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May 16
Gas Stations and Vehicle Charging

I recently drove about 4,500 miles in a bit over a week. As such, I feel qualified to talk a little bit about gas stations and muse a little bit about the state of travel.

Right now, I have a conventional gas powered car. I can drive about 300-400 miles on a tank of gas, and refueling is quick.

But, refueling is also a pain in the neck. When I'm driving around town, I tend to make a weekly stop at a gas station, often it's in a part of town I'd otherwise not need to go to, just because the one by my house is too busy. Then I either make a relatively pointless drive back home, or I go do something else, purely because I'm out and I may as well. As far as I can tell, nobody actually likes going to the gas station where they live, and if they could avoid it, they would.

On a longer trip, let's say if you need to drive from Central Arizona to Central Oregon, refueling your car is both a saving grace, because about every few hundred miles, you get to get out of your car and stretch, use the restroom, stock up on snacks, or whatever. It's also a pain because fuel stations often aren't in great locations, and whether or not you'll find a station you like is sort of up in the air, and most fuel stations aren't really set up for long distance travel. They have one grungy bathroom stall, they have candy and soda, and that's really it.

The biggest exception to this is typically big glitzy travel centers, which are most often found either curated by a state department of transportation as part of a turnpike or other express or toll road, or as part of truck stops. Some travel centers form on their own, usually near large interstate roads, otherwise it's up to travelers to find resources they need and want in whatever cities they happen to pass through.

Electric vehicles have the potential to change this a little bit, because of the charging pattern. As of right now, the best electric vehicles can charge in about an hour or two, and get about 300 miles of driving range. We don't know if this is going to become the new standard, if this will improve, or what. Right now, the best way to charge an electric vehicle is overnight, usually when you're at home, or using strategically placed fast charging poles at shopping centers, workplaces, in "public" parking garages, and so on. Tesla has the SuperCharger network, and otherwise, electric vehicle users face a mishmash of standards.

The biggest change between gassing up a conventional car and using an electric vehicle charger is that EV chargers take time. If you've driven 300 miles in a Tesla Model S 90D, and you need to recharge to 100%, you're looking about 1:15 using a Supercharger, or almost 9 hours using a 48-amp wall charger in a home. Tesla doesn't even provide a quote using a 15-amp 120vAC circuit. Chevrolet advertises pretty similar functionality, about a 9-hour charge if you fully replenish its 200-mile range using a special, professionally installed, 240 volt system.

What do you do when you need to drive 1,200 miles using primarily roads that aren't major interstates, in an electric car that takes nine hours to fully charge when you can find its particular type of charger. Imagine if you had to pull up to a Taco Bell (or worse, an existing gas station) in the middle of nowhere and charge on a 10-15 amp AC circuit on the back of their building? It'd take you almost a full day.

I think that there's an opportunity here for somebody to start building a new business around electric vehicle charging. There's ChargePoint, but their main goal is what Tesla refers to as "destination charging", which is charging at slow or normal speeds at a place you'd normally go and spend a bunch of time. I see this from time to time in malls and restaurants in Phoenix.

The basic idea would be to build a station with both petrol/diesel stands and electric vehicle charging spaces, with the stands wired up for eventual conversion to electric as demand changes. Inside, you'd have your typical gas station convenience store fare, along with some niceties like a restaurant, nicer bathrooms, a lounge area, perhaps a designated quiet area with reclining chairs, along with things like showers and so on. Basically, if you have to wait anywhere from one to seven hours before your journey can continue, you may as well have some reasonably good food, a shower, a nap, and some Wi-Fi.

I think the real questions are whether or not electric cars are going to improve, or whether or not they are supposed to. About 200 miles of range is pretty exceptional for an electric car. More electric cars such as the Nissan LEAF can do 80-100 miles, depending on the model, and a lot of other cars (such as the Ford Focus Electric, with a 76mi range) aren't doing a whole lot better. An improved electric car is going to be one that has enough battery capacity to go 200 miles or more. Ideally, I'd like to shoot for something that has some kind of way to get 400-600 miles of range, and be a lot better than existing petrol cars.

