fall to the responsibility of the site host and they can fall into states of disrepair. And so, we're not doing a good enough job of maintaining or managing the existing charging stations that exist, and that's going to become much more problematic when we hit that adoption curve.

John Eichberger:
Takes me to another thought is you guys look at the automotive industry all the time, and one of the concerns that's been expressed with some potential site hosts is, "Okay. I'm going to invest in a charger today. The technology's going to evolve so much over the next 5 to 10 years, by the time we get to mass adoption of vehicles, what power charger do I need to satisfy the needs of the market?" You hear people say, "You need 350 kilowatt chargers." Right now, there's only one vehicle that can charge at 350 kilowatts. So do we need to build 350 kilowatt capacity or is it 150 kilowatt capacity or 50 kilowatt capacity? What do you guys see as the glide path in technology, and where do we need to be building? We talk about you skate to the puck, at a hockey metaphor, where do we need to be skating so that we intercept the puck at the right time?

Brent Gruber:
Yeah. I think it really works backwards from the amount of time that people are willing to sit there and charge. Right now, when you ask someone what their expectations are for charge time, it's based on their experiences with ICE vehicles. So how long does it take to fill up a gas tank on an ICE vehicle, right? That's sort of the expectation for the charge time. So when you work backwards from what that consumer expectation is, because you have to do it in a way where people don't want to drastically change their behaviors. If it's a charge, it's going to have to be a similar level of time to maintain satisfaction or not hurt satisfaction. And so, working backwards from that fill up time, if you will, is really going to dictate what we need from a technology standpoint.

Brent Gruber:
And you made a great point, and that's the fact that we have these high-powered charging stations, these ultra-fast charging stations, but there's limitations with the vehicles. And so, I think that's one thing that's oftentimes overlooked, that it's responsibility... Not responsibility, but it's a byproduct of the vehicle itself, as well as the charging station. Those two have to work together to optimize that charge. And so, just going out and putting the fastest chargers out there we can isn't necessarily going to help with where products are right now and the ability to accept that charge. So I think we have to be realistic with those charging stations in the capacities and shoot for a time rather than a speed or a level, if you will.

John Eichberger:
Yeah. And I think the fact that the charger and the vehicle have to work together and that influences charge time, something a lot of people don't get. You see all these charts saying a level two at this rate can charge this many miles, a DC fast charge at 150 can... It all depends on the vehicle. And so, they're nice little talking points, but they're not reality and they're not what you can plan on. You mentioned about the desire to recharge an EV in the same time it takes to fill up a car. That's obviously what we're shooting for, but I also think that the driver of the EVs can be very different. They're not going to wait until they're at a quarter tank, so to speak, to refuel, they're going to refuel and recharge every chance they get. Is that kind of the same mentality you're seeing in your surveys?

Brent Gruber:
Absolutely. Yeah. I liken it to charging up our cell phones.

John Eichberger:
Before you get on an airplane, right?

Brent Gruber:
I plug it in at the end of the night and I wake up in the morning and it's fully charged. And I always tell people that I drive an ICE vehicle, I don't fill up my gas tank every day. I don't go from zero to 100 every day. And it's the same way with EVs. You're not charging from zero to 100 every time you charge, you're using a little bit of your battery life, and then you top it off or you plug it in at night or you top it off around town. So this whole mentality of needing to charge from zero to 100 every time you charge is not realistic.

Brent Gruber:
And I think that's part of the problem that we've seen with our data, regardless of the study we have, there's a lack of awareness and information around EVs and the reality of owning one and what consumers can expect from owning those vehicles. Because you hit on a very big one, and that's the fact that people aren't charging all that frequently from zero to 100. So it's a very different way [crosstalk].

John Eichberger:
But there's times when I'll put my... I have a wireless charger for my phone. I'll put my phone on there when I go to bed, wake up in the morning, it didn't charge. Same thing with a car. What if you forget to plug it in? You need to have a place you can go and get the miles you need to get to where you're going. So you need that backstop. And I talk to some utilities, I go, "We really want them to charge at night." I understand that, but they're not going to charge at night. They're not going to buy the EV unless they know that if they have to charge at 2:00 in the afternoon, they can. And we need to make sure that that is fundamentally available for them.

Brent Gruber:
Yeah, it's a safety net. It really is. Having that infrastructure and the ability to charge when and where needed is really a safety net for EV owners. When we look at consideration and we talk about some of these barriers to consideration for electric vehicle purchasers, that's one of the big ones. It's the peace of mind knowing that you can charge it when you want to charge it if you need to.

John Eichberger:
But you also mentioned consumer awareness, and I think that's something that's being completely underestimated. So I have a plug-in hybrid. It's the Wrangler, so it gets 25 miles range on a full charge. I posted on a Jeep site, "Hey, I got this, pretty cool." Somebody asked, "What's your range?" I told them. I said, "But right now I'm on a level one charger at my house, it's taken 14 hours to recharge it. So I'm going to get a level two, so it charges faster." One of the questions was, "When you get a faster charger, will you get longer range?" Now, for those of us in the industry, it's like that is just a ridiculous question, but that's reality. People out there don't understand. And when you think about 85% of the registered EVs are found in 15 states in the U.S. right now. I mean, there's a lack of awareness. I think we're not really appreciating what it's going to take to get people to recognize what the technology is.

