When I pulled into the Tesla Supercharger station at an outdoor mall in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge, I felt like I was part of a secret club.
It helped that I snagged the last available charger — it was like making it in before the bouncer cuts off the line. For the next 45 minutes my borrowed Tesla Model 3 was plugged in and I was keenly aware of the line of Model X, 3, and S cars piling up waiting for their turn at the fast charge stations. At one point the queue to charge was five deep.
Things stayed orderly. Mostly because of the $1-per-minute idle fee looming (it’s double the usual 50 cents when the station is full) and the sign reminding everyone not to charge for more than an hour.
Next to the row of Tesla-only chargers were EVGo fast chargers — a separate, universal charging network — and a tussle had broken out between a BMW i3 owner and a Nissan Leaf owner, who claimed the i3 had unplugged him. The Leaf was at 97 percent as the charging station clearly indicated, but the driver wanted to get to 100 percent. The i3 eventually drove off after the Leaf owner called him out for the mischievous behavior.
Even if I felt above all this in a Tesla, a few weekends back driving an all-electric Nissan Leaf I’d been unplugged myself while trying to juice up for a three-hour drive home. I didn’t get to confront my unplugger, who decided that at 60 percent I was good to go (I was not).
But it got me thinking about our collective manners in this relatively new situation: public charging.
Most charging for electric vehicles can happen at home. It may be slow, but it works. Away from home plugs, an estimated 68,000 public chargers are scattered across the U.S. More than 14,000 Supercharger ports are for available for Tesla drivers. ChargePoint, yet another universal EV charging network, just hit 100,000 charging points worldwide. Depending on the type of charger, drivers either sit in the car waiting for a quick charge or head to nearby businesses while juicing up. That’s why Elon Musk keeps adding games (and eventually YouTube and Netflix) to Tesla cars: It’s charge-time entertainment.
We could also reduce time at public stations altogether. SparkCharge brings an electric charge to you with a small battery pack that gives cars more range (about 15 miles) in a pinch. SparkCharge CEO Joshua Aviv said in a phone call, “In an ideal world, you wouldn’t need the public charger.” Instead, he envisions an electrified world where you can charge at home or SparkCharge’s roadside and concierge services “comes to where you are.”
Until then, you’ll be hard-pressed to ever avoid a station. So here’s how to handle yourself and your electric vehicle.
Tesla’s Supercharger network
This is Tesla territory.
The car screen map pulls up all nearby Supercharger stations within available battery range. When I was in an area with mostly Level 2 slower chargers while in a non-Tesla electric vehicle, I looked longingly at the Supercharger stations.
It’s helpful that the phone app and car screen show how many chargers are available in real-time, but when there’s a back-up, it’s polite to queue up or leave a note on your parked car windshield for a finished charger to call when something opens.
That’s the allure of the Tesla lifestyle: access to a robust charging network devoted only to other Tesla drivers. The Porsche Taycan Turbo — Porsche’s new rival to the Tesla Model S —is dependent on other charging networks. Even if Electrify America (formed as part of the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement) adds 3,500 charging stations by 2021 as expected, they’re not devoted to Porsche, VW, or any one auto brand. You have to share.
Volta offers free charging in exchange for advertisements displayed at charging ports. Its stations are often in mall or grocery store parking lots to encourage shopping while you charge. Some utility companies offer free charging like in Portland with Lyft drivers in EVs. One California utility gives discounted rates for charging at off-peak times. An “experimental” charger like one at the parking lot at ChargePoint’s headquarters in Silicon Valley offers free charging in exchange for testing out a new station design, screen display, or other beta features.
At a free station, all’s fair. If it’s free, go for it no matter what type of vehicle you’re in. But again, mind the time. Sitting idle while plugged in at a free station is one of the rudest things you can do even if you won’t get hit with fees.
Here’s one of Volta’s stations in a parking garage that lists a two-hour limit.
Tesla’s Supercharger network is seamlessly integrated with the car, but it still charges real money even if you don’t take out a credit card. For a 45-minute fast charging session with the Model 3, I racked up a $14 bill. Until the end of September, Tesla is trying to sweeten the deal to encourage more Model 3 orders so new car orders will come with two years of free Supercharging, according to Electrek.
Shared networks (like ChargePoint, EVGo, Electrify America)
That Nissan Leaf driver at the EVGo station who got unplugged later shared the frustration when a Tesla plugs in on a shared network. He said it feels almost greedy when Superchargers are plentiful and don’t allow non-Teslas to use the equipment.
Even if it might be a faux pas, it’s still acceptable. Tesla drivers sometimes need a charge wherever they can get it. They are still paying for the electrons just like everyone else.
Despite this logic, I felt that same frustration while driving a Nissan Leaf that desperately needed a charge. I made it to an EVGo charging station in a city parking lot and in one of the two spots was a Tesla. There was a Supercharger station less than a mile away. For real?
Peter Van Deerlin, a Tesla owner who took a cross-country road trip in an EV, said Teslas can use non-Tesla stations without feeling bad about it. “It is just a matter of convenience,” he wrote in an email. “Any charger will do if you need some juice or just want to top up. You may even go out of your way to get to that plug and spend some time nearby.”
As EV adoption continues (investment firm J.P. Morgan predicts EVs will be about 30 percent of all vehicle sales in the next 5 years) we need to all get along.
A friend who drives a Nissan Leaf said it’s never acceptable to unplug a fellow EV. But she carved out an exception: “If you can’t get home due to range and the car hasn’t been attended to for a couple hours I say the etiquette breach can be excused.”
Kelly Helfrich, manager of EV charging and infrastructure at General Motors, also voted for “sometimes.” She explained, “If the person plugged in is clearly done charging and you are able to see that they have a full battery, you can unplug them.”
That brings up opportunity charging, or what Preston Roper, head of e-mobility at charging provider Enel X, calls “convenience charging.” EV owners tend to “charge your car like you do your phone,” he explained, and it’s essentially “topping off.”
In those situations, charging tags offer a peaceful solution. Various online stores like EVAnnex offer a set of tags you can hang from the charging port or put on your windshield explaining if you need a full charge or are just topping off and don’t mind an unplug.
Then there’s getting “ICEd” out. That’s the term for gas-powered cars, or internal combustion engine vehicles, that block access to EV equipment, intentionally or mistakenly. It’s hard to mitigate once it’s happening, but EV stations should be well-labeled and clear about parking restrictions.
Sadly, you can also get EVed-out, where fellow EV drivers block access to a charger. EV drivers shouldn’t use charging spots as parking spots if they’re not charging. Come on. Share the juice.
And finally, don’t forget to charge at home if you can.