On the other hand, is improving electric cars the actual best idea? What if, instead of improving electric cars, a strengthened rail network and car sharing programs meant that you could easily make the vast majority of your cross country jaunt without a car, and either use public transport or rent or borrow a car once you got where you needed to be. I think that whether or not all-electric cars and continued reliance on personal automobiles is the best path forward is a big question mark.

I think another     question is how many people are really doing long distance travel. These stations probably wouldn't be visited by people in their own cities doing everyday driving, or maybe even people just driving to other nearby towns in their region. Differentiating between people on long drives and people commuting locally might be difficult, however. The big problem will be if capacity needs for long haul travel centers are guessed wrong enough that either they are built too large and aren't economical to operate, or they aren't large enough and need to be expanded rapidly, or where contention for the resources will just generally cause problems.

A few years ago, there was talk about a Tesla battery exchange service for long road trips. Basically, you'd drive your 250-300 miles, and stop in at some kind of Tesla travel center and they'd swap the battery of your car while you waited. At the time, the talk was that it was going to be faster than putting 15 gallons of gasoline into a normal fuel tank. I don't know if this has materialized, but it requires an infrastructure similar to a network of travel centers anyway, namely: a building with car parts and charging capacity and whatever capabilities are needed to swap the battery. It's just that instead of a few hours to charge, you have to make sure that the station is open, and so on.

Perhaps the real problem is that I wanted to take a side road, rather than the 40, 15, and 5. Those bigger roads surely have more frequent occurrences of electric vehicle charging infrastructure. I presume that what Tesla (at least) wants to build out is a network of chargers strategically along the core highways, with the thinking that when you go deeper into side highways, you'll probably be at a "destination" of some sort.

Maybe moral of the story is really that fully electric cars are still in an early adopter stage right now. They work well for a certain type of person who either travels a specific way or who doesn't travel, and they work really well as supplemental vehicles, but it's not something you can get into and take an unplanned trip a few thousand miles with.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles could be a good compromise. You can run around town on something like a new minivan that was announced for this coming year with an 80-mile range, and then get better than normal gas mileage on your road trips, but you still have the advantage of having and using something that can be powered exclusively by gasoline if needed.

I still think that there's room for improvement in gas stations and travel centers, and I think even a plug-in hybrid will end up being well suited to that model, especially if there's a center or station where you can get both gasoline and plug into a charge connector. I think that the biggest problem with any kind of overland travel is how you use downtime, and how to either rest if you're driving or spend time waiting for trains, buses, planes, etc.

I think the idea of overhauling or revisions to existing transport systems is interesting. I couldn't have used the train to get to Oregon, because it simply wouldn't have gotten there in time and left me enough time once I got there. I don't think I would have wanted to take a bus, and flying would have put me out of the way at both ends, and might have involved waiting at both ends for connecting transit.

I think that using local or regional road transit options (things like Greyhound, the Amtrak California Thruway Coach Service, and the Arizona Shuttle) in combination with rails would be my ideal way to get from here to there, if I needed to again. Doing so today is incredibly inconvenient though. I need to be driven to the train station, the westbound train only stops in my town at about 11 p.m., and then there's a layover in Los Angeles to catch the next train.

Trains cost a lot more to use than just driving. Gas and food costs less than the ticket price alone on long distance trains, but trains include a comfortable spot where it's reasonably possible to sleep. Although not perfectly so, trains become a sort of closed system. If you're on one for a few days, it's easy for the railroad to get a lot of money from you in the cost of incidentals, like drinks, snacks, and so on.

The question is whether or not the additional cost of the train, and the hassle of getting a rental car at the destination, is worth the comfort differential and environmental impact of driving long distances overland in a personal car, sleeping in it for a few hours at a time, and needing to hunt down the nearest gas station, bathroom, shower, and so on.

My overland travel has generally worked out well, but it would probably cost a lot more if I were willing to go get a room in a hotel or motel, rather than just pulling off in random turn-outs or at rest stops. That would shift the balance toward air or bus/train, which are either faster or just much more comfortable.


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