Brent Gruber:
Yeah, absolutely. We have a lot of conversations with vehicle manufacturers and one of the big topics of conversation is they're obviously investing a lot of money into building these types of products and hoping that the consumers will be there, the interest will be there for those products. But the interest will change when the awareness changes. So we're doing everything we can to get the word out about electric vehicles, what they are, how people live with these on a daily basis, and how it affects their lives, and the benefits and some of the... I wouldn't say drawbacks, but some of the changes in behavior that you have to make when you own an electric vehicle. It really is an awareness and an information campaign, really, that everyone needs to do.

John Eichberger:
There's some communities that have never seen an EV. I engage with some people who think EVs are still just a fantasy, a unicorn, or a fad. And I try to remind them, "Look, just because you haven't seen them or you don't understand, it doesn't mean it's a fad." Remember in the '50s they thought rock and roll was a fad and what happened? It didn't go away. I don't think EVs are going away. I am of the mindset that EVs are going to be like rock and roll, they're going to be part of the bigger equation. I don't think they're going to be the only music, the only vehicle in the market, but they're going to have a major, major role in our transportation market. And we need to start preparing for that. I think if we don't keep our eyes open and look at all the different avenues that are required to make a transition to something new, we're going to miss the ball and we're going to struggle and it's going to be really painful.

Brent Gruber:
Absolutely. Yeah. We've talked with a lot of utility companies about preparing their markets for EVs. I think EVs, you're right, will be part of the big picture. There's other technologies, I think, that will come into play. Fuel cell vehicles, I think, will have some relevance and ICE vehicles aren't going away any time soon. They'll still be relevant for the foreseeable future. There are differences in the limitations and benefits of each technology, and I think each has its merits. As long as they do, we'll see each of those for the foreseeable future. But EVs aren't going anywhere, you're right.

Brent Gruber:
Someone asked me the other day if I thought EVs would take off, if it was going to stick. And I said, "Look, the train has left the station. The amount of money that manufacturers have invested in this space, we're past the point of no return. It needs to be successful. So everyone's going to do their part to ensure that it is successful, because it is the future." And you're right, there are a lot of municipalities and states and utility companies who need to better prepare for that.

John Eichberger:
There's definitely a lack of preparation out there. But to your point, we have time. Even if we get to a significant share of sales by 2030, 2035, the transition of 255, 260 million light duty vehicles to something new is going to take decades. So we have time to plan, but we need to start planning now, because otherwise... The train has left the station, but we're kind of building the tracks as it's rolling down the road, and that's a little scary.

Brent Gruber:
Yep. Yeah. I use this analogy to kind of put things in perspective with the growth of EVs. Really, things kind of started, in a mass quantity, with Tesla. When Tesla introduced their products, that's when things really started to take off. Obviously, there were electric vehicles prior to Tesla, but that's really when it started to gain some share. So Tesla released their products, I think, about 12 years ago or so. So roughly within a decade span you went from almost a non-existent market share for electric vehicles to 2% of U.S. retail sales. So in about 10-year span we went from zero to 2%. We ended up at 2% at the end of 2020. Halfway through 2021 we went from 2% to 3%. So that one percentage point gain in market share may seem small, but that's a really considerable jump in a six-month span considering it took us 10 plus years to get to 2%.

Brent Gruber:
So I think we're starting to hit that curve. You mentioned choice was one of those three Cs and that's really driving a lot of this. There's a lot of products coming to market now, SUVs, pickup trucks, that resonate with American consumers that are going to help with EV adoption. And I do think that we're at 3% now, but it's going to accelerate pretty quickly. We've got some time, but not a lot of time in reality.

John Eichberger:
I think of the sales curve like a hockey stick, it's starting to curve up. And I think it's a combination of factors. One, the choice of vehicles, the cost is coming down, but I think the consumer mindset is changing too, and the buyer demographic is changing. The buyers that are a generation behind me think, "Why would I not plug in my car? I plug in everything anyway." I'm more, "Why would I want to plug in my car? I've never plugged in my car. I don't know if I want to do that." That mindset's going to change, and I think that is going to help that acceleration of the hockey stick. But the reality is, from the boots on the ground, no matter how fast we sell them, we have to replace what's in the market. And that's just going to take a long time. Which gives us the on ramp to get everything set up that we need to get set up.

Brent Gruber:
It is. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And that was really the impetus for developing the studies that we did. It was trying to get out in front of this as much as we can, recognizing that stakeholders, EV stakeholders, have an opportunity to make course correction or make some substantial investments or changes prior to that mass market adoption. So getting out in front of it was really important for us and having the information to help manufacturers do that.

John Eichberger:
I appreciate you joining us today. Where can people go to get more information on the studies you guys have been doing?

Brent Gruber:
So jdpower.com, our corporate website, has all the information on there, press releases and additional information about the studies.

John Eichberger:
Well, Brent, thank you very much for joining us. I love what J.D. Power is doing, and I look forward to paying attention to your research as you guys go forward. And for all of you guys at home, thanks for tuning in to Carpool Chats. We'll see you next time. Have a good one.