The Electric Vehicle Highway of America, built by the States
In 2019, it wasn’t clear that Biden would be President. After the lack of COVID response and leadership by the Federal government, it seemed dubious that the Feds would be building an EV Charger Network for America. Now, Biden has proposed this very undertaking for his first term. This is how a nationwide charger network might have been built, or could still be built, by the states when the Federal government fails to act.
In September of 2019, twenty-two states joined together to oppose the rollback of California’s authority to set higher emission standards by the President. Two things were clear. First, states can collaborate when the federal government slows the cause of sustainability. Second, passing laws that restrict traditional vehicle emissions has been the main tool for states to reduce emissions. That’s fine. But regulations alone don’t help the bigger transition to Electric Vehicles as a standard. We need to build the Electric Vehicle Highway of America.
There’s no federal plan or campaign promise to build this EV highway. So what if the same coalition of states who fought for California’s right to restrict banded together to build it? Who could oppose it? The Trump administration? No. It would be a strange and jealous kind of over-reach, even for this administration, an act of punitive restriction on next-gen infrastructure and economy.
Back in 1956, President Eisenhower funded construction of the interstate highway system. It was declared complete in 1992 and connected nearly every part of the country. Federal funds are still granted to states for maintenance. This set a precedent: the Feds have to lead on anything to do with our Interstates. Imagine, instead, states incorporating EV charging infrastructure into their current highway repairs and updates. “New Mexico welcomes you and your Electric Vehicle. Charging stations every 50 miles on this highway.” Truck stops and diners would keep their purpose. Welcome centers and rest stops would proudly proclaim their membership in the EV-inclusive Interstate 2.0.
Range anxiety would fade. EVs could go cross-country. Current EV models would have the charging network to be sold, bought, and driven with confidence. Then, finally, the industry could produce some truly affordable models within reach of low-income Americans, many of whom depend on older cars for employment and survival. As universal charging networks spread into underserved parts of cities, installing a charging plug in your home becomes a luxury instead of a requirement. Creative car-sharing programs, community charging stations, and subsidies could be led by cities and states to close the gaps.
This is no small feat. On top of the exclusionary price points, the EV industry itself still lacks a universal plug. It’s slowly getting there. Tesla’s Supercharger network exclusively charges Teslas. In the Wild West of the charging industry, a new EV Highway will need flexible mindsets, public-private partnerships and collaboration among EV makers and charging station companies to build something useful, something that lasts.
Speed is important. The experience has to be fast — at least as fast as filling up an empty tank of gas. Stage 3 chargers make a thirty-minute full charge possible. Stage 4 may get down to less than 15 mins. No gas smell or risk of explosion — absent some battery defect.
There are only 15,000 Stage 3 or 4 chargers in the US. There will be a 600k demand for chargers by 2025. Which states are going to build them? Where are the next fleets of EV semis going to be driving? Cities and coastal highways for cars, sure, but what about the places in-between?
Of the stations already built, some have consistent queues. Others were misplaced. Drive across I-10 through southern New Mexico, and you’ll find a vacant Tesla station off the Lordsburg exit. It’s unknown, an EV ghost stop in a quasi-ghost town, a casualty of the frantic ‘cover or die’ Tesla network buildout. The potential to “recharge” once thriving trucking and transportation stops like Lordsburg is so close. It’s a strategic call to action for states: figure out and steer where the electric robo-truckers of the future will stop.
Nevada — one of the 22 states who sued the federal government to protect emission regulations — attempted a bold experiment in 2016 along I-95 between Reno and Las Vegas. But they used slow, Stage 1 chargers. Even placed in popular stops, the spectre of an 18 hour charge time and mandatory, extended overnight stay was prohibitive. Nevada is going statewide with a new round of charging stations fitted with DC Fast chargers capable of full charge in an hour. They will have to give the same experience to an EV driver as anyone pulling off to gas up.
The alternate future is a widespread Stage I Nevada: an obsolete series of ghosted charge stations covered in graffiti, dotting the highways of America like memorial sites of a failed experiment. Nevada’s Phase 2 should be part of a larger state coalition to build stations with fast, universal charger tech. States can incentivize upgradeable charger stations. Charge times could hit that magic 15 minute mark, making EV charging stops into a less hectic, less fumey, cleaner version of gassing up.
As a loyal New Mexican, my state gives me hope for a new vision of a solar-charged rural America. We have over three hundred and twenty sunny days every year. I imagine stand-alone, solar-powered stations with battery storage dotting the state highways of farm and ranch country. Pair that with Ford’s all-electric F-150 stunt of pulling over a million pounds or the mysterious, hyped Rivian pickup trucks and SUVs. You have a scene that can be replicated all across non-urban America: travelers, truckers, farmers, weekend warriors, Americans charging up shoulder-to-shoulder with clean energy on stretches of re-invigorated highway. It’s utopian and impossible in some stretches. It’s worth an experiment in the sunny parts of America.
Presidential candidates talk about putting Americans to ‘honest work’ by re-building our decaying bridges, roads, and utility grids. Maintenance is important; we’re behind schedule. We won’t survive the rest of the 21st century without a serious effort. A mix of stand-alone solar sites and grid-backed stations are a natural tag-along to this colossal rebuild of America, whenever it finally happens. One thing’s for sure: a nice grip of new jobs await the routes of the Electric Highway. Construction will put people to work immediately. Station maintenance will create a new kind of energy worker.
The EV Highway infrastructure layer is a lighter lift — one the states can handle.
Why not start there and get ahead on the needs of the future? The Green States could add a lightweight network of fast EV chargers along highways and interstates, across state lines, spanning the country. The standalone rural model could cover sparser stretches of Alaska. The EV highway system could run down through Canada, getting provinces to come onboard, connecting Montana and the northern border. American leading on something positive, via its United States.
The EV Highway would change the old equations of transportation and shipping. Stations are places for commerce and even some community. As the autonomous semi-truck revolution hits, certain state highways may find new life as preferred routes for robo-trucking. Towns around major cities will recharge long haul batteries and become staging areas for “last-mile” distribution.
States are fighting for permission to regulate. They’re at the whim of who holds the Presidency and federal power. Sure, the Green New Deal should or could include an EV Highway, it makes sense, but the numbers with that massive program need work. Why wait for the Feds to sort out a plan?
Why wait for permission to restrict the present when state-built EV infrastructure would pull us into a clean, electrified future?